Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Psychosocial Costs Of Ambition

If I had accepted that leadership role, there would have been a lot of pressure on me to do something really exciting. I can sometimes do exciting things, but I can't do them on demand. My energy level waxes and wanes. My creativity is irregular. When I do have an idea, sometimes it catches on and other times people just stare at me and think "What's wrong with him?" 
To be ambitious is a commitment. It's saying "Take a chance on me, and I will continue being creative and exciting and dependable for the foreseeable future." It's promising people that you're never going to let them down. If you act ambitious, and then when push comes to shove you say "Nah, I don't need the aggravation", then you don't look ambitious and high-status, you look like a flake.
Scott's lucid explanation of the costs to ambition is a great example of hot and cold decision-making. We tend to overestimate the stability of our beliefs, so when we feel ambitious and full of energy (like, at the start of a project) we assume that this feeling will continue indefinitely.

Of course, this is unlikely. Most of us have daily circadian rhythms, some less-well understood medium-term fluctuations, and gradual decays in interest.

So, as Scott learned early in life, it is prudent to anticipate and explicitly correct for your likely decline in motivation towards a topic when you present yourself to the world. The insidious part of this is that if you want to obtain resources you need to actually complete a task (e.g., a job, a grant, collaborators), you will have to sell yourself. This is why trade-offs aren't fun; they're just real.