Rationing Ambition

I haven’t posted a blog post in a while so I’m adhering to my own policy of ‘when you can’t find the motivation to do something, lower your standards’ for the sake of getting the ball rolling again. I haven’t though too deep into this but I wanted to get my thoughts on paper.

In highschool, whenever an outsider was invited to the school with a motivational success story to tell about how they started a business from nothing, I always felt like something was missing from their message. They were selling an idea of unchecked ambition: no matter who you are, you can succeed with enough hard work. This message always failed to land with me. Yes it’s true that you miss every shot you don’t take, but has anybody bothered measuring the psychological impact on a person who, thanks to realistic goals, continually fails? Have any of these motivation speakers heard of survivorship bias?

At some point either in year seven or eight, I missed the end-of-day school bus and had to wait an inordinate amount of time for my mum to come and pick me up. As I waited and watched countless cars pass the school, something dawned on me. Only some tiny fraction of the adults driving these cars would have professions that matched what all my friends aspired to. In fact, truth be told it was less aspiration and more expectation. ‘I’m gonna be a lawyer, I’m gonna be a doctor, I’m gonna be an actor’. As far as I was concerned, I was gonna be an author. By that time I hadn’t yet fallen in love with programming and so creative writing was still my passion. But I hadn’t really questioned the plausibility of a writing career until that moment. And that’s when it hit me. The vast majority of highschoolers are dead wrong about the chances of achieving their dreams. A tiny minority, through some combination of hard work, intelligence, and opportunity, have a shot.

So I started working my ass off to ensure I wasn’t going to miss out due to the hard work factor, and even though my interests changed, I’m happy with where I’ve landed in my career. But what about everybody else who worked hard to achieve their aspirations and failed? Does the former-future-famous actor regret the time they spent honing their craft when there wasn’t any chance of landing a role as an extra in an episode of Neighbours? Could they have benefitted from some tough love earlier on in their journey? Or are they without regret, finding peace in the fact that they gave something their all and so their failure is no fault of their own.

Maybe some unreleastic ambitions are more harmful than others. ‘Shoot for the moon, even if you miss’ll you land among the stars’. How about landing in student debt? Universities will not tell you if you’re going to graduate into an industry with an oversaturated labour market. They’ll tell you how their course gets you access to the people who can help find you a job and how you’ll make connections that can help you throughout your career, but they won’t tell you the odds that A) you’ll be good enough to get picked from among your cohort and B) whether you’ll get picked for what you’re studying for, as opposed to some tangential but less meaningful job. Why would they? Not only do they make money off the ambitions of their students but what happens if they constrict the size of the cohort and turn away less-promising candidates early on? They might inadvertently turn away a future prodigy!

The tragedy of the talented individual who shows promise but doesn’t get an opportunity has taken a privileged position in our minds over the tragedy of the typical individual who shows little promise but gets their time and money wasted anyway, because nobody gives them the facts. Though it is impossible to create a system which prevents both tragedies, the closest idea I’ve encountered for college admissions is one where we restrict the size of the cohort, then fill up half the seats with the highest ranked admissions, and fill the other half randomly (above some minimum quality threshold). That way we prevent an oversaturated labour market with a realistically sized cohort, and we maximise opportunity for those with the most promise, while taking a chance on some students whose applications might have been unimpressive due to low SES or family issues. The point is that we don’t take that chance on every student who shows up because they deserve better than being unemployed after studying a degree that was doomed from the start.

Maybe my admonition of the education system skirts a deeper issue with our economy. Tyler Cowen’s The Great Stagnation posits that American wages have stagnated since 1973 and advances in the tech sector have distracted us from a far greater trend of slowed innovation and growth. Our increasing population with its huge demographic shift away from agriculture to urban professions has left millions educated but lacking opportunity. The internet has concentrated the earnings for information-based fields like art, music, and creative content into the hands of a tiny minority, and credential inflation has plagued our workforce on a global scale with stories of South Korean janitors needing college degrees.

Intellectuals like Eric Weinstein and Peter Thiel believe that institutional rot is behind the slowed innovation, but I’m convinced we’ve simply picked all the low hanging fruit and it’s going to be a very long time before a technological advance as big as the transistor creates a new era of economic growth and opportunity. And I’m yet to hear a cogent explanation of why anybody should be excited about quantum computing. It seems to me the next big thing will be Artificial General Intelligence, but although AGI will put our economy on steroids, it’s also going to put human self esteem on life support as the value of human labour goes to zero.

Likelihood of AGI aside, if you take for granted that now and in the medium term future something is deeply wrong with the world economy and opportunity is in short supply, what room does that leave for individual ambition? Should we be nurturing the ambition of a select group of gifted students, while cultivating a focus on community and family in everybody else? Should we be encouraging students to channel their ambitions in ways that don’t depend on economic opportunity? I don’t know the answers to these questions but I think that society needs to decide soon because because when a person can’t find a healthy way to channel their ambition, they’ll find an unhealthy way.

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Less and less certain of my opinions with every passing day

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