the duality of contentment and ambition

originally published April 30, 2019

I grazed the surface of being happy in the present in Actually Being Happier Now. There’s a lot more to say before I’ll be really pushing the boundaries of any of these ideas, but I feel it’s important to record my progress.

For some reason I’ve always had the desire to just do a lot of things. I like making stuff, achieving things, expressing myself and reaching others through my work. I think this is what most people regard as having ambition. It took me a while to see that in myself but I’ve been assured that it’s the case. Things get tricky here, generally in ~society~ we look at ambition as a good thing. And it is good, it helps us innovate and progress and often brings success to those who are lucky enough to develop it. Instead, however, I’m going to be ungrateful here and say that ambition… Often makes you miserable.

This isn’t me looking for sympathy, I’m grateful for being at the helm of this ship even if it’s not always easy to captain. Instead I’m hoping to help reach people who are like me and offer a few tips I’ve picked up for handling ambition.

The foundation of my determination is a lot of very negative self-talk. When I set myself a goal and I catch myself falling short my first reaction is to tell myself I’m weak. That I’ll never achieve anything worthwhile if I can’t even do this. That I may as well give up now. I rarely celebrate my achievements and shrug off compliments as niceties. My ambition is a constant discontent with the current state of the world.

I am prone to defining my worth as a human being entirely from how productive I’m being. This leads to a polarised oscillation between a god complex and imposter syndrome. For a long time I firmly believed I could be a really good person if I was just constantly producing better and better things. (aside: there’s a great podcast with Tim Ferris and Dr. Peter Attia where they express similar sentiments).

As I’ve mentioned in Actually Being Happier Now, I’ve come a long way from this. I’m not free of this mindset at all but I’m slowly learning to use it as a tool. Meditation and philosophy have taught me a great deal about being content and even more about my ego.

I’m not going to focus on this though. Instead I want to highlight the internal battle between these two ways of looking at the world. There is an obvious logical clash between the idea of being happy with things exactly as they are and having an overwhelming desire to change them. I struggled with this for some time and hope to save you some of the effort.

The short answer is, these are actually not mutually exclusive ideas. We just have to be crafty with how we understand them. It’s intuitive to think that you really can only follow one philosophy at a time. Some fantastic efforts exist to demonstrate that contentment and creativity are deeply related, collapsing these down to one idea. This is a noble goal, we are really fond of the idea that we’re perfectly consistent and accurate in our understanding (it’s probably got something to do with that pesky prefrontal cortex). The reality is that no human being has ever actually had the correct perspective because one does not exist.

If we admit this, we can instead collect different ways of looking at the world. What if we built a toolkit and could switch between perspectives when it mattered most? Well, you might’ve heard someone bring up mental models recently, they’re the new hotness online and we’ve accidentally discovered them right here. To be brief, a mental model is a way of representing, understanding and reasoning about the world. If you’re interested in this topic I recommend listening to Shane Parish’s The Knowledge Project, specifically the episode with Scott Page. Shane has a lot to say about mental models. I’m still getting started with my understanding of this but for the sake of this discussion let’s just talk about two models:

One model is of a world that’s flawed and must be endlessly improved.
The other of a world that is perfect and heart-achingly beautiful in its complexity.

We can choose to take these, and an infinite number of other perspectives, and engage them when appropriate. For example, when I’m programming I tend to focus on my discontent, it gives me motivation to strive further and push my limits. Conversely, when I’m crying with laughter over dinner with friends, admiring the present moment seems like a much better fit.

The tricky part is learning to switch modes at will and to pick the most suitable mode. In the podcast episode I mentioned earlier Tim Ferris describes his ambition as a tool, for example, as a knife. We want to keep our knife sharp and ready to use when duty calls, but you would look pretty strange trying to pick your nose with it.

My current perspective is that it’s a fool’s errand to try and find one way of looking at the world that works in all cases. That being said, these two form a strong foundation for my current approach to life. Hopefully you can use them too.