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On ambitious goals, expectations, and false wants

What follows is an excerpt of an email exchange. The identity of my correspondent shall remain private.


I want to start this email saying that i have no experience with emails, i actually don’t even have much experience with formal talking in that language of choice.

There is no need for formalities. What matters is to communicate your thoughts in a clear way. The reason I say “my name is Protesilaos, also known as ‘Prot’” is to hint at this preference of mine to focus on the substance.

I recently read your post: “On the frame of mind for university and career choices”, were you talked about how we should define our priorities first, and proposed a tought experiment.

I liked it, but i have some latent questions that apply to my own context, that is: I am young, I am too ambitious, I am kind of a prodigee in CS (studying it since 12 but i procrastinated away my 15-18 yrs) but i am also stuck in life.

I notice that you write “too ambitious”, implying that there is a relative increase compared to whatever baseline. We can think of it as an exaggeration that deviates from the mean and which you already recognise as problematic. Let’s continue with your points and I will revisit this theme further below.

I have my own habits in place, my own routine and my own non-cs related goals, every single day i wake up, read some pages of a book, meditate, learn some new words of german (and practice grammar weekly), then do nothing for a while, then a alarm rings and i practice maths, then i practice programming, and after that i just procrastinate the rest of my day; i do that every single day, in that exact order. Yes i do all that, habits make it easier but it got a price, a time-price and also means i can’t do much more, no college, no work.

Your habits seem to be keeping you focused on what you like and help you stay productive. Taking breaks between studying is perfectly fine and should actually help you return to the task with greater enthusiasm.

The time-price, or what the economist would call the “opportunity cost”, is inherent to everything we do. Whatever is always present cannot have a moral quality, because the valuation we make of it cannot affect the underlying mechanics: its presence is not a function of our conception of it. For example, if we say that the speed of light is bad for whatever reason, that moral view is pointless as it cannot change the speed of light. Morality is pertinent when it applies to magnitudes whose use-value and context-specific function is contingent on the human factor. For more on this matter, read/watch my presentation on conventions, relativism, and cosmopolitanism (2022-02-21).

It follows that we cannot have regrets for the very presence of the opportunity cost. There is nothing we can do to remove it. What we can control are the choices we make when facing trade-offs or configuring our preferences accordingly. Something will always have to give. The key is to find the right balance.

But i am young college-age but i never got into college because i was a bad student, i want to be very-good, no, i want to be EXCELENT in CS CE and MATHS, i want excelency, nothing less, but the only college i can afford and the only i can pass the tests is a college that is considered to be weak in my country, it’s weak in the sense that: the professors aren’t that good, the curriculum isn’t that complete, and it’s too easy (which is bad for learning evidence says).

Wanting to be excellent at something can be both a virtue and a vice. The distinction between the two rests on the correspondence between ambition and ability. If you are indeed competent, then excellence is a lofty goal that motivates you to insist on what you are doing and become better at it. Otherwise it is a pernicious delusion, a fleeting dream whose continued pursuit will only harm you as it will always keep contradicting your underlying condition.

I am not aware of the evidence you allude to. My approach to every scientific finding is to consider the methodology. Did they focus on students who only followed the curriculum and did not study anything else outside the classroom? How do they even create the appropriate laboratory conditions for this to be reliable? How can a student isolate the stimuli between the class and everything they learn outside of it, such as through their hobbies, and report accurate data? And how can the researcher draw those fine delineations with precision? Are there differences in character, cultural background, self-selection that are accounted for and is the weight assigned to each of them correct? While I do not know what this evidence is and am not an expert on the subject matter, I must voice my scepticism given the available information.

The truth is that no college will do the work for you. The professor will ask you to read from a textbook and expect you to provide valid answers during an exam or term paper. You can fake knowledge by parroting it, which is the norm in our current schooling system. That will make you a “good student” per your high grades. Though you will not learn how to think critically about evolving circumstances that bring about states of affairs which the textbook either did not consider at all or mentioned in passing.

What I am hinting at here is that your pursuit of excellence is neither limited to nor exhausted in the college you pick. If you are a prodigy, as you wrote, then you will be able to learn without acting like a parrot and then you will be in a position to provide new insights and think for yourself. For as long as the college is not actively inhibiting you, it is irrelevant in this regard.

Which brings me to two conceptions of “excellence”: the formal or nominal and the substantive. Formal excellence is all about social status, else prestige. You go to a fancy university typically because your family is well-off (the exception of a genius notwithstanding) or were lucky to be born in a given culture/milieu, and are automatically considered a cut above the rest. Some of the last few Greek prime ministers all graduated from Harvard. On paper, this makes them ipso facto excellent. In practice, they are the scions of dynasties who have all the requisite connections and clout to create the appearance of sophistication. I do not consider any of those prime ministers to be excellent, let alone geniuses.

Substantive excellence must then be one which is devoid of pretences to intellectuality. It is about leading something to perfection and doing it in earnest. Insofar as you are concerned, this means that you will have to conduct yourself with the necessary rigour to reach the heights you aspire to in computer science and mathematics. A good college might help you get started or, perhaps, take a shortcut but do not make the mistake of thinking that a prestigious college will spoon-feed you excellence and you will simply be great by association. You have to earn it.

How do i deal with that ? is that really a priority issue ? i am a ambitious person with too many goals inside a college made for non-ambitious people. should i quit the weak-college and try to enter in a excelency-one ?, even if it costs 2-3 years of my life of studying and not earning any money ?

