Philosophistry Database

Ambition creates a natural alliance between young and old: Mentors want flattery; Protégés want to emulate

Ambition encourages friendships between the inexperienced and experienced, between old and young. All that success-seekers want to talk about is success, and those conversations transfer easily up and down. Those younger than them want to emulate them to get ahead. Those older want to be impressed. The status-seeker is thus likely to cultivate mentors and protégés rather than peers because neither party is close enough to each other to be threatened by them. Everybody at the same level would like to learn more about success, but to acknowledge the advice of peers is to risk getting tangled in insecurity. Thus the A-plus student is accused of being a brown-noser, and the precocious intern is labeled a climber.

The exception to this is the status-seeker who cultivates alliances to increase their power. But these are formal social connections, mediated by complicated postures and etiquette, and are not liable to become as genuine as the ones with asymmetrical power dynamics.

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Aspirations are things you've wanted for a long time, but for whatever reason, haven't started pursuing in earnest

What's interesting about aspirations (i.e. long-standing goals or dreams) is that there is a contradiction built into them. Aspirations are things you've wanted for a long time, but are also things you haven't pursued or achieved for a long time.

The first part is important because it means that pursuing those dreams won't be a waste of time. You won't change your mind at the first sign of weakness. You won't stop wanting the goal when the next distraction comes along. But the second part—that you've retained your interest in these goals, despite having spent so much time not achieving them—shows that there's a reason you haven't your achieved your dreams.

One explanation for this contradiction is that aspirations are clues to achieving your maximum potential. For example, if your dream is to play professional basketball, it must be born out of some physical prowess you already have. If you had no prowess, you would have abandoned the dream at the first sign of discouragement on the court. On the other hand, if you don't have enough physical prowess to automatically be in the NBA, the dream is telling you that you have good initial conditions, but also a long ramp-up that could lead to self-actualization.

Another explanation is that you may already be close to achieving something, but just need an extra nudge or kick to get over some hump. For example, if it's always been your dream to work in a particular industry, the reason you're not there yet may be due to the initial headaches in organizing applications or finances. The dream is like the light at the end of the tunnel, you just need one more good sprint to finish.

Thirdly, aspirations are ultimately about unraveling personal mysteries. We don't dream about things we already are, but rather about things that we are not (yet). For if the components for achieving our dreams were already apparent to us, we would already have grabbed the trophy and turned in the towel. But because we haven't, that means there's something beyond our understanding of ourselves that will be borne out by the quest.

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Off-Goal Targeting

A common strategy for achieving success is off-goal targeting. This is usually represented in templated expressions of the form, "Just focus on 'x,' and then 'y' will happen naturally." In other words, focus on a tangential objective that indirectly contributes to the other, "real" goal. A common example, as often expressed on the blog Daring Fireball is to focus on delivering truly high-quality user-experiences. If you make product interfaces an absolute joy to use, then those products will sell themselves.

The point of this exercise is two-fold. First, it gets your mind away from short-term expectations of success. If you step into product development with the idea that you want to make as much money as possible, you will likely cut corners and sacrifice quality in order to more efficiently maximize income. This mindset is likely to be self-defeating or only lead to short-term gains.

The second aspect of this goal is to focus on something you can control. It's much easier to control quality because you can measure it yourself, every day. Since there are many uncontrollable factors that play into how successful a product is (e.g. luck, timing, and competitors), by focusing on quality, you can quiet distractions. Your anxiety will be reduced because you've narrowed your attention to a locus of control (as described in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). If your product doesn't do as well as you had hoped for, at least you can rule out quality. This would encourage you to possibly retry marketing, or to wait and see if market conditions improve. Whereas if you had made a shoddy product to begin with, and the returns don't come in, all your effort will have been for naught.

Off-goal targeting is ultimately a hedge against failure. If your off-goal target is to "learn programming" or "build things of quality" then even if those products don't succeed commercially, you'll have improved your overall experiences and built up your portfolio, all of which will outlast the initial gains from a quick success.

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Pursuing your dreams isn't just a cliché, but practical advice, as dreams are a free and renewable source of hope

Aspirations are goals, but they're the best kind of goals because they give extra emphasis to two important features: time and personal attachment.

Time - Aspirations are wants that have festered in your heart for a long-time. Because of this time component, aspirations have survived the ebb and flow of your moods and the cycle of seasons. This is important because those same ebbs and flows will greet you on the path to achieving your goal, and one of the most common reasons goals fail is because of a lack of true, sustained interest.

Personal Attachment - You can set a goal to anything. You could say, "My goal is to make a 100 sales this month." In this case, goal-setting is a form of remote-control, whereby you dangle a carrot in front of you to give you an extra boost of motivation or to work a few extra hours. Aspirations, on the other hand, come from deep-seated longings. They're not arbitrary or invented. Rather, they emerge from accumulated life experiences. They are fantasies that have gained increased resolution over time.

What's great about aspirations is that you will always want them. Even if you fail in an attempt, you're likely to still want the goal, and this will summon the perseverance necessary to try again.

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The pursuit of success delivers its greatest joys not during the victory speech, but before

There are two happinesses that come from the pursuit of success. The most visible one is the goal itself. We over-estimate how much joy achieving something will bring, as it ultimately gets reduced to an orgasm.

