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How do you define “ambition”?  Is it a desire? A goal? A dream? Some condition or achievement to be reached?  Or is it a feeling, an attitude, a drive that pushes some people towards that condition or achievement — or maybe just more generally to achievement, without regard to a specific goal?  Most of us feel we have ambitions — things we want to do or get — even if we don’t think of ourselves as having much ambition.

Most people do not think of ambition as action — it’s a noun (although the dictionary does point out it can be used as a verb meaning “desire”, in practice that would just sound like bad Fakespeare — “I ambition to rule!”).  But how you think about ambition does influence how you act.  And a little knowledge about the original meaning of “ambition” might influence how you think about it — in a positive way.

Words change meaning and connotation over time, of course.  The word “nice”, for example, originally came from a Latin root meaning “ignorant”, and since shifted meaning a half-dozen times — first to “foolish”, then to “wanton”, then “finicky”, then “precise”, then “pleasant”, and then eventually to “respectable”.  So calling someone a “nice girl” 500 years ago meant pretty much the exact opposite of what it means today.

“Ambition” also comes from Latin — “ambitio”, meaning “to go around”. Not as in “to avoid”, but as in “to go around asking for votes”.  In other words, to campaign.  Ambition was the act of getting out there and talking to people, with a particular, achievable goal in mind.  A person wasn’t called “ambitious” because he seemed to have some inner drive to succeed; he was called “ambitious” because he demonstrated specific actions in the real world.

Ambition no longer means “campaign”, which is a shame, for two reasons.  First, “campaign” is clearly seen as both a noun and a verb — no one can claim to be on a campaign unless she is actually out there campaigning.  We should all inject an element of campaigning into our own ambitions — not just wanting something, and not just wanting to succeed at everything we do, but actually taking specific active steps towards those things that mean the most to us. 

Second, anyone can campaign, in his or her own way.  The image of the ambitious person as someone born with a special fire — and the self-images that some of us have as either lacking the capacity to burn in that way, or waiting for fate to touch us with the spark that will finally set us ablaze — are distortions that can keep us from progressing towards fulfillment.  The passion that particular people feel at different times and to different extents can help to fuel ambition, but if you think of ambition as action rather than inclination — if you choose a goal, no matter how modest, and then actively campaign towards its achievement — you will discover that everyone can be ambitious.  And that it works both ways — ambition (as a verb) can fuel passion.