The focus should be on what you do, not whether the institution is “for non-ambitious people”. Here I am assuming that the college is not fraudulent in that it has been certified by the state to provide its services. As such, it cannot be outright inappropriate. If so, then I wonder if it truly inhibits your ambition or this is some rationalisation you have come up with to conceal your sub-par performance compared to the excellence you proclaim. For as long as the college provides you with a setting where you can study in peace, I find it unlikely that it is holding you back.

This situation calls for sincerity. Is your ambition aligned with your actuality. Is it a virtue or a vice, as I mentioned earlier? Are you really a prodigy? And what does it even mean to be a prodigy? Is it about high grades in a formal education setting? Or is it about ingenuity which, for whatever reason, might not be expressed in the framework of higher education? It is entirely possible to be brilliant but also a bad student. Though you are the one who knows the truth here. Are you being honest with yourself? Have you made the right assessment of your ability? Or are you engaged in a tacit role-playing game where you try to conform with the persona of the prodigy and must now force yourself to live up to expectations held by your family/friends/peers even though your “inner voice” says you should be doing something else instead? If you are role-playing, that might explain why you think of the college as geared towards people who lack ambition: it is your way out of the persona that your entire being rejects; it is your way of stressing the contradiction between what your disposition is and what your “social you”—the avatar of those expectations—tries to do.

I cannot tell what the answers are, as I do not know you. What I do know is that every smart kid is called a prodigy and is placed under immense pressure to be great, where “greatness” typically implies earning a decent income and having the concomitant social standing. This is not the best environment for talents to flourish. It forces a tokenistic mindset on how we treat people as a function of their job and social status. It thus remains limited to the surface level. Appearances can be deceptive, just as with those Greek prime ministers who are neither excellent nor geniuses despite all the pretences, degrees and certificates cum laude, and oodles of money to the contrary.

If you can quit and go to a better college without disruptions, then do it. 2-3 years is a major investment in time and you must also consider the state of your finances. Again though, notice the distinction I made between formal and substantive excellence and focus on the factors you control right now, not some imaginary future version of yourself who necessarily operates in idealised conditions. The “here and now” must always come first. We have a tendency to formulate a romanticised view of an alternative timeline where everything just works perfectly. The problem with such timelines is that we forget to factor everything that makes our actual condition more difficult than its idealised counterparts. In other words, it is easy to trick ourselves into believing a sweet lie.

And also, entering in a college means 8 hours less in my days, which means i will need to trade out one (or some) of my habits in the routine i outlined, which makes me feel sooo bad, i don’t want that, i really wanted that routine to lasts decades, not months!

To me this implies that you do not really care about the role-playing game. Your problem is not the “college made for non-ambitious people”, as you described it, but the socially-imposed requirement of getting a degree from a prestigious higher education institution. You really struggle with the fact that you cannot pursue your own desires and are instead forced to do something you find dull and incredibly boring.

In case it is not clear from what I do, I am the sort of person who does not care about social standing, what my family and friends think I should be doing, whether I have a career and am successful, et cetera. My opinion is that if something persistently feels wrong for you, then there is a high chance it actually is incompatible with your constitution. You have the option to do what you want and quit the role-playing game.

The tricky part is to earn a living. If you are fine with doing whatever job is available and then dedicating your time to your passions, then go for it and assume responsibility for the consequences of your actions. If, however, your priority is a stable income then you have to make sacrifices: set your hobbies to the side and focus on whatever money-making requires, such as acquiring a degree from a prestigious university.

I know those are all personal questions, but what philosophy can say about this type of problem ? The problem that: I am too ambitious, i feel i am in the wrong place, and life… life just goes away too fast.

The most important lesson is to be honest. Wisdom consists in remaining open to the truth. There is no faking it.

I mean this in the everyday sense of not deluding yourself with false wants and claiming things to be different than what they actually are, but also in the sense of remaining inquisitive and dubitative: if you are committed to the truth, you have the courage to accept that your prior beliefs are wrong when new evidence indicates you should reconsider your position. The philosophically minded person is honest by remaining open to the possibility of finding the truth. It is not about the answers, it is about the disposition.

Honesty is what you need right now. You wrote in your email that you are “too ambitious” and you also described a conflict of different sets of desires. You have to muster the strength to examine all the factors that inform the specifics of this case. You cannot have everything. Whenever you face an inescapable trade-off you have to forgo something. Are you truly “too ambitious” or are you really suffering from peer pressure and would rather throw it all to the wind and do what your being desires?

I am sorry if i am not following proper email hygiene or ettiquete, or if i was not formal enough. – Mr. WannabeStoic

Again, no worries about etiquette. I am as relaxed as it gets. To me, being pedantic in the wrong context, or trying to win a pointless argument for the sake of declaring yourself a winner, is a sign of foolishness.

In conclusion, I have to comment on the “WannabeStoic” part. I still have not studied the stoics, though I get the impression that Zenon of Citium (and every other philosopher for that matter) would nudge you to recognise how things stand and become “WannabeMY-TRUE-SELF”. What your “true self” is remains elusive and subject to change. No school of thought has all the answers. The key is your attitude.

[ Read/watch: Ataraxia, moderation, and mysticism (2022-02-16) ]

Understand the objective magnitudes and how your subjectivity perceives of them. You can only ever do what your being renders possible. Only once you figure out what its potential is, will you emancipate yourself from the kind of struggle you go through. You will be free from conflicts, such as the one you outlined herein, once you overcome the hypocrisy. To be clear: I am not blaming you for being a hypocrite. We are conditioned to pursue roles that are not consistent with our actuality. It is why philosophy is a way of living: you have to change who you are in order to be a friend of wisdom.