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Ambition & Choosing Something Sufficiently Epic.

There have been a few of moments on this trip of mental battles between having a goal versus being content in the present. Some research says that having goals means you’re more likely to be unhappy (thanks to Jim for pointing this out), whereas other research says goals encourage happiness.

A week or so ago I locked up the bike in a Winnipeg basement and was invited to Silicon Valley for a couple of days for the Evernote Conference, and there was a moment that came close to nailing one side of the goal/contentment dilemma on the head. A point that applied to something much wider than the technology context it was set within. It was about being driven by a grand, epic mission.

For reference, watch this recent video of Louis C.K. talking about emptiness. Louis talks about a moment when he realised he has a massive empty feeling inside. Forever empty – a moment of realisation that, really, we’re all alone and this life doesn’t really mean anything, because we’ll be gone soon. Louis is hilarious and it’s obviously lighthearted and comedy, but kind of gets to something heavy and depressing in parts too.

At the event, Evernote’s CEO Phil Libin talked about what his fuel is. What gets him out of bed in the morning and provides focus, motivation and drive. And it’s the polar opposite of Louis‘ thoughts. He expressed the view that there’s no reason to have that emptiness if you choose a mission that’s sufficiently epic. You never have to be forever empty if you’re confident that you’re on the path to making a sufficient dent.

His specific example of epic was the company motto – helping everyone “remember everything”. Of course an epic mission doesn’t have to mean a goal of ubiquity, but it’s impossible to argue that a hundred year plan that strives to reach everyone is anything short of epic.

An ambitious mission potentially keeps us hungry, humble, and improving, because it’s not going to be finished anytime soon, we’re always learning, and we have to get better to have any kind of chance.  For the above example, there’s 75 million people using the app. Sounds like a lot, but put it in context of the mission, and it’s really small – there’s 6.9 billion people who haven’t been reached. Suddenly it seems there’s a hell of a lot of work to do. And that’s awesome, because having such a huge goal can bring a team together, trickle and permeate through a culture, is a driver of progress and a provider of fire. There’s work to do, and it’s not going to be done for a long, long time.

Possibly most of us could learn from this kind of ambitious thinking if we experience Louis-type emptiness. Maybe we should stop putting off the epic things because they’re hard, and consider them because they’re hard.

Look at some notoriously difficult missions – from the D-Day Landings, to reaching product ubiquity, to walking on the moon. These kind of missions don’t always work, and there’s bound to be a lot of grand goals that failed which we never heard about, but the ambitious ones – the ones that appear nearly impossibly out of reach – are the same ones that do become meaningful. They’re the ones that make a dent and change how we do things.

Perhaps having an epic mission should be as much a personal driver as a company one. But one that isn’t a project but an overall outlook that takes time. Having no goals seems like a copout, but maybe total achievement of the goal isn’t actually the most important part – rather it’s what we get from working towards it. Either way, doesn’t it seem like something is broken if we stop being ambitious?



Vague Direction: A 12,000 mile bicycle ride, and the meaning of life.
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16 comments on this post

  1. Peter Gold says:

    Hey Dave

    Nice post. Goals are not always about the getting there but making progress. Too often we “live in the gap” and only compare where we are against the goal instead of looking back at our progress. Imagine you stop 100km short of your goal. Have you failed? Where the previous 11,000 a failure? I think not so enjoy the journey buddy; it’s already been awesome :-)

    Peter

  2. Tony says:

    I’ve never undertood the no goals thing. Can’t see how anyone could be motivated to get much done without having a reason that isn’t yet in grasp.

  3. Bill Maylone says:

    lets’ see, the name of this trip is “VAGUE” Direction. is that like, no ambition or not sure where one is going or could it possible mean that
    i know the direction and there is a good possibility that a few unexpected twists and turns may occur. ambition is one of those strange words that we may internalize and wonder about in relation to ourselves, especially in the context of listening to Evernotes CEO. If one is a hot shot ceo and jumps from one activity to another, twenty hours a day, day in and day out, week after week, month after month and year after year, his understanding of emptiness is probably limited to a word he heard and understands as something that goes against all standards of how to create and build a company.

    But, having gone through all that, building and running a company twenty hours a day, his experience of emptiness could be quite profound, although he just doesn’t see it or understand it. Could we say that AMBITION is a western word, with western connotations, like BIG EGO. One does not have to have a BIG EGO to have ambition, one can have big ambition and also have an understanding and experience of humility and emptiness and still go forward. like Lewis C.K. said, at some point you realize the depth of emptiness and become so sad, you just pull over, but then you get back on the road and continue. a good example is Steve Jobs, a Zen practioner, Apple CEO. and he understood emptiness!

    “All thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky.” (Chogyam Trungpa)

    Blah, Blah, Blah hope i didn’t bore you to much.

    interesting post, thank you

  4. Katy M says:

    Ambition is a funny word. It can be healthy when we aim big, but pushing too much for something that’s unrealistic can set us up for failure which is frustrating all round.

