Is ambition rational?

post by sliverlake · 2010-12-01T18:54:54.639Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 16 comments

I don't understand the people around me who are working so very hard to succeed. It strikes me as irrational. Why do you do it?

A long time ago I reasoned that it is more efficient to strive for a 90% rather than 100% on a test because both yield the same "A". This morphed into a way of life. I barely got past grad school to earn my PhD, and now I'm a "Dr." just like anyone else. I worked in corporate research where promotions are largely determined by time served. So I aimed to do a good job, but I didn't put in extra effort. Recently, I do just enough consulting to get by and spend the rest of my time as a lazy hipster. :-) 

The emotional half of my brain would like to be more successful, but the "logical" part of my brain explains (condescendingly) that the poor odds don't justify the extra effort. Which is right? 

Here's a practical example: My friend is a senior manager at an investment bank. If she works extremely hard for a few more years, she has a small chance (1 in 50?) at being promoted to managing director (2x income). On the other hand, she could scale back her responsibilities and coast for a few years on her already outrageous salary. She has not decided what to do. 

I'm new. If this has already been discussed please post links. Searching didn't yield anything relevant. Thanks.



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comment by Kingreaper · 2010-12-01T19:32:16.070Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ambition is a desire; the desire to increase your status and do better.

Behaving ambitiously can be rational even if you don't have any ambition; if you wish to earn a lot of money to give to charity for instance, ambitious behaviour can be beneficial.

However, if your goals don't coincide with those that ambitious behaviour can help, there's no reason to seek ambition.

tl;dr: ambition is neither rational nor irrational. It is, like all desires, arational.

Replies from: sliverlake
comment by sliverlake · 2010-12-02T17:13:17.615Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I agree with you. But don't you have some control over your desires? Most people are enslaved by their status seeking. I can't stop laughing at those guys with brand new expensive basketball shoes who carefully wipe away every smudge! It's the same for McMansions, Jaguars, Ralph Lauren clothes, and even MacBooks. If you fancy yourself a reasonable person, then you have to question your pursuit of status.

Replies from: Kingreaper, David_Gerard
comment by Kingreaper · 2010-12-02T17:59:39.400Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I agree with you. But don't you have some control over your desires?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

More importantly, sometimes you don't want to.

Imagine that all you want is status. Literally, your sole desire is to increase your status. Would it be rational to change that desire?

Well, will changing that desire help you win? Will it help you achieve your desires?... Will it help you increase your status?

Probably not.

However, you do have a point. If you desire primarily to be content in your life, but also desire to increase your status, you might be better off to get rid of the second desire, and just be content. Your primary desire might over-rule your secondary desire.

comment by David_Gerard · 2010-12-02T21:23:00.980Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Possssssibly. Status is a lot more optional these days, when the living is easy and Western civilisation has a problem with too much food, than it's ever been before in human history. So a desire for status within the tribe may not be presently optimal in terms of one's other goals, but I do think it may be strong enough to actually count as a terminal goal, or damn close.

The problem you're describing is like seeing all those fat people because their bodies still want to put aside stores for the hard times even though there's way enough food.

comment by Unnamed · 2010-12-01T21:39:20.972Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The trick is to be selectively ambitious: to work hard on the things that you care about, where the extra effort has a good chance of accomplishing something worthwhile, and not to waste your time & energy on efforts that are relatively unimportant or ineffectual.

People can go wrong in both directions. In school, some people are overly ambitious and work too hard just to get good grades. As a result they might burn out, not enjoy themselves as much as they could, or fail to engage in activities outside of class that would be good to do. Other people are not ambitious enough and do as little work as possible just to get by in their classes. As a result they don't learn as much as they could, they don't engage with the material in ways that can be enjoyable and enlightening, and they might develop bad work habits which make it hard for them to be productive at tasks that they care about.

A big part of the problem is identifying your goals & priorities and figuring out what you really care about. In both of the school examples that I gave, part of the problem is that the person is focusing too narrowly on grades, which are the standard measuring stick for academic performance but are not really the point of education.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2010-12-02T18:01:11.610Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The emotional half of my brain would like to be more successful, but the "logical" part of my brain explains (condescendingly) that the poor odds don't justify the extra effort. Which is right?

I find it more useful to think about this sort of thing in terms of opposed valuations.

That is: I want pie, and I want to be slim. The pie-wanting parts of my brain suggest that I eat more pie, the slim-wanting parts of my brain suggest that I eat less pie.

Which is right? The question is ill-formed. I just want inconsistent things, and that's just the way it is. "Right" doesn't have a consistent meaning across the entirety of my brain.

So what should I do? Well, that's a trickier question.

Ideally, find a way to eat lots of pie and be slim... then I can be right regardless of which meaning of "right" we use, and the difference stops mattering.

