Notes on Ambition

Maybe it’s the return to regular bicycling or Dad’s recent passing or maybe just part of closing in on 40, but I’ve been giving a little more thought to the “what does it all mean” questions. Here are some scribblings I’ve been filing in the “Drafts” folder of my blog. Feel free to comment.

The thing I love most about America is its “can-do” spirit.

I remember my former housemate Paul telling me about a book he’d been reading about Charles Babbage’s experiences in trying to turn his ideas for programmable mechanical computing machines — engines, as he called them — into actual working devices. Babbage often lamented that a Briton, when presented with a revolutionary engineering idea, will come up with all sorts of reasons as to why it won’t, can’t or shouldn’t work. On the other hand, he said that an American would probably try to brainstorm three or four different ways that the idea could be turned into reality.

Cory made a similar observation a couple of years ago during a reading at a local library.

“America’s simultabeous best and worst quality,” he said, “is

that it’s the only industrialized country where ambition isn’t frowned upon. If

you were to end washed up Robinson Crusoe-style on the East River and

declare to the natives that you wanted to start a media empire that

would grow to crush Rupert Murdoch’s and in the end do the thinking for

most people in the developed world, the natives would gladly direct you

to nearest investment banker.”

“If you tried that in Europe,” he continued, “the natives would think you were a complete lunatic. The way to win them over would be to tell them that you

wanted to start a modest little publishing house that printed quaint

little stories that would garner a small but elite readership of the

type of people who hung out in the pub where Tolkien and C.S. Lewis

gave each other wedgies.”

A colleague of mine who’d recently come here from Europe remarked that he was working on adopting “a more American attitude” to big business, by which he meant being more gung-ho and competitive.

“Mix it with that European attention to detail and you’ve got a winner,” I told him.

One of our group that helps put together DemoCamp, Albert Lai, recently blogged about the attitudinal difference between Accordion City and Silicon Valley. While I do have some gripes about the Valley (it’s mostly burbclaves, office parks and strip malls, and you could accurately rechristen the area as “Aspergerpalooza”), Albert points out that our version “thinking big” is peanuts compared to their “thinking big”: we thinking “let’s become a moderately big player in our field”; they think “let’s be number one”. I’m with Albert — one of my few complaints about Canada, my adopted home, is this “go for the bronze” attitude.

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