Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Ambition and Vision

A thought related to my constant search for meaning. If you feel that your work is ambitious, it is more likely to have meaning.

There's a huge emotional difference between writing something that is ambitious--a project difficult to achieve, but one which has an aim that seems noble in some way--and something that is just an attempt to satisfy a requirement or an attempt to jump through a hoop.

I'm not talking about ambition beyond the project--though that can be a valuable emotion--I'm talking about a vision of the project that is ambitious--for example a project that presents a novel perspective, a project that reveals something that has not been expressed in the literature before.

It can be deadening to think that your project is meaningless; it can reduce motivation. This is balanced against increased ease in managing the project.

By contrast, it can be enlivening and encouraging to think that your project may be meaningful. This is balanced against the project typically being more meaningful.

I say that the part of wisdom is to accept the challenge and to strive for the more meaningful and more ambitious result.. While the chances of failure may be higher, this is not certain. Meanwhile the chances of getting a rewarding outcome are significantly increased.

Consider this from the long run. You have taken your project as far as you were going to take it and moved on to another project. Ten years have passed.
Which outcome gives you the most satisfaction? To have strived at an ambitious project and failed? Or to have succeeded at a project that you think is trivial? There's not a lot of reward in having succeeded in a project that doesn't challenge you and that you feel bad about. Yes, there may be real rewards to having gotten a degree-it may have given you a job, etc.--but are there also not real rewards that may accrue from having attempted and failed a challenging project? Can not increased self-confidence come from having attempted and failed an ambitious project? Which project is going to do more to increase usable skills and self-confidence? The answer is, at best, uncertain. Certainly arguments could be forwarded to argue either position. Given that each person lives differently, there seems to be little chance of predicting such outcomes with certainty.
The flip side is that I have compared two unequal results. On the one side, I have compared the success of working on a simple project with the failure of working on a difficult one. But that is assuming that working on the hard project leads to failure and working on the easy project leads to success. This is far from certain. Firstly, it is possible that you will succeed on the ambitious project. Obviously, this would be the most rewarding outcome. It is not a possible outcome of working on a project you don't care about. Secondly, it is possible that you would fail at the easy project. This would be the worst possible outcome; it is not possible if you choose the ambitious project. There is no guarantee that a project that seems easy, prima facie, will actually turn out to be without problems. There is also no guarantee that if you take on the ambitious project that it will be difficult; it is uncertain what outside factors might come to your aid, and what perceived difficulties will have a simple solution when the time is right to resolve them.

We could also consider this from the short run: which project will be more rewarding to work on? The one that you don't care about or the one that you do?

I have argued for ambition. I know that ambition probably carries a greater burden of fear. I know that I have not been particularly ambitious in my own life. This is partly what motivates me to suggest that ambition is better. I can look back at my ambitionless youth and say with a certain degree of confidence that if I were to do it again, I would choose a path of ambition and failure. I know that as I move forward in my life, I am choosing to take on more ambition. We'll see how that works out when I finish the book proposal I'm working on now.

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