Failing that, my answer is: negotiate compromises. More or less, the same thing I do when dealing with two different people who want inconsistent things.

That said, I do acknowledge that this answer does, in the extreme, lead to my choosing to eat yummy babies, and I'm not really OK with that either.

So I'm still working on this.

I don't understand the people around me who are working so very hard to succeed. It strikes me as irrational.

I find it useful to separate different categories of people, when thinking about this. For example:

  • People who value success at X, where X genuinely requires hard work, more than they negatively value the work, and therefore work hard to succeed at X. This strikes me as perfectly rational.

  • People who value working hard, and therefore work hard at whatever X comes along. I'm not really sure what I believe about this... I'm not entirely convinced that there are any such people, although there are certainly people who claim to be.

  • People who work hard to achieve results even though they negatively value the work more than they value the results. Here, too, I'm not sure there really are any such people, though there sure do seem to be.

  • People who are not fully aware of what they value, or who have inconsistent valuations, or whose valuations change over time, and who consequently do things -- including work hard, but also including slack off -- that get them less of what they want. This is, I agree, irrational. I think most people fall in this category.

It often gets hard to talk about this stuff, because the categories get lumped together, and a lot of assumptions go unexplored.

For example, many discussions of akrasia depend on the assumption that, when I have inconsistent valuations such that I both do things like say "I really should go work on project X instead of posting LW comments" and do things like post LW comments instead of working on project X, that the first valuation is privileged over the second... that is, the discussion assumes that the goal is to find sustainable ways to go work on project X.

That's fine... every discussion makes some assumptions, and they aren't always explicit. But if you don't make that assumption, the discussion is largely irrelevant. And if you don't recognize the assumption, that can get frustrating. (There's a reason I don't get involved in akrasia discussions.)

With respect to your friend... the idea that it's maximally valuable to amass status and resources is a pervasive cached belief; a lot of people use that valuation without being fully aware of it.

It sounds like she is in the process of deciding whether to keep using that valuation, and thus devote lots of hard work to maximizing her chances of increasing her income, or discard that valuation. (That is, she's not considering some other job that has a 2 in 50 chance of doubling her income for the same amount of work, for example, she's considering whether to work harder for more income at all.)

Again, neither answer is irrational. What is irrational is failing to understand what one's valuations are, and how they relate to the choices one has.

comment by cousin_it · 2010-12-02T04:20:38.195Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe Robin's post Doubting My Far Mind will be relevant to you. He makes the point that applying your brain to the question "why" doesn't seem to be very productive:

I’ve also noticed that among smart folks, the most successful keep their smarts on a short leash. They use their smarts to make the sale, win the case, pass the test, get published, etc., but they don’t use much smarts to consider whether they really want to make the sale, win the case, etc. Oh sure they might express some angst at a Saturday dinner, but come Monday they are back on the job.

In contrast, on average smart folks gain far less success when they seriously apply their smarts to big pictures, reconsidering what they want, what we really know, how the world is organized, what they can do to make the world a better place, and so on. They go off in a thousand directions, and while some might break new ground, on average such smart folk gain much less personal success, and may well do less to help the world.

Replies from: sliverlake
comment by sliverlake · 2010-12-02T17:04:46.240Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the link. I admit that I struggle to understand Hanson's writing (and Yudkowsky is impenetrable). IMO, the two paragraphs you cite, in the context of the post, actually means that smart people can achieve local, well-defined goals, but they rarely consider "why" they are doing it. Maybe they should. In the 2nd paragraph, he says smart people aren't successful at thinking about abstract, long-term questions. Also, those people tend not to achieve personal success (probably 'cause they waste time thinking big thoughts rather than making the sale).

Towards the end, Hanson says he pursues conventional success when he's insecure about his status. And when he's feeling secure he does what he wants, but less of the big abstract thinking because he doesn't trust it anymore. Hanson got tenure because he's smart enough to do the conventional things required for success. WHY did Hanson pursue tenure? Because he was seeking status.

In my case, I've beaten my status seeking impulse to a bloody pulp, though it twitches occasionally. Once my material needs are met, I'm pretty much done. Isn't status seeking irrational? It's imposed on us by social expectations. I'd hope that a group dedicated to reason could push past this vanity and aim for goals they consider "more rational".

Replies from: cousin_it
comment by cousin_it · 2010-12-02T18:18:59.527Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's a widely held opinion here that terminal goals/values can't be rational or irrational. One reason for this is that you probably can't figure out any "eternal" values from first principles. The closest a human being can come to an "objective value system" is to adopt evolution's values as your own and strive to have as many kids as possible; but the question remains why you should play the good soldier for your genes, and not for some other master? (After all, there's no "you gene" and in a few generations your kids will be just like everybody else's...)

