A Poverty of Ambition

“Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of
ambition. It asks too little of yourself.”
–Barack Obama, Knox College Commencement Address 2005

Even after hearing the phrase “dream big” 3,297,391 times (or more) over the course of their life, most people still don’t get it. 

“Don’t rock the boat.”

“Better safe than sorry.”

“A bird in the hand beats two in the bush.”

These timeless maxims are sage advice. When taken to the extreme, however, they create a certain poverty of ambition.

Of course, something tangible that is actually working or in your “hand”, is better than a wish or pipe dream. But here’s the real question: Are those birds in the bush actually attainable?

If you had a rock-solid plan and the wherewithal to execute it, is it possible for you to get those two birds? Is it probable?

“I’m going to get a degree in engineering or accounting.” If you love either of those two great professions then by all means…go for it. But choosing a profession because it’s the proverbial bird in the hand is the epitome of a poverty of ambition.

A choice like that is why too many people wake up sick to their stomachs about going to work. They wake up with a bad case of would’ve-could’ve-should’ve syndrome.

I would’ve been a great writer…

I could’ve started my own company or non-profit organization…

I should’ve never married this guy. He’s not a bird in the hand; he’s a bird brain in the hand!

Could you have the business, the family, and the philanthropy? Yes. People do it all the time, but not enough people.

According to the 2007 Just Start™ survey conducted by Intuit, Inc. (NASDAQ: INTU) 72% of Americans aspire to start their own business. That’s almost three out of four people, but how many actually do it?

There are over 300 million people living in the U.S. An estimated 23 million of them are entrepreneurs. That’s around 7%. So, less than one in ten people actually have enough ambition to make it happen. And that’s after years of record breaking entrepreneurial growth.

Whether it’s starting a business (for profit or non-profit), looking for a promotion, or making a living doing something that you REALLY love to do, there seems to be a paucity of calculated risk-takers.

So, what’s fueling this poverty of ambition? This lack of go-getters boils down to complacency and fear of the unknown.

“Aim for the moon. If you miss, you may hit a star.”
–W. Clement Stone


Complacency is the ugly side of success. It’s a momentum killer and a dream slayer.

“Why can’t you just be satisfied with what you already have?”

“That’s good enough.”


I’ve got two words for you to live by:

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Al "The Inspiration" Duncan  ::   The Millennial Mentor  :: Soft Skills Expert
Motivational Speaker  ::  Youth Speaker ::  College Speaker


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