Ignore Ambition, Just do Good

[This letter is part of the Little Letter Republic, a project whose purpose is to build community in St. Louis and beyond.]

Dear CeltAtom,

You are curious about how to solve two problems. 1) What types of careers people should be encouraged towards and 2) How “ambitious” one’s career goals should be?

In the interest of first offering a more wholesome approach to the discussion, I think a discussion about “ambition” should come first. There is a perception around here that I am a super “ambitious” person. And from a certain perspective that is fair to say, but that is not how I frame the experience of my activities to myself. We could argue about Christian humility versus ambition, but I think this is a category mistake. We have talents, skills, insights that, having been freely given to us, ought to be freely and fearlessly used. If we begin by saying, how can I best use my current abilities and build my current strengths, then we have the right intention. When we are alert to opportunities to use these strengths, it is not ambition. It is looking for ways to conform ourselves to the Animating Spirit. Providence opens doors to us, and we have to choose whether to walk through them.

My friend Joe passed through St. Louis from Philadelphia last month. He was moving to Phoenix. And he told me the story of how he came into this job. He went down to a Benedictine Monastery in New Mexico for a week to pray and discern and seek peace after the current job he took turned out to be a disaster. He thought he was great at organizing and would be able to run this department despite the management issues. Instead, his boss gaslighted him, refused to delegate, and couldn’t be negotiated with. At the monastery, he and a monk repaired some broken down vehicles, the monk told him he should go to Phoenix and look for a job there. After his monastic stay, he drove a couple hours to Phoenix and applied for a few jobs, found a perfect fit for what he needed to develop himself more, and took it. It wasn’t a question of ambition, but of teachableness i,e, docility, the humility to drink the water offered.

I asked him the same question. Does he worry about ambition getting in the way of discernment? He said absolutely not. “Preparing oneself to do greater things is not pride; it’s preparation. God orders your path. If you try to force things to happen on your own, it is disaster.”

So, when I think about career and intellectual life. I think about moving along my current trajectory and making sure I grow the skills I can, so that I can put them to good use. By “good use,” I don’t mean career use either. Some things I do out an impulse of delight or exploration or familial duty, and those things are good use too.

One the one hand, “Be not anxious for your life, what you shall eat, or what you shall drink…” On the other hand, “There were ten virgins, five foolish, five wise…”. So be prepared to do what you are called to do, and you are called to do the great good you can see yourself doing. Does it help to be caught up in the question of whether some activity is “elite” or “ambitious” or not? These are socialized ways of thinking which are cover for the twin vices of vainglory or sloth.

If we try to do a great good thing and fail, we have still done right and should be willing to try again. If we are successful, it is not us that were successful, but rather things outside our control came together.

I find it intriguing that you both liked the advice in the two 80k articles but were repulsed by the conclusions they drew for what careers are appropriate. “This is a recruiting front for the California rationalists.” It seems to me that you agree with the principles of the two articles but find the general 80k implementation biased. You characterize this bias as being towards 1) expanding civilizational capacity and 2) elite concerns, as opposed to maintaining society and caring about local issues.

I think you are right that there are some important biases to notice here. Ryan Miller at University of Geneva recently wrote an article called “80,000 Hours for the Common Good: A Thomistic Appraisal of Effective Altruism.” In that article he cautioned that EA while it wants to be open to non-utilitarian ethical systems is also committed to a state-of-affairs analysis of ethics. But one can’t have both at the same time, he argues. And thus a Thomistic version of Effective Altruism will have divergent priorities from 80k. While I think that is basically true, I think the difference can be overstated, and what matters to me is the practical version of the question. In other words, what does a Thomistic Effective Altruism look like? Because as of right now, it’s only EA that’s systematically taking data and consequences seriously when thinking about career advice.

If we largely agree with the principles laid out in those articles, then we should still implement them.

But what are the practical implications for what careers people should be encouraged towards? You want to divide careers into two camps maintainer-careers and extender-careers. Let me offer a different framework, one that is more dynamic.

Skills get plugged into roles. Roles get plugged into industries. A person can move into the same role at a different industry, or a different role in the same industry. You do this throughout your career looking for the best good you can do. This process both maintains and extends civilization, and even if we get a few more people willing to switch jobs and think in this way, then will have a society where more people are flourishing. Different industries provide different value as do different roles, but it’s up to individuals to try and figure out where the value is and where their talents lie.

But, of course, people need guidance and culture to help inform them about what is valuable. The BLS tells you that words ending in “engineering” are valuable to society in the sense that they are well financially remunerated. However, the truth about most jobs that pay well is that everything is management. Technical skills get you hired, managerial skills get you promoted (or allow you to start something new). By intentionally trying to do good with one’s career, one is taking responsibility for his own life. Ben Franklin’s Junto or Leather Apron Club fulfilled this purpose in his Philadelphia. I think education (broadly conceived) must prepare people for freedom – and that means responsibility.

As a side note: this is also how an ideal polity works, people need to be able to both direct affairs and be directed for a democratic republic to function. Essential to freedom is responsibility.

There are more ideas to explore in this space. I’m out of steam for today.

Looking forward to more,

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