Quotations about   ambition

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What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) German-American psychologist, writer
Man’s Search for Meaning, Part 2 (1946)
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Added on 16-Apr-19 | Last updated 16-Apr-19
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Anxiety is the handmaiden of contemporary ambition.

Alain de Botton (b. 1969) Swiss-British author
Status Anxiety (2004)
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Added on 10-Jan-18 | Last updated 10-Jan-18
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There is a loftier ambition than merely to stand high in the world. It is to stoop down and lift mankind a little higher.

Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933) American clergyman and writer
“Salt,” Counsels by the Way (1921 ed.)
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Added on 13-Dec-17 | Last updated 13-Dec-17
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I heard a saying in Egypt, that ambition
Is like the sea wave, which the more you drink
The more you thirst — yea — drink too much, as men
Have done on rafts of wreck — it drives you mad.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) English poet
The Cup, Act 1, sc. 3 [Synorix] (1884)
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Added on 1-Nov-17 | Last updated 1-Nov-17
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Ambition is a Lust that’s never quench’d,
Grows more inflam’d and madder by Enjoyment.

Thomas Otway (1652-1685) English dramatist
The History and Fall of Caius Marius, Act 5, sc. 4 (1680)
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Added on 18-Oct-17 | Last updated 18-Oct-17
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Wisdom is corrupted by ambition, even when the quality of the ambition is intellectual. For ambition, even of this quality, is but a form of self-love ….

Henry Taylor (1800-1886) English dramatist, poet, bureaucrat, man of letters
Notes from Life, “Wisdom” (1847)
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Added on 3-Oct-17 | Last updated 3-Oct-17
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Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition.

Barack Obama (b. 1961) American politician, US President (2009-2017)
Commencement Address, Knox College, Galesburg, IL (4 Jun 2005)
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Added on 6-Sep-17 | Last updated 6-Sep-17
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Ambition hath one heel nailed in hell, though she stretch her finger to touch the heavens.

John Lyly (c. 1553-1606) was an English writer [also Lilly or Lylie]
Midas: A Comedy, Act 2, sc. 1 [Sophronia] (1592)
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Sometimes misquoted as "nailed in well." Sometimes misattributed to Lao-tzu.
Added on 23-Aug-17 | Last updated 5-Sep-17
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Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to “jump at de sun.” We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) American writer, folklorist, anthropologist
Dust Tracks on a Road, ch. 2 “My Folks” (1942)
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Added on 23-Aug-17 | Last updated 23-Aug-17
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Ambition is but Avarice on stilts and masked.

Walter Savage Landor (1775–1864) English writer and poet
Imaginary Conversations, Third Series, “Lord Brooke and Sir Philip Sidney” (1828)
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Ambition makes more trusty slaves than need.

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) English playwright and poet
Sejanus, His Fall, Act 1, sc. 2 (1603)
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Added on 2-Aug-17 | Last updated 2-Aug-17
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Ambition is only vanity ennobled.

Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927) English writer, humorist [Jerome Klapka Jerome]
“On Vanity and Vanities,” The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1889)
Added on 12-Jul-17 | Last updated 12-Jul-17
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Ambition has its disappointments to sour us, but never the good fortune to satisfy us. Its appetite grows keener by indulgence and all we can gratify it with at present serves but the more to inflame its insatiable desires.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) American statesman, scientist, philosopher
“On True Happiness,” The Pennsylvania Gazette (20 Nov 1735)
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Added on 5-Jul-17 | Last updated 5-Jul-17
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There is nothing which spreads more contagiously from teacher to pupil than elevation of sentiment: Often and often have students caught from the living influence of a professor a contempt for mean and selfish objects, and a noble ambition to leave the world better than the found it; which they have carried with them throughout life.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) English philosopher and economist
“On Education,” speech, University of St Andrews (1 Feb 1867)
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Added on 30-Jun-17 | Last updated 30-Jun-17
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All ambitions are lawful except those which climb upward on the miseries or credulities of mankind.

