On Ego and Ambition

I occasionally engage in a somewhat macabre exercise: lost in thought, I begin to imagine hypothetical reactions from everyone I know to the news of my sudden death, usually due to an unexpected event like a car accident. I don’t do this very often, maybe once every few months. And there is no specific recurrent trigger for it. The last time I did it, a little over a month ago, was soon after hearing about the death of Roger Ebert. I, like many others who followed his life and writings over the years, felt saddened by this loss, and that sadness prompted me to consider my own mortality. At first, it was the “typical” story. I thought about my girlfriend, my parents, and the people closest to me. I thought about all the years invested, the memories formed and the futures planned; about all that was worthy and that was hard won. Then I thought about the sadness that would engulf all these people, about their sense of loss and the emptiness that they would experience. And, as such exercises typically end for me, I began to experience a deep sense of sorrow. I felt saddened by the inevitability of my death, by the eventual destruction of all that I have built, by the wasted memories, meticulously acquired then blown away as if they were never experienced. Perhaps I even felt angry by the seeming meaninglessness of life, by an existence in which we strive to live great lives, only to have them yanked away from us by the fragility of an aging and imperfectly evolved biological machine. It is typically at this point that, feeling hopelessly defeated, I turn my attention to something else, get distracted, and go on merrily living a life of ignorant bliss. For some reason however, this time my thoughts took a different turn.

But first, some personal background: I am an extremely ambitious person. This is not inherently good or bad, but simply is. I happened to have, from my earliest recollections, ridiculously outsized plans for my life. By any objective measure, my abilities do not merit such dreams of grandeur. It is almost certainly the case that I am too ambitious for my own good, and that if I were a little more realistic and a little more reasonable, I would be more successful professionally and personally. My ambition is, more likely than not, simply a pathology. But this ambition, regardless of its merit, has always formed an inextricable part of my personality. And, if I’m being generous with myself, I believe it to have been a positive force, a source for inspiration that drives me to work harder, to achieve more, to care about the world and to try to better it. It has limited my apathy, increased my engagement, and generally made me want to be alive and happy to be alive. It has, I believe, on many occasions and in many ways made me a better person than a hypothetical version of me who is not as ambitious.

Just as long as I have known myself to be so ambitious, I have also known myself to possess a great ego. Not in the sense of arrogance, although arrogance does happen to be one of my vices, but an ego in the sense of the “I”, a strong identification with a sense of self. I have always cared about myself, and this obsession with the self, a characteristic that I think describes most humans, ultimately became inextricably linked with my ambition. For me, it is not about making the world a better place. It is about me making the world a better place, a subtle but crucially important difference.

I have long been aware of this, but never seriously considered the possibility of an alternative worldview. I have also long been aware that this is not a mere philosophical exercise, but one with serious and profound implications for the way I live and conduct myself. Many of my ideas and projects have never seen the light of day because I have been too reluctant to share, too protective of my thoughts, and too keen about my career development to seriously conduct myself as a scientist whose sole objectives are to further our understanding of the natural world and to better the human condition. I have always treated this as an inevitability, not only of the human social contract but of human biology period. I thought that it is an imperfect situation to be sure, and that the world would be a better place if I did not place my ego at the center of it, but I ultimately concluded that I am an animal just like any other, shaped by eons to survive and to compete. I would do the best I can, dedicate myself to the causes I deemed most important, but allow myself the indulgence of claiming credit, of striving for credit, of hoping that not only does the world get changed, but that I be the one who changes it.

This worldview implies something very important: I matter. Whatever happens to me is of great consequence (to me), and thus, whenever I did reflect on the eventuality of my death, I invariably experienced great sadness. My reaction to the macabre exercise I described is perfectly reasonable within such a philosophical framework.

I am about to come back to said exercise, but I need to share one other piece of background. I have also long held two somewhat contradictory beliefs. On the one hand, I think that human (and animal) sentience is of fundamental and intrinsic value, and that every single sentient life should be taken seriously. This seriousness of a sentient life implies that we are right to feel saddened by its loss, and elated by its empowerment. Life counts, and when it is lost, we need to bear the full weight of that loss. This, I think, contradicts certain Eastern philosophies that view sentience as eternal and timeless, and thus impervious to loss or gain. I take the loss of sentience seriously. When a life is lost, it is forever destroyed and will never be restored. I accept that if we are to experience happiness, then we must experience sadness, for if we think that sentience is of fundamental value, then its loss is serious and must be treated as such. On the other hand, I am also cognizant of the painful minisculeness, if not insignificance, of the entire human experiment. We are but a tiny species on a tiny speckle in a vast and unexplored universe. Surely whatever happens to us, particularly whatever happens to any individual one of us, cannot be taken too seriously.

These two views have co-existed in my mind for some time, but it has been an uneasy co-existence, for they invariably tread on each other’s territories and do so in a somewhat contradictory way. It was against this background of entangled ambition and egoism, and of uncertainty about the ultimate value of sentient life, that I had an epiphany. I am not a student of philosophy, and suspect that what follows has been written and written better hundreds if not thousands of years ago. I share it not because of the novelty of its philosophical content, but because of the utility of knowing the process through which I acquired it.

