I've been trying to read more fiction this year. It's a different kind of learning than I'm used to. Less about the instant gratification of piercing argumentation or suites of facts and figures, and more about the accidental revelations that happen when you're invested in someone else's story.
Most recently, I charged through 1600+ pages of The Poppy War trilogy by R.F. Kuang and The Queen's Gambit on Netflix (not a book, but still). The former is a dark fantasy based on 20th-century Chinese politics; the latter is a chess drama defined by Anya Taylor-Joy's gorgeous vintage fits and captivating gaze. What both narratives share―and what made them so compelling―is their respective protagonists' all-consuming, self-destructive, heroic intensity.
Rin of The Poppy War and Beth of The Queen's Gambit are both orphans. They are both prodigies. Both young women are ruthlessly ambitious―far more so than their privileged male peers. When they're defeated, they rage. When they hit one peak, they seek the next. We understand that Rin and Beth are victors because they cannot live content; in many ways, these characters are the hedonic treadmill personified. Both heroines also share the same core flaws: a dangerous addiction to tranquilizers (opium for Rin, benzos for Beth); and from the moral angle, their willingness to shun and exploit any meaningful relationships. Rin murders friends and destroys cities on the path to revolution; Beth skates to the top of the chess game without a word of thanks toward those who supported her there.
Yet Rin and Beth are sympathetic characters. We are meant to like them, most of the time, or at least to understand where they're coming from. Their situation is structural as much as it is psychological. That's where the orphan part and the woman part come in: struggle is the origin story to their superhero saga. They are queens of retributive justice, of Hammurabi's code, of the primal satisfaction of I-told-you-so. In her book Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women's Anger, Rebecca Traister traces this spirit back to the animating vision of the United States: "the righteous fury of the unrepresented." Or as the old saying goes, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
Every literary hero has a chip on their shoulder. Every movement leader has a radicalizing moment. There are entire venture capital firms founded on the investment thesis of underestimation, and Steve Jobs was notorious for being unafraid to name his enemies. Intrinsic motivation might be real, but it's so rare to come by: what match does that pose for pure, unfiltered hate?
“Intense” used to be the first word that people used to describe me. During my first couple years of college, this bothered me incessantly. I didn't want to be intense―I wanted to make friends. So I walked into most social situations silently reciting: act chill, act chill, act chill. I was making progress: friends said I seemed happier, less high-strung. Halfway through sophomore year, I quit debate, which had become the primary source of my identity, anxiety, and competitive fervor over the past six years. My mental health had finally hit a tipping point, and I got a vague sense that debate―the constant travel, the competition, the scarily fanatical participants―had something to do with it.
Debate was galvanizing precisely because it makes your goals and adversaries so terribly clear. Beat this team; win that round. Lose to someone three times and they "own your soul," so you better work hard to win it back. During a round, there are no friends, only opponents. Debate was also the first environment in which I experienced (or at least noticed) overt sexism, racism, and classism. This became the chip on my shoulder. It was a perfect storm.
Before she was a breakout literary star, The Poppy War author R.F. Kuang was a champion debater. As a high school senior, she won every big national tournament there was, from the Tournament of Champions in Kentucky to the Dukes & Bailey Award for season-long achievement. (She was a community legend: this is why I read the books.) When Kuang says in an interview that she wrote Rin to embody the most aggressive part of her id, I can't help but think she's talking about debate. Nobody gets that good without a little―or a lot―of fire.
I was never half as good at debate as Rebecca Kuang was. But competing helped me understand the vicious nature of zero-sum games like debate and chess and war. It laid in front of me the personal cost of success, and asked if I still wanted to endure it. When I answered no and finally quit, it was January 2019 and I was coming off the top performance of my debate career and the lowest place my mental health had ever been.
I revisit that choice often. I expect to face many more choices like it. And to be totally, unflinchingly honest: I can't promise that I'll always say no. Study literature, history, or business, and it'll be clear that success and sacrifice go hand in hand. In Scale founder Alex Wang’s “Hire People Who Give A Shit,” he asks: “What’s the hardest you’ve ever worked on something? How many hours were you working?” I scour my mind—my honest response is from 2018. Younger kids have started asking me for career advice, but I don’t know which truth to recite. If crippling imposter syndrome was your motivating fuel, is it fair to tell others to get rid of theirs? Which comes first: the moral or the outrage? Hustle porn is out, wellness porn is in, and both standards feel equally hard to meet.
I spent the last year feeling annoyingly content. Yes, I experience less existential worry; no, I'm not striving for anything either. My daily mood hovers around a six to eight out of ten. Where did the highs go? Where are the lows? I worry I've become less ambitious, I tell my friends. I've started digging into the old chips on my shoulder and inventing nemeses to revive that competitive spark. Maybe it's a shaky path to walk down, but this push and pull and balance and fall seems like an inevitable, eternal truth. I can be good and mad, or good because I'm mad.
🌱 quick life updates
If you're still curious about the debate world and why it was so formative for me, I wrote a longer essay as my final project for my writing class called Reason For Decision. I'd been meaning to write this essay for 3+ years, so it was super cathartic to finally do so.
Reboot’s final book talk of 2020 is this evening. Join me in conversation with Kickstarter founder Yancey Strickler and/or subscribe to our mailing list for book reviews, original writing, and weekly link roundups.
enjoyed the read! this is my first time commenting on a substack :) "I worry I've become less ambitious" is a very familiar thought in my brain...
i've been feeling that inner storm of happiness vs contentment vs anger vs ambition for a long time, and have done a full 180 on definitions of happiness and ambition — and made a lot of progress on the anger! for a few years, i questioned whether i was even an ambitious person, or if i just wanted to think of myself as ambitious bc society and my peers thought of ambition as Good. now, i think the definition of ambition that my peers use is too limited and narrow-minded — i have a lot of drive, and would call myself ambitious, but certainly don't care about a lot of things that classic hoop-jumping "Ambitious" people care about. perhaps something worth thinking about!
"Younger kids have started asking me for career advice, but I don’t know which truth to recite. If crippling imposter syndrome was your motivating fuel, is it fair to tell others to get rid of theirs? Which comes first: the moral or the outrage? Hustle porn is out, wellness porn is in, and both standards feel equally hard to meet."
There's definitely something in the middle of these extremes. Imposter syndrome and the lack of it can be a guide too. They say if you're the smartest person in the room, you're in the wrong room. Similarly, if you're in a room and you don't feel any imposter syndrome, maybe that's the wrong room too?