Ambition v. Overambition
July 8, 2012 9:40 AM   Subscribe

What separates "ambitious" from "overambitious?"

I’m a college student; I’m surrounded by ambitious people; I definitely consider myself to be an ambitious person.

I’ve recently started to question, though not necessarily with respect to myself or my future goals, what separates an "ambitious" person from an "overly ambitious" person.

For example, are "overly ambitious" people those who want to achieve certain goals, despite the fact that the odds of achieving those goals are almost non-existent (e.g. "Someday, I want to be President!")?

Or, contrarily, is someone "overly ambitious" because the goal they want to achieve requires an aptitude above and beyond their personal competence?

I’m sorry if this question seems somewhat abstract. Examples that demonstrate ambition/overambition are fine; but what I really want to know is why you think someone is ambitious versus overambitious.

Thank you MeFi!
posted by lobbyist to Human Relations (26 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Overly ambitious would resort to unethical or questionable tactics.
posted by Brian B. at 9:43 AM on July 8, 2012 [9 favorites]

Generally I think of overambition as subordinating people to goals, whether through neglect or using them as a means.

And "people" includes oneself.
posted by pdq at 9:47 AM on July 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

Yes, unethical or questionable tactics, or sacrificing too much in other areas of life, such as friends or family.
posted by BibiRose at 9:48 AM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

Overambition involves a significant amount of hubris. You want to do things not because it will benefit you or the people around you, but because there will be a neat label saying "[your name] did it". Most of our goals do involve some amount of pride, but I believe overambition goes up and beyond that... you get tunnel vision and it's all you can think about. And as everyone mentioned, it also involves stepping on others to get to where you want or only thinking of that goal in relation to yourself (ignoring other aspects of your life).
posted by raintree at 9:57 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's not really a defined term like that. Overly just enhances ambitious, which means too much. There are a lot of ways it could go.

Here's how I think of it, though: When ambition is too high of a priority. If you want to be a physician, you're ambitious. If becoming or being a physician means you regularly neglect your family, friends and loved ones because you're so focused on medicine, then you're overly ambitious.
posted by J. Wilson at 10:00 AM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ambitious involves risk-taking and setting goals that it is possible to fail at.
Over-ambitious means one is taking on too much, too fast, without much regard for the practical restrictions on the scope and pace of their plans.

It is ambitious to want to be President, and to actively work towards that.

It is over-ambitious to say in the US, "I'm 32, I want to be president by the time I'm 36 so maybe I should start running for political office or something?" And then when someone points out that you're a naturalized citizen you say "Oh right, maybe an amendment about that should be my first big cause!"
posted by newg at 10:10 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I agree overambition can manifest itself in a number of ways. One that I don't think has been mentioned yet is when it leads a person to neglect smaller, feasible, and genuinely good outcomes. Like if someone decided to devote his life to breeding and establishing a new, super-nutritious grain for poor countries, and spent 20 years pursuing that, when with the same effort, the same person could have brought sustainable farming of existing grains to more people than would ever benefit from the new grain.
posted by lakeroon at 10:22 AM on July 8, 2012

Ambition fits into a happy and fulfilling life. Overambition does not.
posted by meese at 10:25 AM on July 8, 2012 [5 favorites]

People are overambitious when they are more ambitious than I am.
posted by box at 10:27 AM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

overly ambitious is when one is hurting other people to get to one's goals.
posted by seawallrunner at 10:32 AM on July 8, 2012

Or, contrarily, is someone "overly ambitious" because the goal they want to achieve requires an aptitude above and beyond their personal competence?

Sometimes. And this ties in with the unethical tactics people have mentioned, because the reaction to that is frequently to claim credit for another's work because they cannot do what they have claimed to be able to do or (sometimes) see themselves as able to do it even though they cannot. 'Man's reach should exceed his grasp', yes, but if it turns out that yup, that was not a good thing and your reach really wasn't up for it, an ambitious person recognises that and works to rectify that ethically. An over ambitious person just lies and stands on the bodies of others to get that reach a little bit further.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 10:52 AM on July 8, 2012

I think of over ambitious as being in the same vein as "spreading yourself too thin". For example, it would be over ambitious to have an 80 hour a week job while running a start-up and raising 6 foster kids - by trying to to do too many ambitious things at once, you end up doing a terrible job at all or most of them.
posted by fermezporte at 11:05 AM on July 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think of "overly ambitious" as "unrealistically ambitious", to include anything that may be unrealistic due to personal ability, real-life physics (there are only 24 hours in a day and you need to be sleeping for some of them, etc.), not accounting for bad luck, good ethics, or anything else. It's not overly ambitious to decide you want to be President if you're Junior Senator Barack Obama and have all of the personal qualities one needs to be president. It is overly ambitious to decide you want to be an astronaut as you're finishing up your art history degree.

