Broad vs high ambitions

Around a month ago, I wrote a little bit about ambition in response to an on-line comment asserting that those who reject long hours of work do so through a lack of ambition. If the comment was not mere trolling, I take the commenter to be referring to the image of an ambitious worker or entrepreneur reaching the top of his or her profession through hard work and good judgement.

Wanting to be at the top of one’s profession might be an admirable goal, even if reasonable people may differ about how many hours of work are required to achieve it or dispute whether it should be done at a cost to one’s health or personal relationships. I probably thought more or less this way myself when I was first studying be an engineer, and when I later worked as a postdoctoral researcher. The outcome of all this study and this research, I could hope, might one day produce great inventions or influential papers, or maybe I could lead my own research group.

I always had side interests in writing and in music, and as my research progressed I acquired additional academic interests in technology and society. When I took work as a tutor during my PhD I found an interest on teaching, which I developed into a part-time and then full-time career when I joined Victoria University Sydney and then the Singapore Institute of Technology. So what does it now mean to be at the top of my profession?

I’ve previously noted that I don’t feel that learning yet another programming language or framework would really develop me much as an engineer (though I occasionally have practical reasons to do so, as when starting a new software development project). I’m probably not at quite the same stage with my teaching though I was finding it harder and harder to get value of participating in yet another teaching workshop while working at my previous institutions. And I’m certainly not there with my writing, and barely started when it comes to running a business.

If I ever feel envious of other professionals, it’s when I read a biography of someone who’s produced interesting software or research, taught interesting subjects, maybe written a book or two or started a successful business, and has some interesting hobby to boot. I don’t envy the amount of money they might make and don’t (much) envy the titles they might hold, but I marvel at how they found both the time and resources to achieve all these things.

Perhaps the major difference between my ambition and that imagined by the commenter who prompted my own comments is that my ambition is very broad while working long hours at a job implies a much more linear ambition, “high” in the sense that it involves climbing a single peak—the job in question—to whatever its summit might be. Perhaps such a person would dismiss me as a dilettante but of course I’ll never be anything other than a dilettante writer or dilettante entrepreneur unless I put some time into these that must of necessity come out of my time spent engineering and teaching.

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