Tension and ambition
Navigating the tension between ambition and serenity. Image courtesy of DALL·E 3.

Ambition is the desire to do or achieve something hard, perhaps something that has never been done before, perhaps something that can’t be done according to conventional wisdom. Ambition is a fundamental part of who I am.1 Serenity is the state of peace and calm that gives me the clarity to get through high-stress situations. My teens and early twenties were marked with severe bouts of self-doubt and depression (a common occurrence, unfortunately), when navigating these hard times I found the Stoic attitude of amor fati immensely useful: a love of fate, and an understanding of our capacity to attribute any meaning to any situation, good or bad. Marcus Aurelius recognized the power of this attitude when he said that

a blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.

Amor fati helped me navigate periods of stress and/or uncertainty, but I recently ran into a contradiction: ambition necessarily requires a desire to change the status quo driven by some kind of discomfort. On the other hand, amor fati is all about being content with whatever happens and interpreting it in the best way possible. Both ideas felt important to me, but I had trouble reconciling the discomfort that drives ambition and the contentedness of amor fati, so I wrote this to describe how I bring them together.

My solution is simple:

  1. Select ambitious goals that challenge conventional wisdom on what can and can’t be done.
  2. Bias yourself towards doing (rather than thinking).
  3. Work as hard as you can, and then embrace amor fati.
  4. Reflect on what you learn to calibrate where you spend time and energy.
  5. Goto 1.

Inevitably, you will find yourself in periods of great uncertainty, particularly when working on something that’s really interesting or novel. I find serenity through these periods by doings things well. When working towards a goal, if I know that I went all-in and pushed myself to the limit, then, at least for a moment, I can sit back in peace and love whatever life throws at me next. Amor fati.

Working hard looks different for everyone. For me, it looks like uninterrupted periods of deep work followed by reflection over any learned lessons. I usually aim to distill my experience into what worked, what didn’t, why that was the case, and what the logical next steps are. I also make an earnest effort to reflect on what I can do better. This can be painful, especially if an idea I developed and worked hard on does not work as expected (or at all). However, these reflections are critical to avoid wasting time by going in circles, and they also help me get a better idea of where my time/energy is best spent.

Periods of reflection should emphasize error-correction, not errors. The former sets you up for unbounded improvement, the latter can quickly become self-destructive. In any case, these reflections should not take up much time (a mistake I’ve done before), lest they shift your bias from doing to thinking.

Select your goals from first principles. If a goal is not prohibited by the laws of physics, then don’t worry about how crazy it sounds, and proceed as if it’s possible unless proven otherwise. This doesn’t mean you should go for any idea just because it hasn’t been proven impossible yet. You should still have a good reason to believe why it may work.2

A related skill is the ability to discern when something is not working. It requires learning the delicate balancing act between open-mindedness and unreasonable stubbornness. Some people think it is a crucial ingredient in the successful development of ambitious goals3, and I think that the only way of getting better at it is to iterate through lots of ideas and never stop learning.

Be an optimist. Optimism will get you through the hard times because it’s easier to come up with creative solutions to temporary roadblocks if you’re optimistic about the driving idea. And, if your idea is ambitious enough, optimism will naturally expose you to massive upsides if your idea works i.e., optimism exposes you to positive Black Swans.

I can’t write about serenity without mentioning the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

My previous thoughts pertain mostly to the acquisition of that elusive “wisdom to know the difference.” Combining ambition and the serenity of amor fati does not mean to search for the ultimate wisdom that can perfectly discern between what can and cannot be changed — I don’t think it even exists.4 Instead, I think it’s about leveraging the driving nature of ambition and the mental clarity of serenity to continually improve our error-correction heuristics.

I’ll end this note with my current ambitions (as of November 2023):

  1. Figure out how to build creative robots that make everyday people’s lives better.
  2. To do so, leverage my background in aerospace engineering and become an expert in control, game theory, and machine learning. Instead of aiming to be better than 99% of people at any single topic, I aim to be better than 90% at all three.
  3. Along the way learn a bit about what makes humans special and why we are so unique.


Thanks to Henry Beer for reading an early draft of this essay.

  • The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch. Read my notes on the book here.
  • Zero to One by Peter Thiel.
  • Deep Work by Cal Newport.
  • The Techno-Optimist Manifesto by Marc Andreessen.
  • The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn.
  • The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
  • Great Work by Paul Graham.
  • Wikipedia on amor fati.
  • The idea of eternal return.
  • Works by Nietzsche like Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Although I’m still learning about Nietzsche’s work myself.


  1. I like to think deeply about many things in my life, but I’ve found that it’s best for me not to dig past a certain point into what gives me meaning. If something feels like it gives me meaning, then it does. It muddies the water too much to try and look too deeply into why that is the case, especially when it’s a feeling I don’t have the technical or intellectual chops to write cogently about. On feelings that give me meaning, I agree with Wittgenstein that “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” This attitude partially originated from very valuable conversations with Dr. Andrea Kowalchuck, who taught an ethics course I took during my undergraduate years at CU Boulder. I love people, I love humanity, and I find meaning in understanding our universe and making stuff that makes people’s lives better. That’s it.

  2. Based on what I’ve read and heard, crazy ideas that end up working are typically found by people with specific knowledge about a particular topic. They’ve spent enough time working on something to find gaps in conventional wisdom and this leads them to pursue ideas that may seem crazy to an outsider. Note that I’ve yet to fully go through this process myself, as I’m still developing my personal specific knowledge, so don’t quote me on this yet and I’ll report back in a couple years.

  3. I learned this idea from the first couple of minutes of this podcast.

  4. Problems are inevitable. Problems are soluble. See my second favorite idea here.