Tag Archives: career success

What’s bad about ambition?

Thomas Hobbes defined ambition as the ‘desire of office or precedence’[Leviathan, 1651].

The online OED elaborates ambition as the ‘ardent … desire to rise to high position, or to attain rank, [or] influence’ or a ‘strong or ardent desire of anything considered advantageous, honouring, or creditable’.

As few people would admit to ardently desiring anything just because it is ‘considered advantageous’ ambition has a bad smell about it. The ambitious person seems self-seeking and self-obsessed.

But we should distinguish between motives and effects. The surgeon whose only motive is to laud it over his friends may well save more lives than his colleague who aims only to treat whoever happens to be put in front of him.

If people’s ambitions can be aligned with general or social benefits we may not worry about the sort of person who might say that his ultimate ambition is for an obituary in The Economist (as is alleged to have been said in an interview at Goldman Sachs).

However, we might worry quite a lot about whether people’s ambitions are in fact well-aligned with social or general benefits. And on this the evidence is ambiguous. To illustrate: on May 21 2009 The Economist carried the obituary of Velupillai Prabhakaran a Tamil terrorist leader who trained women to ‘strap explosive belts underneath their dresses, a branch of warfare he had more or less invented.’

The fame analogy

People might want things that require fame. The actors who aspires to an Oscar must also be ‘box office’. This require that millions of people know who they are and so necessitates some level of fame. But only the very odd want fame for its own sake. As Ricky Gervais once said, if all you really want is fame, kill someone.

More specifically, if there is no independent reason for which you want to use fame, desiring fame is less than human. Fame has conditional value: its’ value is determined by the reason for which you seek it.

Ambition is similar. If there is no independent reason why you ‘desire to rise to high position, or to attain rank, [or] influence’ you might not care what you do to achieve it . You might manipulate, cause harm or do whatever it takes to advance and maintain your position.

Politicians are perhaps the best illustration of this. On Wednesday they insist that the contrary of what they sought on Monday is a vital national interest despite the world undergoing no change on Tuesday.

In 2012 the UK Prime Minister David Cameron was sceptical about the value of a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. By early 2013, after several members of his own party sat on him, a referendum became a vital national interest.

But politicians must wait for another day. Our focus is narrower: if you seek success, but think very little about why, you cannot know whether your life is worthwhile.

The life worth living

We all worry about this, and given the amount of time we spend at work, questions about the value of our professions inevitably arise. This is more obvious for arms traders but is relevant to us all.

A failure to reflect adequately on the value of your work can lead to psychological crises. The person in their late-40s at the top of their profession, aware of the personal costs this has required, can suddenly be overcome by the banality of 25 years devotion.

And imagine how you might react if a person honestly said ‘I have never wondered whether my profession is worthwhile’? Of course, your reaction would depend on the person’s circumstances.

If he is a first generation immigrant with five children, you may respect him for putting aside personal considerations for the sake of his family. But if he is well-educated, and could have chosen from a number of well-paid professions, you may conclude that there is a hole where his character should be.

Why does this matter?

If you seek advantageous things, but do not reflect on why you seek them, then, whether your life is worthwhile will be determined by things about which you are unaware.

You will rely heavily on the dominant social norms of your society to align the personally advantageous with the worthwhile.This is a big gamble.

Of course, like the surgeon, your life might turn out to be worthwhile – but only coincidentally. Is this enough?

Are you talented? Well, how like soccer is your profession?

Sport, in particular soccer in England, can shed some light on how important individual talent is to success in different careers.

For more than a generation the England soccer team has been ethnically mixed. Some of the best players we have produced are non-white. But the ethnic mix of coaches and managers is less impressive.

Currently, there are three black managers in professional football in England. This is 3% of the total and is broadly typical of the last 20-30 years. About 20-25% of professional footballers are black; and this has been the case for about 20 years.