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) Polish-English novelist [b. Teodor Josef Konrad Korzeniowski]
A Personal Record (1912)
Added on 21-Jun-17 | Last updated 21-Jun-17
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The greatest evil which fortune can inflict on men is to endow them with small talents and great ambition.

Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues (1715-1747) French moralist, essayist, soldier
Reflections and Maxims [Réflexions et maximes], #562 [tr. Stevens] (1746)
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Added on 14-Jun-17 | Last updated 14-Jun-17
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Let us be content to do little, if God sets us at little tasks. It is but pride and self-will which says, “Give me something huge to fight, — and I should enjoy that — but why make me sweep the dust?”

Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) English clergyman, historian, essayist, novelist (pseud. "Parson Lot")
Letter, “To a lady who consulted him about Sisterhoods” (24 Jul 1854)
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Added on 13-Jun-17 | Last updated 13-Jun-17
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My ambition is handicapped by my laziness.

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) German-American author, poet
Factotum, ch. 45 (1975)
Added on 31-May-17 | Last updated 4-Sep-19
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KATE: One’s religion is whatever he is most interested in, and yours is — Success.

HARRY: Ambition — it is the last infirmity of noble minds.

James Barrie (1860-1937) Scottish novelist and dramatist
The Twelve-Pound Look (1910)
Added on 24-May-17 | Last updated 24-May-17
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A noble man compares and estimates himself by an idea which is higher than himself; and a mean man by one which is lower than himself. The one produces aspiration; the other, ambition. Ambition is the way in which a vulgar man aspires.

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) American clergyman and orator
Life Thoughts (1858)
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Sometimes misattributed to Marcus Aurelius.
Added on 17-May-17 | Last updated 17-May-17
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Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.

Lombardi - we can catch excellence - wist_info quote

Vince Lombardi (1913-1970) American football coach
(Attributed)
Added on 2-Sep-16 | Last updated 2-Sep-16
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Dreadful will be the day when the world becomes contented, when one great universal satisfaction spreads itself over the world. Sad will be the day for every man when he becomes absolutely contented with the life that he is living, with the thoughts that he is thinking, with the deeds that he is doing, when there is not forever beating at the doors of his soul some great desire to do something larger which he knows that he was meant and made to do because he is a child of God.

Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) American clergyman, hymnist
Daily Thoughts from Phillips Brooks (1893)
Added on 10-Aug-16 | Last updated 10-Aug-16
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Give me the young man who has brains enough to make a fool of himself.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) Scottish essayist, novelist, poet
Virginibus Puerisque, ch. 2 “Crabbed Age and Youth” (1881)
Added on 24-Feb-16 | Last updated 24-Feb-16
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Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
(Attributed)

Quoted in Gay MacLaren, Morally We Roll Along (1938). A recollection of something Twain said to the author when she was a child. More information here.
Added on 9-Dec-15 | Last updated 13-Dec-17
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Even a feeble-minded man wants to be like other men.

Daniel F. Keyes (1927-2014) American author
Flowers for Algernon (novel) (1966)
Added on 9-Nov-15 | Last updated 9-Nov-15
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Lust of absolute power is more burning than all the passions.

[Cupido dominandi cunctis affectibus flagrante est.]

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
Annals, 15.53 (AD 117)
Added on 28-Jul-15 | Last updated 28-Jul-15
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The man who sticks to his plan will become what he used to want to be.

James Richardson (b. 1950) American poet
Vectors: Aphorisms and Ten Second Essays, #349 (2001)
Added on 11-Jun-15 | Last updated 11-Jun-15
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Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable, let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.

Douglas Adams (1952-2001) English writer
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987)
Added on 18-May-15 | Last updated 18-May-15
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To understand the heart and mind of a person, look not at what he has already achieved, but at what he aspires to.

Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) Lebanese-American poet, writer, painter [Gibran Khalil Gibran]
(Attributed)
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Added on 14-May-15 | Last updated 16-Aug-19
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I am very sure that any man of common understanding may, by proper culture, care, attention and labor, make himself whatever he pleases, except a great poet.

Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773) English statesman, wit [Philip Dormer Stanhope]
Letter to his son (9 Oct 1746)
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[Ambition] is so powerful a passion in the human breast, that however high we reach we are never satisfied.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) Italian politician, philosopher, political scientist
The Discourses (1517)
Added on 22-Apr-15 | Last updated 22-Apr-15
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Most people would succeed in small things if they were not troubled with great ambitions.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) American poet
“Table Talk,” Prose Works (1857)
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The ambitious deceive themselves when they propose an end to their ambition; for that end, when attained, becomes a means.

François VI, duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) French epigrammist, memoirist, noble
Réflexions ou sentences et maximes morales [Maxims], # 32 (1665-1678)
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The trouble with being number one in the world — at anything — is that it takes a certain mentality to attain that position in the first place, and that is something of a driving, perfectionist attitude, so that once you do achieve number one, you don’t relax and enjoy it.

Billie Jean King (b. 1943) American tennis player
Billie Jean (1982)
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The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Thomas Gray (1716-1771) English poet
“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” l. 36 (1751)
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You have greatly ventured, but all must do so who would greatly win.

George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) English poet
Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice, Act 1, sc. 1 (1821)
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Ambition is like hunger; it obeys no law but its appetite.

Josh Billings (1818-1885) American humorist [pseud. of Henry Wheeler Shaw]
(Attributed)
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Attributed in Frank Jenners Wilstach, A Dictionary of Similes (1916).
Added on 11-Mar-15 | Last updated 31-May-17
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There are but two ways of rising in the world: either by your own industry or by the folly of others.

Jean de La Bruyère (1645-1696) French essayist, moralist
“Of the Gifts of Fortune” (52). The Characters [Les Caractères] (1688) [tr van Laun (1929)]
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As a rule, people aren’t good at handling power. And the second you start to think you’re better at controlling your power than anyone else, you’ve already taken the first step.

Jim Butcher (b. 1971) American author
Cold Days (2012)
Added on 7-Oct-14 | Last updated 7-Oct-14
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Like the greedy merchants of bazaars, if we get out of life what we ask for, we are unhappy for not having asked for more.

Paul Eldridge (1888-1982) American educator, novelist, poet
Maxims for a Modern Man, #1195 (1965)
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Almost every man wastes part of his life in attempts to display qualities which he does not possess, and to gain applause which he cannot keep.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) English writer, lexicographer, critic
The Rambler (7 Jan 1752)
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Whoever is in a hurry shows that the thing he is about is too big for him.

Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773) English statesman, wit [Philip Dormer Stanhope]
Letter to his son (20 Aug 1749)
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But when our country had grown great through toil and the practice of justice, when great kings had been vanquished in war, savage tribes and mighty peoples subdued by force of arms, when Carthage, the rival of Rome’s sway, had perished root and branch, and all seas and lands were open, then Fortune began to grow cruel and to bring confusion into all our affairs. 2 Those who had found it easy to bear hardship and dangers, anxiety and adversity, found leisure and wealth, desirable under other circumstances, a burden and a curse. 3 Hence the lust for money first, then for power, grew upon them; these were, I may say, the root of all evils. 4 For avarice destroyed honour, integrity, and all other noble qualities; taught in their place insolence, cruelty, to neglect the gods, to set a price on everything. 5 Ambition drove many men to become false; to have one thought locked in the breast, another ready on the tongue; to value friendships and enmities not on their merits but by the standard of self-interest, and to show a good front rather than a good heart.

[Sed ubi labore atque iustitia res publica crevit, reges magni bello domiti, nationes ferae et populi ingentes vi subacti, Carthago aemula imperi Romani p18ab stirpe interiit, cuncta maria terraeque patebant, saevire fortuna ac miscere omnia coepit. 2 Qui labores, pericula, dubias atque asperas res facile toleraverant, eis otium, divitiae,7 optanda alias, oneri miseriaeque fuere. 3 Igitur primo pecuniae, deinde imperi cupido crevit; ea quasi materies omnium malorum fuere. 4 Namque avaritia fidem, probitatem ceterasque artis bonas subvortit; pro his superbiam, crudelitatem, deos neglegere, omnia venalia habere edocuit. 5 Ambitio multos mortalis falsos fieri subegit, aliud clausum in pectore aliud in lingua promptum habere, amicitias inimicitiasque non ex re sed ex commodo aestumare magisque voltum quam ingenium bonum habere.]

