Breaking News:  The word ambition in Chinese literally means “wild heart.”

Why is this breaking news? 

Because for most of Chinese history, in a society that put the collective’s interests above all else, “to have a wild heart was a terrible thing – a pejorative.  It could ruin your family.  Prevent you from getting jobs.  Run you out of town.”

Then, suddenly, about 35 years ago, when China’s economic output was less than North Korea’s, the idea of ambition in China began to change.  Ambition was encouraged.

The Wild Hearts of China were unleashed. 

At this very moment – breaking news – the self-help sections of Chinese bookstores are filling up with volumes teaching people how to develop wild hearts – in adults and children. 

Which helps explain why the nation that controlled a third of the world’s wealth in the 18th Century, before it experienced a couple hundred years of decline, is now returning to what it considers its rightful ranking in the global economic order.

How do I know all this?

I just had a long conversation with Evan Osnos at The Nantucket Book Festival

Osnos is the author of Age of Ambition – an ambitious new book, based on a decade of living in and reporting from China, first as a student, then as a reporter for The Chicago Tribune, and then as a correspondent for The New Yorker.

Osnos spent much of his decade in China getting to know the wild hearts driving that nation’s growth.

By clicking here, or by clicking play below, you can listen to our conversation, which was conducted in a packed room at the Nantucket Atheneum’s historic Great Hall, where many American wild hearts, including the abolitionist Frederick Douglas, have spoken.

Osnos introduces us to a revered Taiwanese military officer and student of economics, Captain Lin Zhengyi, who, in 1979 – yes, that year when China’s gross domestic product was less than North Korea’s -- “sensed history was about to pivot.  He sensed China will become a major economic player of our time.” 


Captain Lin Zhengyi


Captain Lin, revealing nothing to his family, left his wife, son, and another child on the way, jumped into the treacherous waters off the tiny Taiwanese island of Quemoy, where he was based, and swam to the mainland.   

And do you know what happened to Captain Lin and his family?  You will if you listen to my conversation with Evan Osnos and read his book.

Osnos also shares in this conversation the story of the ambitious peasant from a little farming village who was driven to get a good education.  Her name is Gong Haiyan.

Gong Haiyan


Shortly after Gong was admitted to the best school in her region, she was riding on a tractor that fell into a ditch, suffered a terrible leg injury, and was told by the school she could not attend after all given her inability to walk up and down the stairs.

Gong’s mother refused to take no for an answer.  She carried her daughter on her back, five flights to chemistry class.   Grit.

Gong moved on to graduate school in the big city.

Hoping to meet the right guy while satisfying her professional heart, she joined a  dating service, submitted her profile to a dozen men, received no responses, and then discovered the men were not real.  They were composites.   The dating service was a sham.

Wild Hearts don’t accept that kind of lie.  To hear Osnos tell her story, and her sweet revenge, is, alone, I believe, worth the investment of time in this conversation. 


I hope you’ll listen until the end – when I ask Osnos the central question of my Steal This Book campaign – which began here.

What makes your book so valuable, Evan Osnos, that someone starved for cash and hungry for knowledge, should consider stealing it?

The Age of Ambition, its author answers, will help Americans sleep better at night.

Sleep better?  How can I sleep better knowing there may be more than a billion wild hearts competing for limited resources – competing with my own children for the best opportunities the world has to offer?

As I said, in this Wavemaker Conversation With Evan Osnos, there is breaking news.