There has been a great deal of analysis of how technology will disrupt life in the coming decades. Little of this, though, has looked at how technology is changing one of the most powerful forces in shaping society: ambition.
What the most ambitious people choose to do with their lives has a profound impact on society, the economy and culture. It’s changing, fast. At Entrepreneur First, we believe that building technology startups will become the ‘default’ career path for the world’s most ambitious people.
I argue three things below. First, that digital technology is the most recent in a series of ‘technologies of ambition’ that have enabled ambitious people to maximise their impact over the last millennium or so. Second, that technology entrepreneurship is likely to become the dominant ‘technology of ambition’. And third, that new institutions will be needed to channel, focus and amplify this new ambition (and that Entrepreneur First will be one of them).
A Brief History of Ambition
Why was Cardinal Wolsey able to emerge from obscurity to become the most powerful and richest person in the country?
To simplify, literacy. Literacy was the great ‘technology of ambition’ of the pre-modern period. If you could write down instructions and there were people who could read them, you could administrate at scale. Not scale as we would recognise it today, but at a far greater scale than the village you were born in.
If you wanted to read and write, you had to join the Church, like Wolsey. My favourite thing to tell groups of ambitious young people today is that 1,000 years ago they’d all be training to be monks and priests — not from piety, but from naked ambition.
Fast forward a few hundred years and the dominant ‘technology of ambition’ has moved on.
By the late 18th century, armies were professionalising and something more like the modern state had emerged. Military command is the new ‘technology of ambition’ that the most ambitious people want to master. By 1800-ish, military command allowed an individual to say a word in Paris and move armies hundreds of miles away. It’s this ‘technology’ that allows the young Napoleon Bonaparte to progress from Corsican obscurity to French emperor.
Skip another couple of generations and finance emerges as the dominant ‘technology of ambition’. Cheques and memos written in New York reverberate around the world. Ambitious individuals who can harness finance are the emerging ‘masters of the universe’. Figures like J.P. Morgan in the late 19th century and Sidney Weinberg in the mid-20th become Wall St legends.
Finance’s dominance as the ‘default’ career path for ambitious people has been remarkably enduring . In 2011, when we started Entrepreneur First, 60% of computer science graduates from one of the UK’s top universities went into finance. It remains the most popular destination for graduates of the world’s top business schools. As a ‘technology of scale’, the ability to direct vast capital flows to every corner of the planet is hard to beat.
But there’s at least one corner of the world where this default path doesn’t hold: Silicon Valley. In Silicon Valley the most ambitious people want to build technology companies. My bet is that this will become the dominant ambition globally in the twenty-first century.