‘Intelligence Without Ambition Is A Bird Without Wings’

‘Intelligence Without Ambition Is A Bird Without Wings’

Without ambition, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. Ambition is the driving force that makes our intelligence actually useful.

Photo remixed from an original by LaPrimaDonna.

Artist Salvador Dali is credited for this comparison between a lack of ambition and a bird being grounded. Perhaps you know an underachiever or two who could use a little prodding to be more ambitious. Hey, success or not, just reaching higher can make them happier.

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  • Ugh yes. I have a friend who is the most intelligent guy I know, anything he tries he masters. He has at least 2 degrees (useful ones!) and lives at home working a dead end job. Really upsets me to see his wasted potential.

    • I half expected you to end with:
      “But I found out he is using official x products, and I am soooo jealous.
      Go to this link!”

  • Can someone explain the quote to me please?

    Firstly, what is defined as ‘ambition” in the quote? I look at history and see intelligent people like Einstein, Galileo, Gauss, Tesla etc and I don’t really see them as ‘ambitious’. Maybe provide some archetypes of people who are/were both intelligent and ambitious for comparison.

    Also the term ‘bird without wings’ – what is the connotation there? Flightless birds like kiwis, penguins and emus are magnificent in their own right. So is the phrase meant to be negative or derogatory?

    • I think those people you listed were very ambitious. Ambition doesn’t necessarily mean becoming the head of a company or earning millions of dollars, ambition can simply be the drive to want to better yourself, and/or the world around you. If Einstein didn’t have any ambition for example, he’d have never gotten into academia and would’ve lived and died as a patent clerk.

      I thought “bird without wings” is pretty self explanatory and is obviously meant in the context of birds being generally thought of as flying creatures rather than a dig at penguins or emus. It’s meant to describe a person that has the potential to achieve higher things, but is stopped by a lack of ambition (or “wings”).

      • Thanks for your point of view. Definition of “ambition” from a dictionary is “an earnest desire for some type of distinction, as power, honor, fame, or wealth, and the willingness to strive for its attainment”. I don’t think Einstein (or any of those historic scientists) fit into any of those. He was certainly driven, especially by curiosity, but I’m still struggling to think of him as ambitious.

        • ambition [æmˈbɪʃən] n
          1. strong desire for success, achievement, or distinction
          2. something so desired; goal; aim

          There are many ways to look at the definition of a word. If you take into consideration meaning above, I would say you would class him as at least one or all of those descriptions.

    • Exactly the same thing for me. We need help. Somebody push us. At the moment I’m living in Germany trying to convince myself to do something more than learning German and we design in my spare time.

  • Depends on what the ambition is aiming towards. As a scientist, I’ve seen many “great” professors whose sole goal in life has become the promotion of their fame and collection of accolades. In doing so, they live in a world of secrecy, unwilling to share even the slightest of details until their name is clearly marked on everything they do.

    At the same time I also know many “great” professor who dedicate their life to furthering science for both personal curiosity and the knowledge of everyone. They care little for awards and prizes, (but receive them nonetheless for their great work) and a re meticulous in their work.

    So in the end, it depends on how pure that ambition is. Or whether we want a world fuelled by personal ambitions at the expense of each other

    • I’ve likewise seen some very, very intelligent researchers do some very dubious things with data because of the drive for publications and grants.
      Even worse is ghost writing in science, where someone basically puts their name to work written for the express purpose of getting their name on it to lend it authority. (I personally liked this relevant article in The Guardian.

      To be honest, I worry a lot less about ‘Intelligence without ambition’ and a lot more about ‘Ambition without ethics’.

  • Dalí eh?
    From Wikiepdia:

    In 1939, André Breton coined the derogatory nickname “Avida Dollars”, an anagram for “Salvador Dalí”, which may be more or less translated as “eager for dollars”.[42] This was a derisive reference to the increasing commercialization of Dalí’s work, and the perception that Dalí sought self-aggrandizement through fame and fortune. Some surrealists henceforth spoke of Dalí in the past tense, as if he were dead.[citation needed] The Surrealist movement and various members thereof (such as Ted Joans) would continue to issue extremely harsh polemics against Dalí until the time of his death, and beyond.

    That said, others felt differently.

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