So the answer is, it's up to you. There's no light in the sky to give you goals in life; their only source is the little voice inside your head. If you want to seek status, fine. If you don't, that's okay too. If you want to devote your life to altruism instead, by all means do that! Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Me, I like to pursue ambitions and status. Maybe rationality can help me with that, maybe it can't. But if rationality tells me that it's "irrational" for me to want what I want, why should I listen? Won't I achieve my goals better by not listening?

comment by nazgulnarsil · 2010-12-04T14:59:47.968Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

other people have different equilibrium points between hard work and staus/standard of living. they place a higher utility on status than you do or a lower disutility on working hard.

comment by [deleted] · 2010-12-02T05:39:30.473Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For many ambitious people, I'd guess that their ambition isn't because they want to achieve some other goals, but because they actually enjoy "being ambitious"--they want to do everything very well because they feel good about being the best or near the best. Not to label myself "ambitious" and lump myself in with people who work far harder, but as an example, I'm a university student studying engineering. I could have coasted through my various math classes getting Bs and stopped right at the minimum requirements to graduate, but I didn't. Maybe to a short-sighted economist I'm being irrational, because either way I'll graduate with the same degree and employers will see me basically the same and I probably won't seriously increase my future income/status with my extra math knowledge, but I just like being good at math. The reason for that desire is probably complicated, but it's a real reason.

comment by nhamann · 2010-12-01T20:09:15.890Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't understand the people around me who are working so very hard to succeed. It strikes me as irrational. Why do you do it?

from Something to Protect:

I have touched before on the idea that a rationalist must have something they value more than "rationality": The Art must have a purpose other than itself, or it collapses into infinite recursion.

Edit: I should say a bit more, because merely quoting the above isn't likely to convince you of much of anything. You wrote:

The emotional half of my brain would like to be more successful, but the "logical" part of my brain explains (condescendingly) that the poor odds don't justify the extra effort. Which is right?

A few things come to mind. What is your measure of "success"? As someone who occasionally works at achieving personal goals, I can tell you that "success" is never part of the equation; I never say, "I should study very hard, so that I can one day be successful," for instance. In fact, I seem to be most productive when my efforts aren't really "effort" at all, but are more like guided play.

I don't have sources right now, but I'm fairly sure this is how the highest achievers in any field do what they do: if we take to be true (or at least reasonably accurate) Malcolm Gladwell's claim that 10,000 hours of practice is a necessary condition to excel at something, then it should be clear that an easy way to do all that work is for it to not feel like work at all.

Replies from: sliverlake
comment by sliverlake · 2010-12-02T03:08:14.836Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My question is really whether it is rational to pursue a competitive goal (#1 tennis player), not a personal goal (learn French). Thousands of children practice tirelessly to one day become a pro tennis player. Only 100 men can eventually make a living from it. Is it worth the intensely hard work for such a long shot? Wouldn't it be smarter for all those kids to spend those hours doing their homework instead?

I'd really like to start a small business, but the odds of success are very small. Should I throw myself at this goal? If the probability were 50%, definitely. But what if it's 10% or 1%? What about the opportunity cost compared to simply getting a corporate job? There's a wee bit of insanity to startup founders that I wish I had.

Replies from: katydee
comment by katydee · 2010-12-02T12:46:46.719Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Candidates who have founded a startup company are often considered extremely desirable by recruiters, even if their company fails, and for that reason the opportunity costs may not be as high as you think.

comment by drc500free · 2010-12-15T18:39:06.753Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Somewhat relevant is the Gervais Principle. This Principle is based on the idea that a corporate pyramid is topped by "sociopaths," has "losers" as a foundation, and a culture of ladder-climbing "clueless" between the two:

Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing losers into middle-management, groom under-performing losers into sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort losers to fend for themselves.

It's not a very rigorously investigate principle, though it matches well with my professional experiences.

comment by ronnoch · 2010-12-01T22:01:22.194Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It might be helpful to taboo the words "ambition," "success" and "rational" and rephrase.

You seem to be talking about titles and promotions, e.g. being promoted, climbing the corporate ladder, getting the most statusy degree possible.

So I think the heart of your question is "Are titles and promotions worth caring about?" or "Why do people care about getting titles and promotions?"

My position: These things have no intrinsic value, but can help me achieve other things that do.

I think it's silly to care about a degree for its own sake, but not silly to care about a degree because it will help you get the job you want.

For example, Robin Hanson went back to school because he wanted to participate more in academia, and he thought a doctorate would help. Eliezer Yudkowsky had different goals (building AI) which he thought a degree wouldn't help much with, so he dropped out of school and focused on things that would.