Monday, January 7, 2013


I am not the kind of person who looks upon the kingdoms of the world and thinks that bringing them under the rule of my iron fist sounds like a good career choice. While it is probably for the best that I don't want to conquer the world, more for my own safety than for any sort of threat I would pose to the world, personal safety is not the reason. It's because I am at heart not an ambitious man. Ambition, to me, is about wanting to achieve more than it is assumed you will or can. Whether that expected level of achievement is a real societal expectation or the classic parent- or peer-induced inferiority complex, ambition is the desire to exceed it. The corollary of this is that achieving something ambitious is hard enough that failure is a more likely outcome than success.

Within that definition it is very easy for someone like me not to be ambitious. If I had started life as a street kid from the slums of Peru (I assume Peru has slums, if not, sorry to any Peruvians for the disparaging remarks) then becoming a tertiary qualified software developer with a good income and stable home life would be pretty ambitious. By contrast, for a white male born to a pretty well-off family in suburban Australia it's completely unremarkable. It is quite possible, and trust me on this, to achieve that merely by taking the path of least resistance.

If I had ambition I feel that life would be straightforward: pick something to strive towards and then, in the best traditions of living organisms the world over, strive. Preferably towards it. Figure out the arc of events that leads from here to there and then map out goals, milestones, and other such achievement based things. I imagine at this point that people with ambition will have a quote from an appropriately inspirational figure printed on a poster that hangs in their office/bedroom/car. Straightforward but not easy: more than an even chance of failing dismally, but that's the risk you take. No shame in trying and failing (except for the shame of failure, obviously, which is all too often overlooked when people provide pep talks). If the endeavour is successful, bask for a little while, then repeat the process.

Unfortunately despite being quite small and very nerdy all through high school, I never developed a good liver-gnawing bitterness towards "them", nor did anybody ever tell me I wouldn't amount to anything. So having achieved comfortable life without breaking a sweat (not because it's easy, but because all the heavy lifting was done by the situation I was lucky enough to be born into) and with nobody to stick it to, what's next? Not having some sort of long term goal is like finishing an exam with an hour to spare: there's nothing to do, everyone else is too busy with their own stuff, and there's a growing sense of unease that you've missed something important. Can I just make something up? Pick some target that vaguely interests me and fool myself into believing that I really, really, want to reach it? If I know me, and I think I do, that approach won't survive the first minor impediment that presents itself. I think the most sensible course of action is to start doing a lot of different little things and seeing what interests me. If nothing else it should be distracting.

You know, I think this would have worked better if the word was "angst" or possibly "self-pity". Regardless, next week's word is anecdote.


  1. Very thought-provoking. In a sense I think all of us in a comfortable position feel this to some degree, although I certainly don't think of myself exactly this way.

    Ian Banks's Culture series provides some insight to what to do in this situation. While a shallow reading of those works would yield a life-plan something like "find people in the same moral category as mass-murderers and euthanize them with god-like technology from the distant future" that's not quite what I mean...

    His characters all live with infinite resources, every desire and every whim instantly satisfied, and yet they manage to find meaning by simply finding things they enjoy and making an effort towards them. When there's no way to make the world better on an overall level any more, there's just the simple pleasure of making your local surroundings (and thereby, those of your family and friends) more interesting and more fun.

    Surely there are some productive things that you enjoy. Perhaps a decent ambition would simply be to do more of them, and to share the results of that work? Maybe just paint, play music, or, as you appear to have already decided to do, write? Even just running a decent Dungeons and Dragons campaign can improve the quality of life of the players by a surprising degree.

    1. Obviously I fill my time up with stuff, but like you say, I think the key is putting more of that time into productive stuff, specifically more creation and less consumption. I have the usual debris of half started projects that I assume everyone has, and no real excuse not to finish at least one.

      I had completely forgotten about D&D. I used to run a regular campaign until, as Michael alluded to, everyone in the group started having babies.

  2. Funnily enough, I ended up musing on vaguely similar themes while on a long plane journey watching "Andrew Marr's Megacities". I ended up feeling that I was very lucky to live in what I consider to be a pretty great place and that I shouldn't make the assumption that it's greatness is something to be taken for granted; that I should do what I can to maintain that -- whether this is helping maintain walking tracks, patronizing the arts, helping run meetup groups, making thoughtful submissions to the council on planning topics, playing team sport, whatever. "Be the change you want to see" and all that.

    Since getting back from my trip I have of course done nothing in this direction -- I can also recommend having a 6 month old baby for taking the "what next" question away for quite some time...

  3. +1 to Glyph's suggestion of the Culture novels for ideas on post-scarcity society. While humanity as a whole isn't there yet, for those of us born into privileged situations, not burdened with an excessively competitive nature and without the responsibility of supporting a family, it's getting pretty close. "Player of Games" is the one that was recommended to me as a good starting point, and after reading several more, I still agree with that suggestion.

    Your idea of trying a lot of different things, and seeing which ones catch your interest and make you want to learn and do more is a good one. Martial arts can be an interesting choice, as they have a built in progression towards becoming a *teacher* of the art (almost all arts with a belt system include the assumption that beyond a certain level, the best way to continue to learn is to start to teach others). If programming is an active interest, and not just a job, then getting involved in open source can also be incredibly rewarding.


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