Vol 14: An Alternative Measure of Progress
One of the best compliments someone can give you is being called ambitious. It has an energy to it that confers a sense of drive and momentum to your life. That what you want to do it worthy and important.
But maybe it wasn’t always a good thing to hear. Because historically speaking, ambition was frequently channeled towards combat and conflict.
Perhaps the best way to evaluate where humanity is as a species is to understand what ambitious people are doing. Because it’s quite different based on what time period you’re in.
For most of our history, ambition has been marked by the accumulation of power, oftentimes through coercion. In fact, it would be an interesting question to research: how many historical figures held military experience? Most of the greats definitely did, and the world we live in is largely shaped by their actions.
War is surely still with us, but for most people, the ambitions have shifted from battlefields to boardrooms. Today’s ‘generals’ wage war against their corporate competition, rather than hostile countries.
The History of Ambition
Matthew Clifford wrote a great piece on ambition last year, and I’ve continued to think back upon it as a strong light post upon which I gauge my worldview.
He explores the history of ambition, and it’s an enlightening way to look upon the past.
If you were born in early medieval England and were not the son of a great lord, your prospects were rather limited, no matter how ambitious you were. There were few, if any, ways to have impact beyond the village in which you were born…
To simplify, literacy. Literacy was the great ‘technology of ambition’ of the pre-modern period. If you could write down instructions and there were people who could read them, you could administrate at scale. Not scale as we would recognise it today, but at a far greater scale than the village you were born in.
If you wanted to read and write, you had to join the Church, like Wolsey. My favourite thing to tell groups of ambitious young people today is that 1,000 years ago they’d all be training to be monks and priests — not from piety, but from naked ambition.
Fast forward a few hundred years and the dominant ‘technology of ambition’ has moved on. By the late 18th century, armies are professionalising and something more like the modern state has emerged. Military command is the new ‘technology of ambition’ that the most ambitious people want to master. By 1800-ish, military command allowed an individual to say a word in Paris and move armies hundreds of miles away. It’s this ‘technology’ that allows the young Napoleon Bonaparte to progress from Corsican obscurity to French emperor.
Skip another couple of generations and finance emerges as the dominant ‘technology of ambition’. Cheques and memos written in New York reverberate around the world. Ambitious individuals who can harness finance are the emerging ‘masters of the universe’. Figures like J.P. Morgan in the late 19th century and Sidney Weinberg in the mid-20th become Wall St legends.
Matt believes that building technology startups will become the ‘default’ career path for the world’s most ambitious people. Whether or not you agree (with either the declaration, or if that should be what the most ambitious people should be focused on), it’s important to recognize how much the world has changed where we are now debating whether ambitious people want to start tech companies or become YouTube stars.
Every generation sees what is celebrated, and that in turn leads to what people pour their heart, sweat, and tears into. Importantly, this can be influenced based on what we collectively decide are worthy pursuits, and what we celebrate. Being thoughtful about this is important, because it quite literally influences what people will do with their lives, which in turn influences what type of world we will live in. To that end, we need new stories that can capture future generations’ imaginations.
Matt intuitively understands this (emphasis mine):
I argue three things below. First, that digital technology is the most recent in a series of ‘technologies of ambition’ that have enabled ambitious people to maximize their impact over the last millennium or so. Second, that technology entrepreneurship is likely to become the dominant ‘technology of ambition’. Third, that new institutions will be needed to channel, focus and amplify this new ambition (and that Entrepreneur First will be one of them).
Matt is building one of these new institutions himself, and as Silicon Valley ethos decouples itself from its geography, more compelling narratives will emerge. We must remain mindful about where ambition is nurtured.
Aiming Our Ambition
A fun thought exercise: what would an ambitious caveman look like? Would they go on extra hunts? Gather more nuts? Raise a larger family?
None of these sound overly exciting to me, to be honest. But it made me wonder whether humans were less ambitious back then as a result. Has the level of ambition been stable in human history? Or has it fluctuated over time?
Intuitively, I think it’s the latter, because today more than ever, we can see, feel, and hear what other ambitious people are doing. A medieval peasant stuck in the countryside couldn’t know what a captain of trade was able to achieve, but today we can see rockets shooting up to the stars. And that doesn’t take into account the movies, books, and other media that captures the minds of today’s generations.
If anything, I see this as an exciting proposition about the future of our species. Sure, we know more about the bad things in the world, but we also now realize that they’re there, and there’s ample ambition to tap into to fix these problems. We also have more opportunities for people: Tom Brady was built to be an elite quarterback. Michio Kaku was destined to devote his life to physics. The fact that both of them can devote themselves absolutely to their crafts illustrates how far we’ve come.
Ambition acts as a wonderful measure of progress. If you look at what people are pursuing, you’ll see that qualitatively and quantitatively, we’re doing more than ever before, with as wide of a breadth as possible.
As I mentioned in Control the Controllables, I like to think that we’re perfectly suited for the world we live in. Inherent in this belief is the idea that that our ambitions align with that opportunity. And it’s an important thing to ponder, because as Matt eloquently said: “what the most ambitious people choose to do with their lives has a profound impact on society, the economy and culture.”
It’s empowering to realize that we can influence what these people spend their time on. Even more so when you consider that there’s nothing stopping us from being one of them ourselves.
But now that I write that, I don’t know if today is really any different. The application of ambition is certainly different (this is the least violent period in human history, after all), but if your goal is to create a company, at some point you will accrue power and have influence over other people. So in some sense, the pursuit of wealth, power, and status — they still drive our underlying behavior. What matters is what these ambitious people do.
To take this further: if there are fluctuations, what would drive them? Would war or pandemic increase it? Maybe they decrease it? There’s a lot of layers to play with.
It’s an ode to Matthew Ridley’s proposition that humans have progressively specialized, leading to ever-enhanced state of life.