Racism may well explain this anomaly but, if so, another problem arises: if soccer is racist why are there so many black players? Here is one speculative account: talent operates at the level of players but not, or at least significantly less so, at the level of managers. Let me explain.

It is relatively easy for non-experts (or ‘fans’) to determine whether individual players are competent. While many players do ‘unseen’ work, you don’t need to be an expert to differentiate between Ronaldo and Ricky Lambert.

To put the point more starkly: the chairman of your soccer club could hide his talentless son on the Board and no-one may be any the wiser. But if the manager were forced to put him in the team, within one or two minutes several thousand people would have a fairly accurate view of Chinless Wonder’s abilities. And they would happily express their findings.

Second, there is a lot at stake: managers get sacked often. Since about 2002 the average tenure of any professional manager has been below 2 years. In 2012 it was about 1.5 years.

A manager would have to be a complete idiot to refuse to pick non-white players. Frankly, some managers would consider picking a fan-eating alien if it shored-up the defence.

Third, the competition is fierce and there are few barriers to entry. A lot of people want to be professional footballers; it is a global game and it is cheap. Poor kids are just as able to develop the skills as rich kids.

But it is a lot less clear what a good manager is or does. We can point to exemplars – Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho. But all we know is that they have been successful. It is very hard to establish why. It is even harder to determine who, given the opportunity, will be successful or who will be successful in a different context. The turn-over of managers is evidence of this.

In the appointment of managers, then, there is a lot more room for hunch, gut instinct, bias or just straight-forward prejudice.

Does your profession fit the management or playing model?

One common argument in favour of high-reward careers like banking is that, like soccer players, bankers have rare talents and operate in a competitive market.

But, whatever happens in the future, it will not turn out that Ronaldo could not play soccer – that somehow all those free-kicks flew into the net because of ‘favorable external conditions’. But, as it did turn out, (formerly Sir) Fred Godwin was an abysmal banker. And no-one seems to have known this in real time.

Equally, compare investment banking’s barriers to entry to soccer’s. A potential investment banker from a favela can fall by the wayside at any level of education simply because the school system is poor – not because of his latent ability. If he does get to a university he needs to hope that it is one from which investment banks recruit – and the probability is against this.

Banking does not operate with anywhere near the same competitive pressures as soccer. But let us not indulge banker-bashing.

How might we tell whether a profession operates on the basis of soccer-style talent?

The mix test: one test has already been alluded to: what is the ethnic mix? To this we can the gender mix and socio-economic mix. If a profession is full of white middle-class men with the same backgrounds, we have reason to believe that hunch, gut instinct and bias determines appointments, not individual talent. For instance, only 19% of FTSE 100 board-members are female.

The inheritance test: if you watch the soccer scores live on a Saturday afternoon the sheer profusion of new and different names is amazing. While there have been Churchills in parliament for over 140 years there have been very few Berahino’s in professional soccer. It is hard to hand on the relevant talent and, as noted, the market is competitive.

Let’s add a second test then: the higher the proportion of second- or third-generation individuals in a profession the less likely it is that individual talent determines success. Connections or cultural fit may be doing significant work.

Politics is one profession that seems to do relatively badly by these metrics. In the UK most legislators are white middle-class men and quite a few are the descendants of legislators. In The Son also Rises: surnames and the history of social mobility Gregory Clark claims that until

‘1800 Norman surnames were eight times more likely than the typical surnames to appear among MPs.'(254-5)
‘[E]ven in the twentieth century, Norman surnames remained over-represented among English and Welsh MPs.'(255)

It does not follow that legislators are selected for reasons other than talent. Perhaps soccer’s conception of talent is inapt in politics. But we are owed an account that explains why.

If talent is decisive for politicians how is this ‘talent’ compatible with failing the inheritance and mix tests? Why, for instance, does it seem difficult to hand on soccer-talent but easier to hand on politics-talent?

There may well be good answers to these questions. I would certainly like to hear them.