An Essay On How to Be Ambitious Without Turning Into a Jerk
Last week, in a Twitter thread by Naval Ravikant, I wrote a tweet with a misplaced apostrophe. Someone in the thread decided (because these things are always decisions) that it was worth his time and attention, above everything happening in his world, to point to the error that I had made.
It’s as if the world revolves around me. It’s as if everyone is waiting to be the first to point to my mistakes. But that kind of thinking is the mistake that leads to a problem more dangerous than a misused apostrophe. It’s the problem of worshiping what we pursue.
Consider this piece from David Foster Wallace’s speech, This Is Water.
“…there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth.”
Now keep what you just read in consideration while we make another leap. This is a passage from Carl Jung’s Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. There is a connection between these two lines of thought. It’s actually the same line of thought, articulated with a different sequence of words.
“The Idea of God is an absolutely necessary psychological function of an irrational nature, which has nothing whatever to do with the question of God’s existence.
I therefore consider it wiser to acknowledge the idea of God consciously; for, if we do not, something else is made God, usually something quite inappropriate and stupid such as only an “enlightened” intellect could hatch forth.”
(Naval Ravikant attracts a lot of “enlightened” intellects on Twitter.)
This connection is key to understanding how someone smart enough to follow Naval Ravikant could consider it worth their time and attention to point to my misused apostrophe instead of doing anything else. And it’s key to understanding how we can be ambitious without worshiping what we pursue.
What Carl Jung meant when he suggested that we “acknowledge the idea of God consciously,” is what David Foster Wallace meant when he said, “pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” The idea that they’re putting forth is that it’s wise to worship something irrational – something akin to art. To worship anything else is to become a marionette who’s strings are pulled by a desire to signal to everyone that you know a thing or two about apostrophes.
What is Art?
Art is work that we do because we want to. The paradox of art is that it looks like work to other people but it feels like play to the artist. That’s why we call it artwork. We are here to make art. We are here to do artwork. We are not here to nitpick. Nitpicking is easy. It doesn’t take any effort to nitpick. So it isn’t art. Nitpicking doesn’t fall within the idea of God. It’s trite. Art isn’t trite. Art is long. Life is short. And anyone who has time to nitpick has time to make art.
To construe your reality around the worship of anything that isn’t the idea of God is to transform everything and everyone around you into an obstacle in your path; or an opportunity to signal that you worship wealth, intellect, and business. To worship is to lay everything that matters to you at the feet of whatever you worship. What Jung and Wallace are positing is not the existence of a great being in the sky. They’re suggesting that we adopt a mindset that transforms reality into something tolerable, beautiful, bottomless and profound.
There is nothing dangerous about being ambitious. It’s a fine way to live and it’s likely going to bring you and your family a lot of prosperity.
But there is danger in worshiping what you pursue.
It’s okay to pursue wealth.
It’s okay to pursue knowledge.
Worship them at your peril.
What to worship, then?
By all means, get as wealthy as you can. Read as many books as you want. Be as busy with work as you can manage. There’s nothing wrong with pursuit. There’s nothing wrong with having dreams and aspirations. But there’s nothing wise and productive about using people’s mistakes to raise your intellectual standing a little bit higher. There’s nothing useful in believing that you’re the center of the world, that you are the idea of God.
I don’t mean to tell you this to finger wag or to posit that I sit on a higher intellectual throne than anyone else. I’m pursuing wealth and knowledge, but if I worship these pursuits, then I fall into the trap that’s also described in these passages from The Tao Te Ching.
“When the ruler is dull
The folk are happy
When the ruler is busy and alert
They are discontented” – Passage 58
(John Minford Translation)
Consider “the ruler” to be your Self. “The ruler” is your soul, which can also be called your psyche. Consider “the folk” to be everyone around you. Your family, friends, coworkers.
To decide not to worship greed or business or knowledge is to dull your mind. It’s a practice in not fretting over the small stuff. Maybe dull seems like the wrong word. Dull implies stupid. Stupid implies happy. Happiness gets in the way of efficiency. The less efficient, the longer it’ll take to succeed.
Naval Ravikant says that, “it’s inefficient to be unhappy.” It’s inefficient because being unhappy is draining. Unhappiness is what David Foster Wallace meant when he talked about our “default” way of thinking. We default to thinking that the world revolves around us because every experience happens before our eyes. Isn’t it ironic that it makes us unhappy to think that the world revolves around us? Shouldn’t that make us happy? It doesn’t. It doesn’t benefit us to believe that the world revolves around us.
What if we believed that we revolve around the world? What if we believed that we can treat each day as an opportunity to serve people? To share our gifts?
Now consider another passage from The Tao Te Ching.
“The Taoist never
Deals with Greatness
Achieves Greatness.” – Passage 63
(John Minford Translation)
To worship what you pursue is to meddle with grandiosity. This is what happens when people latch onto self-proclaimed gurus. This is what happens when we consider ourselves smart, yet we decide it’s worth our time and attention to nitpick on Twitter.
So, on cosmic scale, this rant is about our work. Why are we doing it? That’s easy to answer, but like any answer spawned in a matter of seconds, it isn’t backed up by a lot of thought. So our answer defaults to: because we’re ambitious and we want to be successful.
David Foster Wallace and Carl Jung suggest that we worship the idea of God so that we can do our work without annoying (or hurting) anyone. Not merely because we’re ambitious.
A Call to Action at the End of an Essay
For a few weeks, try worshiping what you pursue. Construe everything and everyone around you towards the pursuit of wealth and success. I guarantee that you’ll be ignoring calls from grandma. Mother will miss you dearly. You will miss your child’s (virtual) dance rehearsal. You will be a very unhappy clam. And then you’ll say, well, my goal wasn’t to be happy. My goal was wealth and success. And then I would say, okay, that’s fine. You can have your stupid goal, but just be aware of the consequences of this choice, do whatever makes you happy. And then you’ll say, well, you’re not listening – I don’t want to be happy. And then I’ll realize that we’re going to be stuck here for a long time and so this conversation is over. You can learn the lesson on your own for all I care.
Ultimately, I’m raising these concerns to you so that you can ask yourself what exactly is pulling your strings. It’s fine to pursue success. But success is only a word. A word that needs your definition.
Why do you want to be successful? What does that mean to you, exactly? Can you work towards your definition of success without suffering stupidly? Better yet, can you do so without making other people suffer stupidly?
Can you succeed in a way so that other people want you to be successful?
I’m no fucking buddhist, but this is enlightenment.
Thanks to Ben Greenman for helping me make this essay better.