8 min read

With Ambition Comes Insecurity

With Ambition Comes Insecurity

In May 2018 I began writing an entry titled The Exclusive Club. Labeling it an entry is a stretch since I wrote a total of 88 words, the last two being "The Stev", which is a peculiar way to start a sentence and to end a work. I started the piece after reading an Elon Musk biography which consequently brought forward insecurities of not doing or being enough. I read the biography to be inspired by Musk's intellect and success but couldn't help be frustrated by my lack of in comparison. The Exclusive Club was meant to be an angsty essay about how intelligence exhibited in childhood was a precursor to success. I claimed that the success of intellects such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates could be traced to the pure genius they demonstrated at an early age. Musk wrote his first software program at age 10 while Gates wrote his at 13. The club comprised of members that were exceptional and predetermined to change the world.

That was the idea at least. But I know now that I never truly believed in the premise of the work, it was largely a confession of my lack of childhood genius. Like many, at 18 I was blindsided by the difficulty of college and confronted with the reality that I wasn't a generational talent. How could I possibly change the world with a 7/15 on my physics exam? In the final sentence of The Exclusive Club entry I write:

"The greatest innovators and thinkers all have one thing in common, they’re gifted, and such feature is apparent throughout their lives." (ew)

Obnoxious and vapid writing aside, it's apparent that whatever I did plan to argue further wouldn't have been very compelling. No amount of declarative claims can obscure the truth that the exclusive club was an imaginary group of hand selected idols based on a weak argument more concerned with who was not in the group rather than who was in it. And who was not in it? Me, of course.

The Exclusive Club entry. I'll save you some suffering by redacting the rest.

I mention this writing entry to of course share what I've learned, but mostly to highlight what I still struggle to accept. That is, the fact that I am not innately exceptional, a genius so to speak. Lily King articulates this perfectly in Writers & Lovers by writing about how men expect a destiny of greatness and fame, delusions of which sprout in childhood and are reared into adulthood. King writes:

"Nearly every guy I’ve dated believed they should already be famous, believed that greatness was their destiny and they were already behind schedule. An early moment of intimacy often involved a confession of this sort: a childhood vision, teacher’s prophesy, a genius IQ. At first, with my boyfriend in college, I believed it, too. Later, I thought I was just choosing delusional men. Now I understand it’s how boys are raised to think, how they are lured into adulthood."

And who am I to disagree with King? Months ago, when I read that paragraph, I stopped and shivered at the brutal truth of her words. I believed, and still sometimes do, that I'm destined for greatness and anything short of it is a personal failure. I'll push back a bit and extend the camp to not just men, but in general, to the ambitious and driven. These people put in 60 hours instead of 40, sleep 5 hours instead of 8 and pile responsibility after responsibility all to chase the elusive goal of success or even just worthiness because not doing so would certainly mean surrendering their destiny. Ambition must exist in the path to personal success but whether that ambition should be fostered by beliefs of entitled greatness is questionable.

The same ambition that fuels many can also be a source of great insecurity. Ambition left unchecked may lead one to either struggle to relinquish delusions of predestined success or wallow knowing that such success was never predestined to begin with. Regardless, the result is a gnawing insecurity over whether what your doing is enough or worthwhile in comparison to others.

Reflection upon The Exclusive Club helped me realize that my ambition set my idols as distorted standards for success. Mentally, as I aimed for greatness, my accomplishments were stifled by insecurities of worth. With my idols as a standard for success, a compliment by a professor or an internship return offer held little value. When one looks up to these exceptional idols their perception of success and meaning becomes tied to innate ability, originality, and boundless expertise. With that trio, no wonder with ambition, insecurity closely follows.

Recently, a friend of mine questioned if I ever thought about my intelligence compared to scientific greats such as Einstein and Feynman. I admitted that I sometimes do, to which she replied, that thinking about her own raw IQ dejects her and thus, she vows to never take an IQ test. She is ambitious, inquisitive, and will, no doubt, do great things in the future but falls prey to using innate ability as the barometer for worthiness.

The biggest dilemma with doing so is that it oversimplifies what constitutes a good life, a broad and personal goal that certainly isn't only determined by IQ. Fine, it is difficult to argue against Einstein's 160-180 IQ as not a meaningful contributor to his intellectual contributions. But are intellectual contributions the only relevant factor when determining our worth? Innate ability doesn't guarantee emotional stability, successful relationships, or happiness, all of which are likely somewhere in everyone's definition of a successful life. Ironically, we idolize the best parts of our idols, while ignoring the best of our own. We focus on innate ability, because in comparison, ours falls short, yet, when we evaluate the other factors of a successful life, we rarely turn to those same idols. We focus on the genius of historical (and present) greats while failing to consider their entire personhood. In some letters, Einstein was portrayed as a poor father, cruel husband and an adulterer, while other demonstrate a degree of familial stability. At best, Einstein's feeling towards his family were volatile, a model which many don't pursue.

