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Ambition and Imagination - Scott Adams' Blog

Ambition and Imagination

I got the flu recently, with all of the usual symptoms. But one symptom fascinated me: I lost all ambition. I didn’t want to work, eat, read, talk, or even exist. For several days I had no long term goals, no short term goals, and no desires whatsoever, except to nap.

I’m a goal oriented guy. I can usually tell you exactly what I want right now, in ten minutes, and in ten years. That’s not always a good thing. It’s more of an itch than a positive quality. Losing the itch, even temporarily, was a strange feeling. It was like inhabiting someone else’s brain for a week.

As soon as my body’s natural defenses overran the flu, my baseline ambitions came flooding back. But it left me wondering if ambition could be directly manipulated by pharmaceuticals. I was the same person when I was sick, give or take some chemistry.

Obviously caffeine and amphetamines can give you the energy to accomplish your goals, but is energy all one needs to have ambition in the first place? I don’t think so, because when I’m tired I still have ambitions; they just seem harder to pursue.

At about the same time, I was noticing that people can exist in the same general place and yet inhabit different time. Some people live for the moment, others are stuck in the past, and some live in the future. You can identify people’s time zones by their conversation. People who live in the past will compare everything now to something that went before, or tell you how the past made them what they are. The lucky people who live in the present will talk about their immediate environment. And the people living in the future will talk about their plans or predictions.

My hypothesis is that your temporal frame of reference gets set when you’re very young. If your earliest years were great, perhaps you get accustomed to living in the now, especially if things remain good for you. If your early life was painful, maybe you focus on the future as a way of escaping the now. And maybe the people who live in the past had good early years and not-so-good adulthoods.

Putting together the first and second part of this post, I wonder if ambition can be adjusted by teaching someone to live in the future. It feels like an entirely trainable skill. If you spend enough time thinking about how things can or will be, I suppose it becomes a habit. And to the extent that you think you can influence that future, perhaps you become ambitious as a side effect.

Obviously it could be the other way around. Maybe ambition is something you’re born with, and having that quality causes you to focus on the future. My guess is that a person’s time preference comes first. And I also believe that imagination is a skill you develop by focusing on the future, whereas a good memory is caused by focusing on the past.

My questions to you: Do you live in the future? And if so, would you consider yourself relatively ambitious and imaginative? And how’s your memory?

Please summarize your answer thusly:

Time preference: future
Ambition: high
Memory: good