Sallust (c. 86-35 BC) Roman historian and politician [Gaius Sallustius Crispus]
Catiline’s War [Bellum Catilinae], pt. 10 (42 BC) [tr. Loeb (1921)]

Alt. trans.:
  • "Ambition prompted many to become deceitful; to keep one thing concealed in the breast, and another ready on the tongue; to estimate friendships and enmities, not by their worth, but according to interest; and to carry rather a specious countenance than an honest heart."
  • "It is the nature of ambition to make men liars and cheats, to hide the truth in their breasts, and show, like jugglers, another thing in their mouths, to cut all friendships and enmities to the measure of their own interest, and to make a good countenance without the help of good will." (Source)
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If I had no duties, and no reference to futurity, I would spend my life in driving briskly in a post-chaise with a pretty woman.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) English writer, lexicographer, critic
Comment (19 Sep 1777)

In James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)
Added on 3-Jan-14 | Last updated 3-Jan-14
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Man partly is and wholly hopes to be.

Robert Browning (1812-1889) English poet
“A Death in the Desert,” l. 586, Dramatis Personae (1864)
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The better part of happiness is to wish to be what you are.

Desiderius Erasmus (1465-1536) Dutch humanist philosopher and scholar
The Praise of Folly, ch. 10 (1509) [tr. Hudson (1941)]
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His was a life which lacked, perhaps, the sublimer emotions which raised Man to the level of the gods, but it was undeniably an extremely happy one. He never experienced the thrill of ambition fulfilled, but, on the other hand, he never knew the agony of ambition frustrated. His name, when he died, would not live for ever in England’s annals; he was spared the pain of worrying about this by the fact that he had no desire to live for ever in England’s annals. He was possibly as nearly contented a human being can be in this century of alarms and excursions.

P. G. Wodehouse (1881-1975) Anglo-American humorist, playwright and lyricist [Pelham Grenville Wodehouse]
Something Fresh (1915)
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If you would hit the mark, you must aim a little above it.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) American poet
“Elegiac Verse,” In the Harbor (1882)

See Emerson.
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When I had youth I had no money; now I have the money I have no time; and when I get the time, if I ever do, I shall have no health to enjoy life. I suppose it’s the discipline I need; but it’s rather hard to love the things I do, and see them go by because duty chains me to my galley. If I ever come into port with all sails set, that will be my reward perhaps.

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) American writer
(Attributed) (1873)

Quoted in M. Saxton, Louisa May, ch. 17 (1977).
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I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom. I wanted Storisende and Poictesme, and Holmes shaking me awake to tell me, “The game’s afoot!” I wanted to float down the Mississippi on a raft and elude a mob in company with the Duke of Bilgewater and the Lost Dauphin.

I wanted Prester John, and Excalibur held by a moon-white arm out of a silent lake. I wanted to sail with Ulysses and with Tros of Samothrace and eat the lotus in a land that seemed always afternoon. I wanted the feeling of romance and the sense of wonder I had known as a kid. I wanted the world to be what they had promised me it was going to be — instead of the tawdry, lousy fouled-up mess it is.

I had had one chance — for ten minutes yesterday afternoon. Helen of Troy, whatever your true name may be — And I had known it … and I had let it slip away.

Maybe one chance is all you ever get.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) American writer
Glory Road, ch. 3 (1963)
Added on 12-Sep-08 | Last updated 26-Feb-18
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A slave has but one master; an ambitious man has as many masters as there are people who may be useful in bettering his position.

Jean de La Bruyère (1645-1696) French essayist, moralist
The Characters [Les Caractères] (1688)
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Too many people want to have written.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
Post, alt.fan.pratchett
Added on 9-May-08 | Last updated 13-Mar-15
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Not failure, but low aim, is crime.

James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) American diplomat, essayist, poet
“For an Autograph,” st. 5 (1868)
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We aim above the mark to hit the mark.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
“Nature,” Essays: Second Series (1844)
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