Ambition As An Anxiety Disorder

Before this week’s links, I’ll share a brainworm.

The tweet stood out because it reminded me of a discussion with a friend who acts as my “wall to hit tennis balls off of”. When I was 9 months removed from the daily grind, I confessed how my transition into “explore” mode felt uneasy. It’s hard to ignore my guilt-fueled tropisms towards “productivity” even though on an intellectual level I think that impulse is more operant conditioning than Vaynerchukian virtue. My friend was able to spot symptoms of what he calls “Bay Area disease” in the way I was speaking. For example, I’d talk myself out of doing a project that was obviously fun, useful, and educational for others just because it didn’t scale.

This introduced the question of where motivation comes from in the first place. Is motivation simply nature’s response to satisfying our wants (summer is no time for cynicism so I’m not going to get into where “wants” come from)? Eh, I doubt the scatterplot of “motivation” and “wants” meets at a line. Is it possible that what we call motivation is just an anxiety disorder? Is competition just coping?

There’s a quote usually attributed to the G.O.A.T wordcel, Oscar Wilde, that says:

Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.

When I read that, I hear “everything is about dominance” by the property of transitivity. But this only holds if insecurity is the seat of any motivation in excess of the basic motivation to survive. It wouldn’t be controversial to grant that the motivation to merely survive comes from fear. But if the motivation to be “successful” comes from fear, well that undermines the connotation of big words like “lazy”. If it’s status all the way down, then the “lazy” are the free, no?

In an interview with Ferris, Morgan Housel shares this bit about the billionaire Michael Moritz (Sequoia founder):

[Mortiz] was asked by Charlie Rose, “Why has Sequoia been so successful? And how do you succeed for 40 years?” Which is the amount of time that they’ve been winning in this industry. And what he said was, “We’ve always been scared of going out of business. We’ve always been paranoid. We’ve always thought that what we’ve earned yesterday is not guaranteed tomorrow.” And this is for someone who is a multi-billionaire, who has the most success of anyone in the history of this industry. And that’s what he’s thinking about every day, is paranoia and fear.

And if there’s one person in the industry that deserves to be cocky about their skill, it’s someone like him. And it’s the opposite. He’s terrified. He’s paranoid. I think that idea of only the paranoid survive is another thing that you and I can learn from that.

This is resonant. Paranoia not cockiness was the lifeblood of the trading floors. (Yes, there are some cocksure traders but I’m reminded of the line “There are old traders. There are bold traders. But there are no old and bold traders”. The trader who hasn’t been humbled isn’t a trader.)

Competition and paranoia are peanut butter and jelly. I play NBA 2k23 with my kids and when MJ makes a great play someone always references “angry Jordan” (they recently watched Last Dance). That dude fabricated drama to get himself in the right mental state to destroy forgettable adversaries in meaningless regular season games.

All of this leaves me with unresolved questions:

Are you lucky to be born unsatisfied and want more? Is the itch in any way biological?

If it’s anxiety that propels us forward and leads to progress as a society, does ambition get too much, too little, or just the right amount of credit?

When we lionize ambition and medicate anxiety are we just running the A/C with the windows open?

The same traits harnessed for productivity also mobilize our capacity for atrocities. Is there an alternate timeline where Hitler and Churchill are flipped but retain the same inborn qualities?

These tensions feel like the success paradox I described recently. We must act like we are in control even if we know it’s an illusion without letting the self-deception give in to either side decisively. It’s like watching your autonomy duel honesty on a platform over a lava pit. If your sense of agency wins you become insufferable and no honest people will have you. If honesty wins you are calibrated but paralyzed. Powerless. No sex for you.

Philosophy has wrestled with this forever because we are thirsty for meaning. Nobody would come to a play that was a 1 line soliloquy “Sorry, shit’s random”. Instead, we create art in an unconscious quest to reflect on the whims of atoms. The perceived agency of the inanimate.

And if it turns out that anxiety is a necessary (though insufficient) driver of success and anxiety itself is out of our control…well, maybe enjoy the time you have on this rock hurtling through space. The error bars of everything swamp the signal.

I’ll plant this and leave the room: personal politics either reveal our coordinates on these tensions OR how quietly we can sit with our uncomfortable beliefs.

Book Review: Four Thousand Weeks (6 min read)
Sasha Chapin

This short read is the most clever non-book review book review I can remember. I don’t read Sasha because his writing is useful. I read him because his writing is straight dope. It’s always solid even if the topics don’t always interest me but when it hits, it sticks. I don’t usually like sarcasm (“to tear flesh” according to my HS English teacher and I prefer to not fact-check that) but its use here is probably more satire. If I paid less attention to etymology and more on the stuff that would be on the English tests I guess I’d know the difference.


  • your life is being devoured by your effort to use it more effectively.

  • For example. You try to answer email promptly, but find that being better at answering email makes people email you more often. You try to fit in a couple of valuable experiences, but then find that experiences seem thin and shabby when you try to value them. You schedule leisure time but are filled with anxiety about whether the leisure will make you more productive.

  • There must be someone who has figured out how to ride this mechanical pony. Surely there are adults who keep up with the news, their careers, their hobbies, their God, their children, their spouses, the other members of their polycule. Surely someone has figured out how to ride the avalanche of current events. Do they use that new browser? That new revolutionary email system? That person should write a book about how you, too, can have the well-ordered life they do.

Overall this piece stung a bit. A couple weeks ago a friend explained how she had zero guilt binging Netflix for a week though her husband was constantly like “let’s go do X instead of wasting time”. She is a highly productive person by any objective standard. A talented overachiever actually. I couldn’t play video games for a week myself, but as she explained “that’s my baggage to deal with.”

I think she’s right.

It always bears repeating: learning is unlearning.

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