Notes on ambition and agency
Or why it's time to start acting
In this post, I’m going to try and explain my frustration with the word ambition, why I prefer the word agency and why exercising individual agency is important.
The technology industry fetishes the word “ambition” – it’s now a prerequisite, alongside other character traits, like grit or intelligence for a successful founder. But like with most complex character traits, assessing what makes someone ambitious is amorphous. Webster’s dictionary defines it as:
“a particular goal or aim or something that a person hopes to do or achieve”.
This definition captures the ‘what’ (a goal or aim) but not the ‘how’ or even the ‘why’. Etymologically, the word ambition dates back to Ancient Rome; to get elected for public office, candidates went around urging citizens to vote for them. The latin word for this was “ambito” from the word “ambire”, a verb meaning literally “to go around”.
In the Roman world, everyone was trying to achieve the same thing. And similarly today, ambitious people continue to covet similar things, like admission to a top tier school, MBA program or a job at a FAANG company. These things that are widely acknowledged as hard and impressive. If you achieve these things, you are ambitious. But I’ve come to realize that being ambitious is different from having agency. Molly Mielke expresses this succinctly:
Ambition means you're motivated to play games that others have already created in the world while agency means you're driven to play a game of your own.
Founders are impressive not because they are ambitious but because they are examples of individuals with exceptional agency. They drive their vision of the future forward. They have an extraordinarily impressive ability to act, act and act again.
There’s this false belief that agency can’t be catalyzed as you get older. Either an individual has agency at an early age or not. I don’t believe that’s true.
In fact, most successful founders start with small expressions of their agency to acquire resources (Airbnb’s canonical example of selling cereal boxes) before tackling bigger challenges (scaling to millions of users).
Sartre’s existentialism teaches us that we are responsible for the directions our lives take and we must take full responsibility for our actions. Whether you believe Sartre or not, the reality is you have two options currently: doing nothing or doing something. I’ve come to realize that the purpose of life is to get your shit together, recognize your agency and start acting.
It can feel like the problems facing us currently, from climate to inflation, are too great for anyone to solve. But there’s a false dichotomy here that if you can’t fix all the grand problems in the world, then you can’t do anything at all. We all have the capacity to change and improve our immediate situation. Often that means starting with small ways to exercise agency over your environment — bringing people you love together, going for a run, or limiting substances.
The future is malleable. The better you get at exercising your agency, the more you’ll have the ability to shape it.