Lori Mihalich-Levin

Ambition means a lot of things to a lot of different people. For me, it calls to mind someone who is fired up and ready to succeed no matter what. The word is sometimes used as a weapon, though — particularly against women. And sometimes it’s used as a limiting factor; for instance, some assume you can’t possibly be a good parent and be ambitious.

I’m a lawyer, so before we look at what some famous folks have to say about “ambition,” my first instinct is to know what the dictionary says about this word. Here’s what we get when we look up “ambition” in the dictionary:

noun: ambition; plural noun: ambitions

  • a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work; and
  • desire and determination to achieve success.

So my “fired up” image isn’t all that far off. Like love, hate, fear and sadness, ambition is one of those fundamental aspects of the human condition that pervades all of human history.

Yes, ambition is about strong desires and passions. Ambition is even sometimes contrasted with love. What matters most is how ambition applies to you.

These 16 quotes about personal ambition come from an array of inspiring people, and they just may help you find a definition that fits your character, dream and goals.

1. “Ambition is enthusiasm with a purpose.” — Frank Tyger

2. “Ambition is a dream with a V8 engine.” — Elvis Presley

3. “There I was, way off my ambitions, getting deeper in love every minute, and all of a sudden I didn’t care.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Great Gatsby"

4. “Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

5. “Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.” — Walter H. Cottingham

6. “Ambition beats genius 99 percent of the time.” — Jay Leno

7. “At the age of six I wanted to be a cook. At seven I wanted to be Napoleon. And my ambition has been growing steadily ever since.” — Salvador Dalí

8. “Oh, it's delightful to have ambitions. I'm so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them — that's the best of it. Just as soon as you attain to one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.” ― L.M. Montgomery, "Anne of Green Gables"

9. “Without a goal, a life is nothing. Sometimes the goal becomes a man's entire life, an all-consuming passion. But once that goal is achieved, what then? Oh, poor man, what then?” – Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, "Dune: House Atreides"

10. “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man.” ― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "We Should All Be Feminists"

11. “I believe ambition is not a dirty word, it’s believing in yourself and your abilities. Imagine this: what would happen if we were all brave enough to believe in our own ability, to be a little more ambitious. I think the world would change.” — Reese Witherspoon

12. “The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition.” — Carl Sagan

13. “Ambition, madam, is a great man's madness.” — John Webster, "The Duchess of Malfi"

14. “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, "Dust Tracks on a Road"

15. “Keep away from those who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you believe that you too can become great.” — Mark Twain

16. “If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.” — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

What are you fired up about? What makes you want to jump out of bed in the morning and make it happen? And most importantly: what do you have to lose?


Lori K. Mihalich-Levin, JD, is the founder of Mindful Return, author of "Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave," and creator of the Mindful Return E-Course. A partner in the health care practice of a global law firm, she also is mama to two beautiful red-headed boys. Lori holds a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center and completed her undergraduate studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.