The times I have felt most ambitious in life are around ideas: when I have found some grand new theory (evolution and Richard Dawkins, Goethe and classicism, Carl Jung), when someone has created a great work that tries to encompass the whole world and the human spirit (Dante, T.S. Eliot, Jordan Peterson, Maria Montessori), or when I have had long dinners with friends and mentors, talking late into the night about grand ideas for the world and what would make a good society.
For anyone who is excited by ideas, what are you supposed to do with your life? The standard answer is: go into academia. But this is bad for many reasons, the main one being, I think, that universities make no serious attempt to change the world. Fundamentally, they are only commenting on the world. Academia is basically like spending your life as a glorified sports commentator (commenting on other commentators).
If we were in pre-modern Europe, the other path for intellectually ambitious people would have been: go into the church. This is where power and ideas were combined. You could become a successful bishop, with the modern-day equivalent of a Bentley, a beautiful house, a massive corporate travel budget, and the best clothes. Intellectually ambitious people like St Augustine or St Thomas Aquinas could have a massive impact on society by being a high-status member of this powerful, global institutional machine. But hardly anyone wants to do this today, and most of the religious world, sadly, I think, is now an intellectual backwater.
Unfortunately there just aren’t many options today for someone to have a successful career caring seriously about ideas and culture (meaning the assumptions that shape many people’s lives today, the messages we encounter frequently, the people and views of the world that are given status and admired). The option is really to try to be a public intellectual in some way.
The good thing is, even if there aren’t great institutions today for making good ideas powerful, the barriers to entry are lower. I can make a podcast, a video, or a post with the potential to be shared, if people want to. Much better than the options in the past of copying a book by hand, or writing a piece of theatre. The spoken word used to always be ephemeral; now it can be as long-lived and sharable as the written word used to be. I guess I have no excuse but to get onto it, and see where it goes.