To curb insecurities its best to refrain from synonymously admiring our idols and their innate abilities. When we separate the two, we realize that our idols may not be perfect models for success and that even with their innate ability, the life we desire isn't guaranteed.

However, even after squashing fixations on innate ability, our insecurities can grow rampart with obsessions over originality. With ambitions inspired by exceptional idols, not only is innate ability mistaken for our future worth, original, and groundbreaking discoveries are incorrectly used to determine the impact of our accomplishments. Somewhere along the path of ambition, the goal became to be original and as a result we suffer.

Anand Giridharadas partially addresses this idea in Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. In his novel Giridharadas addresses how the global elite perpetuate inequality despite promises of saving the world. Part of his argument includes examples of elites regularly spearheading problems as either philanthropists or startup investors. In it he writes:

"Today’s philanthrocapitalists see a world full of big problems that they, and perhaps only they, can and must put right."


"So [young people’s] activism is not going to be to get the government to do things. It’s going to be to invent some app, some way of solving problems separately. And that’s going to work."

Giridharadas highlights delusions of saviorism and originality present in today’s elites and by virtue, young people too. Whether it’s to make an impact on the world or simply to find self-worth, we think the best solution is the original one. I, myself, often think that to be enough I had to either discover or invent. And while Giridharadas proposes for social change through exposing the elite and seeking to tear down institutions (read his book for more information, it was quite dense for me, so I only read about half of it), I propose a simple solution to fight insecurities. I've learned that we should seek creativity rather than originality.

It’s tempting to choose originality over creativity because of its measurable impact on the world. Yes, Einstein fundamentally changed modern physics with the originality of his Annus Mirabilis papers but even he piggybacked off the creation of other scientists with his citations of Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, Heinrich Hertz, Christian Doppler, and Hendrik Lorentz. With that in mind, his contributions were only possible with his own creativity. The biggest difference with creativity and originality is that creativity acknowledges that ideas and thoughts can be remastered uniquely, a basic understanding, but one that we ignore when reflecting upon our contributions.

When I was interning as a data analyst in the fall of 2020, I found myself downplaying my contributions because they weren’t “original”. As an analyst I borrowed code from team members and the internet (shoutout to Stack Overflow) regularly which I thought meant my contributions weren’t truly mine and certainly not meaningful. However, when viewing programming as a creative endeavor, contributions, even if inspired by others, become unique. Yes, my work was not made 100% from scratch, but without my input and approach, it wouldn’t exist at all. This realization allowed me to appreciate what I did possess. When we strive for creativity, we acknowledge that our own personal input and thoughts are worthy. Pursuing creativity allows us to use existing tools in manners that only we can.

Lastly, one of the most difficult sources of insecurity to temper is goals of boundless expertise. Even once obsessions over innate ability and originality are tamed, ambition always calls for more knowledge- a reasonable venture alone, but dangerous when motivated by thoughts of inferiority. I often find myself frustrated with not knowing enough. I feel these frustrations when I struggle to articulate opinions and even more so when I’m faced with a new topic.

This blog post is a direct example of this. I deliberated on whether I had enough expertise to write about the observed sources of insecurities that followed ambition. On one hand, maybe a degree in psychology or interviews with experts would make me worthy of discussing the topic. Or maybe this unrealistic goal of worthiness grows from a desire of boundless expertise that is unattainable to begin with. Personally, I sided with the latter. Whilst those tools would’ve likely strengthened my arguments and writing, I’ve realized that perfection shouldn’t be the objective.

Of course, there are times in which more knowledge should be sought before an opinion is made (I think more of that should be done, actually). But I've found that the ambitious seek more expertise with the preconception that they don't have enough. Luckily, there's comfort to be found in gaps of knowledge. My former lab PI at UF professes that knowing what we don't know is knowledge in and of itself. Rather than harboring over what is unknown, appreciate the fact that we do know the bounds of our own knowledge. By knowing those bounds we have full control to further our own expertise and to create within and at the border of it. This blog post is me creating at the border of my expertise. With this mindset, I’m able to quell frustrations of not knowing with the realization that I’m learning.

To this day, I struggle to define what a successful and meaningful life looks like for myself. At 18, success was defined by a CEO position, a Nobel Prize and an immortal legacy. Today, I'm mature enough to constantly redefine it as the world and my values change. I would be lying to claim that I don't wish for thousands of blog readers, because I do. But the major mental shift now is to have these ambitions without the insecurities. I am not a generational talent with innate intellect, but I am my own unique self. I won’t invent a new branch of physics through sheer originality, but through creativity I'll contribute to the world. And I am not imbued with boundless expertise, but I'm emboldened to know my own bounds and ever driven to push them forward. With ambition may come insecurity, but how long it follows is entirely up to us.

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