As I continued to probe into the meaning and implications of my hypothetical death, it struck me that my sadness, when viewed through the correct prism, was entirely irrational, because my death would be of very little ultimate consequence. Sure, my sentient experience would be terminated. And certainly my loved ones would experience much sadness. But neither them nor I ultimately matter all that much. I am but a single person, and they are but a handful of people, tens, maybe a few hundred at most. What are we in the grand scheme of things? In other words, if I were to objectively consider my subjective experience—this is the “correct prism” I just mentioned—and treat my death as if it were the death of any other human, the only reasonable conclusion I could arrive to would be that there is very little need for genuine sadness. Certainly no greater than what I experienced upon hearing of Roger Ebert’s death. Or when three Bostonians died. Or when hundreds die routinely in terror attacks in the Middle East. Or when thousands, tens of thousands, and hundreds of thousands die in earthquakes and other natural disasters. My sadness was entirely irrational. In fact it was worse; it was downright selfish. I implicitly elevated the importance of my own sentience above that of the thousands that die every day. The thought of my hypothetical death caused me greater distress than the actual deaths of many more.

More importantly, the implications of this realization extend far beyond the dramatic issue of death. In particular, it touches upon that cornerstone of my life, the ambition to achieve great things. What I realized, when I took seriously the matter of objectively considering my subjective existence, was that my ambition could and should be decoupled from my ego. The desire to better the world, to understand and to control nature, is perfectly rational, because it would improve the lot of many sentient things. But the insistence that I be the vehicle that brings about the change, in particular that I be the one who gets the credit, is entirely irrational. I am equivalent to any other person, in terms of my basic capacity for conscious experience. This implies a sort of fundamental exchangeability between me and any other person. So long as someone changes the world, lives and experiences a great life, and achieves great ends, then whether it is I or this other person is entirely inconsequential, because that great subjective life would be experienced by someone somewhere. Furthermore, from the perspective of history, all that would be different is the name attached to the person who effected the change. Nothing about my specific identity would be important in a hundred years from now. Only the actions and the consequences would matter, not who brought them about. We know of a Newton and a Darwin and a Jefferson and a Jesus, but how much of the content of these individuals’ personalities is ultimately of any importance? By and large, from the historical trajectory, what matters is what they did, not who they were. The latter may have affected their family and friends, but not us. Thus if it were Lamarck and not Darwin who had the right theory, who experienced the glory and withered the storm, whose name became synonymous with genius for some, and subversion for others, would it actually affect us in any material way? Unlikely. They did not live forever, neither will I, and thus I will eventually cease to experience the elation of whatever supposed greatness I can achieve. The importance of any accomplishment is far better measured by the change it brings in the lives it affects, than by the happiness and glory it bestows upon the accomplisher. Similarly my subjective experience will always be miniscule in comparison to everyone else’s. Hence the only objective way of assessing whether an action that I am undertaking is worthwhile or not is its effect on the whole of sentient life, because in due time the effects of this action on all of their subjective experiences will far exceed its effect on mine. Yet, whenever I made a decision before, I did so primarily on the basis of how much it would improve my life, of how effectively it would enhance my subjective experience. If I were feeling particularly altruistic, I would consider the lives of those around me. But ultimately all these lives are of little consequence, and I suspect that I am not the only person who engaged in such myopic calculus.

This, to me, was a profound realization. It resolves the cognitive dissonance I frequently experience when trying to decide whether sentient life is ultimately worthy or not, by concluding that individual life is ultimately of bounded value, but collectively life is of fundamental import. More significantly, it frees me to affirm my ambition, but to downplay my ego. I, as a beneficiary of tremendous luck and privilege, ought to be as ambitious as possible, and ought to try as hard as possible to make this world a better place. The ambition is well placed. But the egoism is not. Whether I am the one to succeed, or whether I indirectly help someone else succeed, is of little consequence, beyond the small circle of my own sentience and that of my close associates. In my objective calculations, I should do all that is necessary for myself to succeed professionally so that I am able to bring about the change I wish to see, for the sake of that change, and not for the sake of satiating my own conscious desires. This was not obvious to me, because I had long feared that the abandonment of my ego would result in the abandonment of my ambition. Now I think the two can be decoupled; the two ought to be decoupled.

Two last bits. First, I am not advocating for some sort of grand social engineering project or a communist utopia. I do think the world would be a better place if more people were simultaneously more ambitious and less egoistical, but I believe this to be a uniquely personal journey, almost meditative in its nature and one that can only be subjectively experienced. My prescriptions do not concern the structure of society, but the moral drive of the individual. Second, it is fun to speculate about a future in which only a handful of very long-lived individuals survive: a thousand beings who live for millions of years, instead of a billion people who live for tens of years. In such a scenario, each individual would concentrate so much of the total sentient experience that the above considerations would cease to be valid.

P.S. I consider the above an example of useful philosophy, as articulated here, because it suggests concrete changes to one’s behavior. Coincidentally, the title of this blog post is inspired by the title of another article by the same author I just cited, called Cities and Ambition, which is unrelated but well worth reading for its own sake. Finally, this blog post is a sort of challenge to this article, which I think suffers from the same conflation of ego and ambition that I had previously made.

Update: I came across this article, which comes to conclusions similar to the ones I have reached, but through an entirely different path.

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