    Also ambition and goals are different things I think – goals are achievable with a reasonably clear way to meet them and with an endpoint, we can move from one to another, whereas ambition is much looser and does more to keep us going than it does take us to an actual place or state.

    Being ambitious can be met through a series of goals, like stepping stones, but you might not get to where you originally intended, because ambition adapts. Riffing a bit here but hopefully it makes a bit of sense! Good post – interesting to think about sometimes. Not too much though, ha ha!

  5. Jim says:

    I like Bills reply.
    My last comment may have been misunderstood.
    I believe in goals just am extremely sceptic about the type of goals we set ourselves.

    My struggle at the moment is emptiness too I guess. I phrase it as meaning & purpose. Too often goals are business, money, personal gain… Ego ego… Blah blah and they seem somewhat false and empty.

    I also believe in the greater goal, but at this moment in time I’m thinking maybe the answer lies in setting goals that are for the good of something greater than yourself (this is not meaning religious), something that benefits a wider community in a positive way. We live in a time where I believe we should be focusing on looking after our planet, communities, families & friends etc ‘for the greater good’ so too say.

    So I’m all for goals and also believe its important to look after out individual selves so we are feeling at our best (this may mean some ego goals of course and that’s fine). I do think however that we need a shift in what we view as goals and what impact the outcome has. I’m personally convinced that ‘if I do my bit for the collective goals of community, planet etc that it will bring far more meaning and thus fill the emptiness feeling.

  6. Hi Dave,

    I have had the same dilemmas as all of us but now I am an Old Guy the best I can do is:

    My overall Goal is The Pursuit of happiness.

    This means I can make daily decisions in that direction, like Alice in Wonderland asking the Cheshire Cat at the cross roads which path she ought to take, the Cat with words of wisdom ask where she wants to go she says anywhere so the says take either path then.

    But I realise living in the moment is important and life’s only reality, the past is gone and no one knows the future so be happy in the now.

    Love the posts keep ’em coming.

    Later

    Dave

  7. Jim Cregan says:

    Hey man,

    Great post. Ambition is everything but it doesn’t have to have timelines or even work attached to it. Everything we do in life is a goal, be it cooking the greatest scrambled eggs or bringing up your first child. Ambition makes each goal have a positive outlook, or it’ll be hard to get done. That’s what we do in our business, it’s kind of a case of ‘whistle while you work’. If any of that made sense, that’s GREAT.

    Can’t wait to dive deeper into this site.

    Jim.

  8. […] A comment I left on vague direction blog: (talking about goal setting and feeling empty) http://www.vaguedirection.com/sufficientlyepic/#comment-1261 […]

  9. Robert says:

    Hi Dave,
    I just checked out your website, very cool. I just wanted to say it was a pleasure to chat with you on the side of the road in Upsala On.
    I wish you a safe and exciting ride through the rest of our beautiful province. Enjoy the views of the greatest (Superior) of the great lakes!

    Cheers

  10. Dave says:

    Awesome comments everyone – food for thought!

  11. “everything has a purpose, some people do not, you are extraordinary”

  12. “I was camping outside of town in Gains-vile Florida an had been there for two hole day’s,this morning i had ran out of water for Coffee with empty to full gallon in hand this Coffee tastes great! looks like it’s gonna rain i rainproof the tent with a tart on the outside over the tent an one inside spread through out on the floor getting comfortable as possible in my sleeping bag enjoying the moment! I am just about to fall into a deep sleep i feel something move,i shook both my legs looked around thought nothing of it,few minutes later something is moving between my legs Immediately! i grabbed my balls jumped up looked around again nothing !Laying Flat on my back eyes about to close i hear this Hissing sound near my right shoulder i slowly lifted up the sleeping bag while getting out of it, there was nothing there so i slowly lifted up the tarp and there is a blacktopped and grayish four to five foot snake inside my tent with his tongue hanging out trying to talk to me i did not want to piss him off so i talked back nicely unzipping the door which does not want to open(pisses off) zipper catches an i crawl out of it thinking of what just happened grabbed a long branch,un-used string,wrapped a old dull military knife to the branch, opened the tent and started poking the snake anywhere trying to kill it then i finally struck between the eyes picked it up an tossed it in the tall grass,i began situating my tent again it just started raining and it’s coming down really fast so i feeling somewhat at ease get back into the tent relaxing no worries! i get back up feeling my ass wondering how it and my legs where all wet entirely scratching my head i lifted up the sleeping bag and tarp to see about twenty five holes in the bottom of the tent swelling with water and raining hell Mary i through my hands in the air sat on what was dry for now an thought i should probable get a Move on there’s snakes in here! “Snake Story” B.H.

  13. […] But sure enough, there it was, the northern lights. An awesome surprise, and for a moment, the counter-argument to goal-setting became […]

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