Clerestory

Ambition

June 11, 2020

I argued yesterday that what interests us straddles the boundary of what we know and what we don’t. Today I’m thinking about how this area expands at a societal level.

Matt Clifford wrote a great piece on the history of ambition as a technology. In it, he argues that literacy (via the priesthood), military command, and finance were previous paths to ambition, with tech entrepreneurship being a modern one.

At first, highly risk-loving individuals forge the path, often as an escape from a stratified society with too few opportunities. Others follow in their stead, and eventually, these once-risky paths become democratized, then institutionalised. (Somewhere hereabouts, it is my current hypothesis that such paths effloresce into a Golden Age.) By institutionalisation, the initial high energy of the risk-loving individuals has moved the mainstream in some way. In the long run, each path declines, becoming sufficiently mainstream that it ceases to seem ambitious, and eventually decays, to be supplanted by subsequent paths.

Even if some zealous individuals still enter the priesthood, or assume military command, or get MBAs, Clifford implies, those paths cannot be said to be at the height of their prestige. And recently, some have even questioned whether the technological path might be past its peak.

I want to suggest that there is an even broader pattern here than there may at first seem. These pioneers might broadly be termed the avant-garde. And I want to suggest that the tension between pushing forward and stabilising results in a sort of selection filter.


I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.