Anyway these days I think the bar for "ambitious" is kind of low. At 28 my ambitions have been exactly the same since I was 18 and I haven't achieved them in any lasting way yet. They consist entirely of getting a job with adequate income and health insurance.
posted by bleep at 11:05 AM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

I guess different people have different definitions. To me what people are describing is when ambition becomes a negative personality trait (it isn't always), when a person is too ambitious. To me, being overambitious is distinctly different to being too ambitious. Being overambitious means specifically having ambitions that exceed your abilities (IMHO anyway). It could also mean to have an ambition that just isn't going to happen for reasons unrelated to a persons skills or dedication.
posted by missmagenta at 11:07 AM on July 8, 2012

Both meanings seem to apply in different contexts.

My first thought on reading your question was "Ethics" - like many have said earlier.

But on later reflection, the words over ambitious are also used when someone seems to be reaching for something beyond their natural ability/talent/skills or experience.
posted by infini at 11:27 AM on July 8, 2012

what I really want to know is why you think someone is ambitious versus overambitious.

Overambitious isn't a clearly defined word, and I am not sure I would use it when other, more-precisely defined terms are available.

People with poor ethics are unpleasant, as are people who are full of hubris and/or "all hat, no cattle" types.
posted by deanc at 11:54 AM on July 8, 2012

On top of the negative connotation already described above about ethics or sacrificing things one really shouldn't, "overambitious" is often used as shorthand for "I don't believe they have the capacity to do the thing they're trying to do." It's a subjective descriptor of lack of faith and doesn't necessarily reflect the reality of the situation.
posted by Andrhia at 12:04 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I tend to think of Macbeth as a good example of overambitious.
posted by luckynerd at 12:09 PM on July 8, 2012

An action or goal is ambitious if I would do it; it is overly ambitious if you would do more than I would do.
posted by Postroad at 12:19 PM on July 8, 2012

"...a man's reach should exceed his grasp" (Robert Browning, in the poem “Andrea del Sarto”)

"Dream no small dreams, for they have no power to move the hearts of men." (Goethe)

Ambition itself is wonderful. It can motivate us to do and make beautiful things.

If ambition comes from anger, or fear, or mistaken knowledge, if it will not change when the heart or the world changes, then the strength of ambition can be the bully that breaks and saddens oneself and others.
posted by amtho at 12:27 PM on July 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Overambitious people are not happy unless they are being overly ambitious.
Sometimes I think this applies to ambitious people as well.
They are much happier climbing Everest or playing tennis than being at home with their spouse and kids.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:28 PM on July 8, 2012

I would use the words 'overly amibitious' to describe someone who's ambition is harmful to them rather than hard to achieve. Someone who is so soley focused on their ambition that they neglect the other areas of their life.
posted by Laura_J at 2:07 PM on July 8, 2012

posted by Rash at 2:16 PM on July 8, 2012

Ah. I wouldn't describe a person as overambitious--I would describe plans as overambitious-- and those would be plans that are too grandiose to be realized. Think about a grammar school play envisioned with amazing special effects and good acting. If someone presented that to me, I'd respond, "I think these plans are a bit overambitious."

That said, "ambition" is sort of an ambivalent word. The Greek word for ambition is "philodoxia" (φιλοδοξία) whose etymology implies "love of glory."
posted by deanc at 3:11 PM on July 8, 2012 [3 favorites]

To me, ambition becomes overambition when fulfillment of the ego is the driving force in the pursuit, not the legitimate desire to make useful contributions to one's life.
posted by strelitzia at 1:19 PM on July 9, 2012

The ability to deliver - you're overambitious if you consistently come up short when trying to take on new things.
posted by fixer at 5:40 PM on July 9, 2012

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