Levers of the soul

Levers of the soul

Sept 1, 2023

🌱 Seedling

In a Friday Town Hall at work, two of my colleagues, Monica and Vishwanath, asked everyone this: what does ambition mean to you? My answer was a derivative of notes on ambition¹ I'd previously written: ambition is aspiration in 'being' and 'doing' and contentment in 'having'. A flurry of answers inundated the chat, all of which made total sense (and, gratifyingly, the word "hustle" was nowhere to be seen). The grand total of all answers was this: Chasing your goals and satisfying your needs, both of which are in line with your values. But once we define ambition, what's next? Where does it lead us?

How might we turn ambition into the fuel that propels us towards satisfying our needs which are in line with our values?

It wasn't until V and M asked that question that my mind drew that precious connecting line between ambition and velocity. Ambition is a lot like speed — it goes all fast and furious on us, but sometimes it just so happens that after we've run 10 kilometres, we realise that our true destination was in the opposite direction.

So if ambition is speed, what is velocity? It's the action that works towards my needs and goals. It's agency.

A huge part of agency is exercising your right to choice: intentionally deciding, autonomous of outside influence, which direction you want to run in. To borrow a phrasing from Paul Graham, ambition is like "a train running on tracks laid down by someone else". Agency, then, would be laying the tracks down yourself in a direction that you want to go in. This is incredibly difficult in a world that prizes ambition. That wants drive, but not too much. Passion, but applied where it makes most business sense. Rockstar, but team player. This peddles a dangerous narrative: that we have limited ownership over our future.

One of the reasons I think this continues to permeate is that we reflexively believe some guidelines or ways of working and living are natural laws. It's why when we see someone who lives and works as though no rules apply to them (cough Elon Musk cough), we're aghast — even as we lean enviously against that fence separating us and them. In reality, quite a lot of the rules we take as gospel are manufactured either by others or ourselves. It feels wrong and scary to break them but, when we're on the other side, ten-to-one we realise that there were little if no ramifications.

Jeremy Driver calls this self-imposed fencing the personal cheems mindset: "the reflexive decision for an individual to choose inaction over action, in particular finding reasons not to do things which have either high expected value, or a huge upside with very little downside risk." In other words, it's a failure of agency, a learned helplessness.

A corollary to that line of thought is that we often operate from an "impossible by default" mindset. This default path naturally hijacks agency, because it limits our thinking. I imagine that, when we think of doing something that immediately seems impossible, we work backwards until we're at a one-tenth version. This version, while possible, is also, sadly, one-tenth of the original idea's ambition and seismic power.

That default path also makes it hard for us to break out of learned helplessness. It's something that's been imbibed in us since we were kids. All throughout school, for example, my classmates and I were completely deterred from asking questions because it annoyed the teacher or got us laughed at for being "stupid". The result of that was not being able to even think of asking questions as we grew up — we didn't know that option was available to us. That meant, as a veritable grown-up, I'd come in to a meeting with my boss and say something like, "I don't know if the client has seen our proposal or not." And more often than not, the simple answer is "Well, have you asked?"

I think the default path creates a need for what David R McIver calls prompted agency: "agency which only becomes available given some prompt to action". It translates into requiring permission for small things that are very much still within your rights and abilities. Like an anecdote Derek Sivers, someone I'm happy to call a friend and kindred spirit, shared with me over masala chai and later again in a podcast with Tim Ferriss. He goes to Oslo, meets a wonderful woman, books a hotel room to spend time with her before he has to leave. She can't be seen with him, though, so they stagger their entry into this very reputed hotel. A couple of hours later, he walks out, so does she, the concierge puts two and two together and starts an uproar about this being a reputed establishment where things like this shouldn't happen. But Derek is unfazed. In his words:

"It was so liberating, realising that I’ve done nothing wrong. Nobody was hurt. This is fully consensual. They were paid for their room and even though he’s angry, he can’t get me in trouble. I haven’t broken the law. I think that we, so often as kids, we spend the first half of our life deferring to authority and thinking that authority has power over us. And at a certain point, you realise that you’re free. You’re liberated from that as long as you don’t break the law."

I think there's a sense of agency in this story: the recognition that you have the capacity to act, you have preferences, and you use the preferences to influence your action (all the while staying well within laws, yada yada). The ownership of your own intentionality.

Backlinks to this note

Backlinks to this note

¹ The cartography of ambition

Ambition is not about relentlessly chasing your next goal or power, but about living a larger life — whatever that means to each person.

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