I just got done watching the excellent documentary "King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," about competitive Donkey Kong players (Donkey Kong is an '80s arcade game). Even my blase-to-video-games fiancee was riveted. The people depicted are obsessed with getting the world high score on Donkey Kong.
I have a similar obsession with getting publications and making it in the scientific community. Day to day, I'm trying to publish, go to conferences, get my name known, etc. It's like a game to me, day to day.
Upon reflection I know that science is good for the world. I can see a path from getting a publication to the world getting better, but I don't think about it every day. Even though I might not be able to see exactly how my latest publication is going to help the world, I know that overall more science is good. So even if it's a game over the days, it's the meaning of life over the years.
But I think the same psychological processes govern the day-by-day obsessions of me and the Donkey Kong players. It's just that I don't see how they can, upon reflection, be satisfied that they're doing any good for this world. A high score on Donkey Kong? I mean, who gives a shit?
I would encourage everyone who's got a competitive or ambitious streak to focus it on something like science, charity, politics, or art, something where success in the day-to-day game translates to making the world a better place in the long run.
Pictured: "I Thought I Came To Plumb" by Jose Emroca Flores. I adore this painting, but on the blog you can't see the whole thing-- click to see the full image. You can buy his prints.