a paradox of human ambition

We are social creatures. Agreed? Agreed. We owe our success as a species to our hyper-sociability. Evolutionarily, we have secured this most precious sociability by the binding of our moods, motivations, aspirations, ruminations, and egos unseveringly to our kin. This has ensured a sort of “mutual enslavement of humanity”. Or in other words: we serve each other.

The self-serving tendencies of man are merely superficial by comparison to these social shackles. Our species is bound to itself for survival. This should be no surprise to anyone.

Personally, i easily trace the roots of my own actions and ambition to a profound obsession with validation, recognition, respect, reverence, affirmation, etc. All of my existential aches and anxieties stem from the imagined judgments of non-specific/non-existent people. One could take it a step further and suggest that this pursuit of widespread validation (for males, at least) is because the opposite sex finds those with pervasive validation attractive because it implies broader social prowess which implies access to more resources blah blah blah.  That’s another discussion. I want to discuss validation.

Now the paradox.

We are driven to contribution and productivity because we care what other people think. If we didn’t care, we would be seven billion fragments spiraling aimlessly towards a premature death. (If we didn’t care, there positively wouldn’t be seven billion of us either). We would be nails and screws and planks and hammers wasted waiting to be assembled into a structure greater than the sum of its parts. So, why is there such a persistent correlation between irreverence and greatness?  Why does it seems that those who make the greatest contributions to the world are the same individuals who don’t seem to care what the world thinks of them? Why is it that we must overcome our stifling devotion to humanity in order to be the most devoted of all?



8 thoughts on “a paradox of human ambition

  1. “We are driven to contribution and productivity because we care what other people think.” I think not. I think some are driven to contribution and productivity because they care about other people and civilization, period. I also think many, perhaps most, of those who care what other people think are driven to immobility by this kind of caring and never do anything productive at all.

    1. Thanks so much for this. What I want more than anything is to spark a discussion about these things.

      Whether altruism in its purest sense exists, I have no idea. But if it does, I think it derives from an evolutionary place of reciprocity, symbiosis, you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours, which is the oil that greases the gears of a social group and is necessary for it to function.

      I didn’t exclusively mean “caring what people think” in the selfish, egotistical sense nor did I mean we are only driven to productivity because we care what people think about us. I think that what you’re saying about contribution and what I’m saying can easily coexist. We can definitely have noble and selfish motivations at once, and I guess really what I wanted to say was that the two are deeply entwined and even inseparable.

      Back to pure altruism. I do think it’s useful to ask ourselves: how much of what we do would we do if no one ever knew we did it?

      In terms of the paralysis of people who are motivated by what other people think, I can’t say whether I am a productive person or not, but I am definitely one of those people.

  2. I would say that it depends entirely on what somebody hopes to achieve…if you’re setting up ‘Save the Children’ then you need to care what people think, if you’re writing ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ then you definitely do not.

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