Part of it is that he shamelessly associates with the people who use annoying online popups to try to make you subscribe to mailing lists. But the other part is that he seems as good a person as any to use as the Demon-Face Of Being Loudly Ambitious.
I don't have any problem with being quietly ambitious. I like quietly ambitious people. Occasionally I am quietly ambitious myself. But not always.
Here is a story I don't think I've ever told anyone before. For a few years when I was in high school, I was the leader of a small country called Hyperborea (later renamed Raikoth; if you're wondering why my website is raikoth.net, now you know). Several of my friends, mostly online, were in it, and we had our own language and flag and national anthem and such. Mostly we just had fun doing the sorts of things countries do, like holding legislative meetings and designing currency and so on.
By some coincidence, a kid in my high school at the time stumbled across Hyperborea's website, and the fact that I did this got out among my high school class. I was prepared to be suitably embarassed and to insist it was totally just a hobby and I wasn't crazy. I was unprepared to have twenty people, some of them pretty popular, come up to me on the first day and ask if they could join, which was what happened.
One thing led to another. My friend Mike, who now has a job in computer game graphics, printed off some really really nice, almost professional-looking currency. One girl started arranging weekly lunch meetings with pizza for everyone interested in Hyperborea. My Latin teacher offered her room for any government business we wanted to conduct at school (for some reason, it doesn't surprise me that a Latin teacher would be the sort of person to appreciate this sort of thing). Everybody wanted me to come up with some brilliant plan to forge them into a real nation and possibly take over the world.
And I completely dropped the ball. I thanked everyone for their interest, but I said I wasn't interested in turning Hyperborea into a real-life project based at my high school. And everyone just kind of dispersed after that.
Now I have a lot of problems with my high-school era self. But this particular case I am not certain I would do any differently today. If I had accepted that leadership role, there would have been a lot of pressure on me to do something really exciting. I can sometimes do exciting things, but I can't do them on demand. My energy level waxes and wanes. My creativity is irregular. When I do have an idea, sometimes it catches on and other times people just stare at me and think "What's wrong with him?"
To be ambitious is a committment. It's saying "Take a chance on me, and I will continue being creative and exciting and dependable for the foreseeable future." It's promising people that you're never going to let them down. If you act ambitious, and then when push comes to shove you say "Nah, I don't need the aggravation", then you don't look ambitious and high-status, you look like a flake. You look like the kind of guy who said "Hey everyone, form a new country with me as the leader!" and then after the new country was formed and everyone said "Now what?" you said "Uh..I dunno."
Here is another story I don't think I've ever told anyone. When I was in elementary school, I got the Audubon Society Field Guide To Rocks And Minerals. I decided I was going to learn to identify every single rock and mineral in the world by sight. I don't remember exactly how many were in the field guide, but probably around 5,000. So I went around my elementary school showing off the Field Guide telling everyone "I'm memorizing this, and when I'm done, I'll be able to identify every single rock and mineral in the world. I even went around the area loudly identifying all the rocks and minerals beginning with "A", the part of the field guide I was up to at that point (goodness only knows if my identifications were even remotely correct; I was in fifth grade).
So around the "B" section - a couple of hundred minerals in - I got kind of bored of memorizing all rocks and minerals. But I realized how stupid I'd look at this point if I gave up. So I kept on going a few hundred more minerals, all the way up until C or D, and then lost hope. Thankfully, only a few people ever asked me "What ever happened to you memorizing all the minerals in the world?" (luckily when a fifth-grader announces something pompous like that, the natural reaction is nodding and smiling and hoping he'll grow out of it if you never mention it again). But those couple of people who asked me about it were seriously traumatizing to me.
Since then, I've never been loud about my ambitions. I've embarked on a few memorization projects almost equal in scope to the Audubon Guide - some of them unsuccessful, others surprisingly completed - but I've never mentioned them until they were done, if at all. When I start a sequence on a blog, or a work of serial fiction, I wait until all the chapters are done written before posting the first one, so I don't wimp out of it halfway through. When I flirted with starting a webcomic, I told myself I'd draw a hundred strips first, and if I could do that I'd start publishing them (this concluded in the way I would have predicted least likely, which was finishing ninety-something strips and then growing bored).
Sometimes I've genuinely hidden my ambitions. When I decided to travel around the world, I spent about two years planning the trip, but most of my friends didn't know I was trying it until the day before I left. I don't think anyone outside my family knew I was applying to medical school until the day I got in.
So far, this has been a pretty good balance for me. I still get to try ambitious things, but I don't get that traumatizing feeling of "You were going to memorize all the minerals in the world. What happened to that?. Or the questioning looks from people who were counting on me to build them a country and I let them down.
On the other hand, it's severely limited my ability to be ambitious in ways that affect lots of other people. I have a huge amount of respect for Luke Muehlhauser taking over SIAI only a few months after first hearing about it and starting to beat the organization into shape (I don't know how it happened, but I sort of imagine him just showing up in Berkeley one day in his characteristic all-black outfit and saying "I'm in charge here now. Any questions?" with a menacing look on his face). But even if I had all of Luke's many talents, it's not the sort of thing I would ever even consider trying. Heck, people have asked me to do some really simple, and really interesting things for them, and I've pretty much refused every single one of them outright.
In my defense, here is what my schedule for the past year 6/2011 - 6/2012 looked like:
June: California USA, visiting family
July: Port-au-Prince Haiti, free clinics
August: Cork Ireland, psychiatry
September: Mallow Ireland, family medicine
October: Tipperary Ireland, surgery
November: Cork Ireland, geriatrics
December: New York & Connecticut USA, interviews
January: Minnesota & Tennessee USA, interviews
February: Limerick Ireland, paediatrics
March: Tralee Ireland, internal medicine
April: Cork Ireland, final exams
May: Killarney Ireland, hiking
June: Ohio USA, psychiatry
At no time have I had the slightest idea what my life was going to be like even one month later. Sometimes I'll start a job and it will be much easier than I expected and I'll end up with eight, nine hours of free time a day. Other times it will be much harder than I expected, and after the requisite de-stressing period each day I'll have zero time extra for interesting projects (you may have noticed a certain irregularity in my blog posting schedule). Certainly I haven't been able to commit to anything that requires being in a particular place. When combined with my unwillingness to do anything noticeably ambitious when there's any chance it might let someone down, there's been a lot of non-ambitiousness.
Which is part of my answer to Irritating Extremely Punchable Internet Pop-Up Man about why I am not as loudly ambitious as he is. It's also part of my apology to all the people who have asked me to participate in exciting projects for them over the last year only to be blown off.
I think I'm starting to get better about this, now that I'm done with medical school. I've finally accepted a small amount of work from SIAI/CFAR, hopefully to someday turn into a large amount of work. I've started blogging again, even though I'm still using LiveJournal, and refusing to concentrate on any specific subject, and using a long and inscrutable blog name, and titling all my entries "Stuff", and doing other things not entirely consistent with being a Serious Blogger. I'm even trying to memorize some new poetry (well, go back and re-memorize old poems that I've forgotten), which for me is an important sign of mental health. Maybe some day I'll reach the point where I can confidently run a small country, or take over charitable organizations while wearing snazzy black outfits.
(of course, once I start residency, hopefully next year, my life is Officially Over)