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On the importance of ambition

Published by Martin Kleppmann on 30 Mar 2008.

The Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona is an astonishing experience. And that has not so much to do with its size, its architecture, its intricate artwork or any such outward aspects, although they aren’t bad either. The astonishing thing is that the construction of the building started about 130 years ago, and they’ve still not even started building the main central towers. It isn’t scheduled to be completed for at least another 20 years, and to me as outsider it looks more like it’s going to be another 100 years. That is not because the builders are lazy – people were right there, working on the masonry as I was visiting – but because it is such a massively ambitious project.

Now in history it has not been unusual for the construction of cathedrals to take 600 years or longer, but most of those buildings are now completed (except for eternally ongoing maintenance work). When we are told that it took so many years to build a cathedral, that information usually just washes past us without us ever really contemplating what that means. It means that for about 30 generations, all people saw was a huge unfinished work in their town, a monument from their distant ancestors lost in history, and a heirloom to their distant descendants in a future time which would be very different from their own.

In each of those generations, many stonemasons, woodworkers, architects and others would spend their whole life assembling tiny pieces of a huge work. They would grow up, live, eat, drink, love, grow old and die, and during that time they would still only see a small incremental bit of progress towards achieving the vision of their ancestors. It is impossible to even imagine the amount of human soul which so many people have poured into the endeavour over such a long period of time.

It seems to me that we don’t think about many things on that sort of scale today. In fact, I think that if somebody was to propose to start such a massive undertaking today, like Antoni Gaudí and his colleagues did towards the end of the 19th century, they would only get laughed at. Hell, we can’t even sort out things like climate change and fossil fuels running out, and these are things which happen on a much shorter timescale than the construction of a cathedral like this. Is it possible that the 20th and 21st century, with their ever increasing pace of life, have caused us to lose sight of this big picture – this understanding of the world which includes not just ourselves, but our distant ancestors and our distant descendants also?

Gaudí is given a lot of credit for the Sagrada Familia. That is not because he did a record amount of stone-lifting, but because he had a vision, a vision of a massively ambitious project which would span far beyond his own lifetime, a vision which would inspire the ambition of many other people wanting to be part of the project. I wouldn’t say that Gaudí created the Sagrada Familia – of course it is being created by the large number of workers in the past, present and future. But these workers all have a common ambition, a desire to be part of something much greater than their own lives, and this ambition draws from Gaudí’s initial vision.

The important thing to realise here is that although Gaudí is famously associated with the project, it is not “his” project in any useful sense. The ambition of the many generations working towards its completion are not doing it because of Gaudí, so therefore he arguably has fairly little importance today. The workers are not doing it for their own sake either – if they wanted to show off, they would be better off choosing to work on something which they might see completed within their lifetime. They are not doing it because of competition, or because of any sort of necessity, and they are certainly not doing it because somebody is forcing them to. They might be doing it for the glory of God, I don’t know.

My understanding is that they are working on this cathedral because it is something they think is worthwhile, something bigger than any single human being. This ambition is going to be successful because it is the collective goal of so many people. Ambition, viewed in this way, is a very selfless thing.

The word ambition has picked up negative connotations. It has become associated with ruthlessness, with striving for success at the expense of others, with egocentricity and self-importance. I found the Sagrada Familia a refreshing reminder that such a self-centered understanding of ambition is short-sighted, because it limits whatever you want to do to a single person’s lifetime, which isn’t very much in the grand scheme of things.

Instead, I see the Sagrada Familia as an example for a general pattern for doing amazing things. If you want to do something amazing, you first need somebody with a vision to inspire other people. Once that is done, the best thing that person can do is to step back, to surrender a lot of the ownership and control over the project to the people who will actually get it done, and of course let them take their reward.

The way Gaudí did this is by setting the scope of the project so large that it was way beyond his lifetime, and hence also way beyond his control. He is said to have commented on the expected duration of the construction: “My client is not in a hurry.”