The other happiness is the journey. When you are jogging towards an object of desire, it creates a sense of liveliness that is the main substance of joyful living. This good feeling represents the lion's share of joy that we can expect to get from success, and yet it's still ignored or sublimated while we salivate at victory.

Within that journey, though, there are peaks and valleys, and there is one peak that rivals the orgasm of victory at the end. It's whenever you pass the milestone that makes it seems like success is at its most imminent. This could happen in the first 10% of the journey or the final 10%. Somewhere along the way the reward goes from out-of-reach to within reach.

This pattern parallels stock speculation: "Buy on the rumor, sell on the news." If everybody knows a company is coming out with a great product, the stock shoots up. On the day of the product's announcement, though, the stock mysteriously goes down. This is because there are no more buyers for the good news once it's already out there. We are always interested in our future success, not our past, and so the fever reaches its highest when our prospects change the quickest, which is somewhere in the middle of a journey, rarely at the beginning or the end.

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The pursuit of success is contrary to the cultivation of emotional intelligence

The pursuit of success is contrary to the cultivation of emotional intelligence. Emotions can provide insight into what is worth pursuing, or emotions can be used to motivate oneself or others towards those same pursuits. The ambitious, instead of using their emotions as thermometers, use them as actuators, whipping themselves or others into action. While someone could use their emotions for both, if it's a choice between achieving goals faster or pausing to reflect on those goals, the ambitious would choose the former.

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There are two kinds of success—talent-based and ambition-based—one of which leads to more happiness

There are two ways of achieving success: naturally and artificially. To get into an Ivy League school, for example, you could set a goal, strive for it, hire college admissions coaches, and structure your activities towards impressing admissions officers.

To get there naturally could also include working hard, but doing so without much personal strain. You could do community service because you enjoy it, not because you want a line-item on your college applications. You could work hard for As but without sacrificing having fun and enjoying your teenage years.

Likewise, there are the successful who are the apparent result of their ambition. Think Hillary Clinton. Yes, they have some talents that are naturally suited to the positions they have attained, but the much greater source for their high station and accolades is their diligence and determination.

And then, there are the successful who are the apparent result of their natural talents. Think Joseph Campbell, who could've written more books, garnered millions in speaking gigs but was content to stay at Sarah Lawrence College for what seems like at eternity. His successes are a more authentic expression of his being, and more likely to have been garnered with joy.

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True success is non-linear, whereby you build a mosaic of perks and points of passion along the way

Success begets more success. That's a given. Early achievements come with a rush of euphoria, but later ones spike less and less, as you seek ever higher levels. The follow-on is not always a basic linear progression, though, where you win a high school championship, then a college one, then a national one, then you make the Olympics, and then you break a world record.

For most people, success progressions are more like fans, where the higher you go, not only are there increasingly difficult challenges, there is also increasing diversity. Linear definitions of success typically start with net worth, but it can also include an ever-increasing array of conditions, such as lifestyle enhancements (how hard do you have to work), number of side projects included (are you a semi-professional rock climber on the side, for example) or the nature of your work (are you running a cool collection of bars downtown). The epitome of this phenomena is the diversity of slash careers among ambitious Millennials such as the chef/entrepreneur (food trailer operator) or artist/programmer (creative director at a video game company).

The bigger challenge, then, is to figure out what kind of success to pursue. It's all too easy to get lost just figuring out which direction to lean into, especially if you've cultivated skills for a generalized success. This is evidenced by the paradox of meeting successful people (both moneyed and storied), who are not only bored but still somehow busy. What exactly are they working on?

It's almost like success needs to be re-defined, as the fan widens, to include a meta-success component: "How well are you conforming to your internal definition of success?"

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We get choice anxiety because we are latent opportunists, usually satisfied with "good enough," unless we are faced with so many options that we can get otherwise

An attractive woman who is perpetually single presents a paradox. (For the sake of argument, let's consider only women since beauty is such a linear selector for them). If we assume that she is straight and desires a relationship, the paradox is obvious: How could someone presented with so many options find themselves with none. When they pass us by on the street, we often think, "It must be nice." It must be nice to be attractive and have plenty of suitors. But for the attractive woman, it doesn't feel that way.

A clue can be found in the oft-cited study on the paradox of choice. Grocery shoppers, when presented with a table of three jams vs. a table with thirty-seven, often buy more from the table with fewer choices. The reasoning is that having too many choices causes decision-anxiety since there are too many items to compare amongst.

But perhaps this misses the true cause. The attractive woman who has exclusive access to high-quality suitors sees their situation as a burden. They find themselves with a unique opportunity, and so they have a greater responsibility to maximize their gains. Their ancestors took all sorts of genetic risks to produce a great-great-great-granddaughter of eminent beauty, and now their chickens are coming home to roost. The attractive woman then holds out, straining to maximize their options.

When there is a so-so pool to choose from, any satisfactory candidate will do. But when presented with an exceptional choice, only an exceptional candidate will do.

So perhaps the jam study isn't about the numerical overload of choices, but about the pressure to seize opportunities. The more splendid the situation, the more we start thinking about the most we can extract from it. Our ancestors, upon discovering a grove with tremendous bounty, thought about how to transport the most and best of this back to the tribe. If they didn't, then they would have never created alpha males nor buoyed their tribe enough to survive harsh winters.

The word "opportunist" is often a derogatory term, but we are all opportunists at heart, just latent ones.

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