David Heinemeier Hansson

April 25, 2024

The gift of ambition

The Babylon Bee ran this amazing bit last year: "Study Finds 100% Of Men Would Immediately Leave Their Desk Job If Asked To Embark Upon A Trans-Antarctic Expedition On A Big Wooden Ship". Yes. Exactly. Modern office workers are often starved for ambition, adventure, and even discomfort. This is why there's an endless line of recruits willing to sign up to work for leaders like Musk, despite his reputation for being an erratic hard ass. The ambition is worth it. Because real ambition is rare.

It's the lack of ambition that fuels the malaise of a bullshit job. Work so aspirationally underwhelming that it's possible to coast and imagine how the world wouldn't be an iota different if the work wasn't done. A perfect recipe for existential dread and despair.

But while the stereotype of ambition is indeed someone like Elon Musk (or Steve Jobs, before that), I don't think you literally need to aim for Mars to stir the heart of sailors. Nor do I think you need to be as abrasive or demanding, as the stereotype implies. That's the balance we've been trying to find at 37signals since its inception: The vision of a calm company compatible with ambition.

It's not always easy. If you talk for long enough about the fact that 40 hours a week ought to be enough, that vacations should be free of homing beacons, and how it literally doesn't have to be crazy at work, people inside and out your company might soon think that's indeed all there is. That the ultimate goal of the company is to provide a cush and coasting existence. But that's not why I get out of bed in the morning.

The aspiration of a calm company is to me exactly the opposite. To prove how much faster and further you can go if you embrace constraints, stay small, and trust skilled professionals to get the job done. That is, the calm company is a method for getting where we really want to go. It's not a destination in and of itself.

In fact, I'd rather work in place where it was crazy all the time, if we're trying to get somewhere, than I'd work somewhere perfectly calm that's just spinning the wheels. But the point is that I don't think these objectives are in opposition. Being ambitious and calm is like being smooth and fast. Big, erratic, dramatic movements might feel like they're getting you somewhere, but the stop watch usually reveals the opposite.

But what is ambition, exactly? To me, it's a leap of faith. A belief in the possibility of success without all the evidence to justify it a priori. A trust that whatever challenges we'll face between here and there, we'll be able to figure them out. It's a confidence in the strength of human ingenuity. And a bet that it takes a goal just beyond the reach of the plausible to get the best out of us all.

That ambition can be applied to all aspects of a project. The timeline, the people, the problem, the tech. To tickle our sense of adventure, some of it has to be daring and bold. Maybe it's not enough people, not enough time, new tech, novel problems. Whatever it is, there must be an x factor, an unknown. If we can quantify it all before we even begin, the ambition disappears.

And in that lack of certainly lies the discomfort, lies the leap. Betting on your ability to figure it out means taking a risk. Maybe you won't figure it out! Maybe we really didn't have enough people! Maybe we'll fail. But it's exactly the possibility of failure that gives the effort its meaning and its value.

In the lore of Steve Jobs, you'll find plenty of anecdotes from people who really didn't care for how he treated them or their colleagues at times, but who still credit the projects they worked on for him at Apple as the most meaningful ones of their career. I'm sure the same is true with Musk. These encapsulate the paradox that, psychologically speaking, I don't think most people know what makes them fulfilled at work. (But it isn't the ping pong or the free massage.)

Without a dash of the unpredictable, we all wither away. The chase for security and surety only works as a thrill if you never truly get there. Our competency only grows when we stretch it slightly beyond its breaking point from time to time.

So keep calm, yes, but for all that is holy, carry on by being ambitious.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.