A Poverty of Ambition by Al Duncan

“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:

Get better.

Everyday you want to work on getting better,better health, better relationships, better finances, better marketing, being a better servant to a worthwhile cause, and the list goes on.

(I guess the 1.6 billion dollars people spend on cosmetic surgery per year is proof that there’s no poverty of ambition when it comes to being better looking!)

Greatness and complacency cannot exist in the same mind.

Think about that. What if Mother Teresa or Gandhi had a poverty of ambition?

What if Cesar Estrada Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Harriet Tubman, or Frederick Douglass had a poverty of ambition?

Scary thought, isn’t it. A poverty of ambition can change the world in ways I don’t even want to imagine. To be complacent is to stop striving and to stop striving is to waste to your most precious gift life.

“I have learned over the years that once one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done does away with fear.”
Rosa Parks


I was stunned.

I looked at the students in disbelief and thought to myself, ‘They must not know what a CEO is.’

‘How many of you all know what the CEO of a company does?’

A lot of them raised their hands and someone yelled, ‘A CEO is the boss.’

‘They are the leaders’, another student added.

My next question was: ‘Do you all know that sometimes the CEO is also the person who owns maybe even started the company?’

There was a wave of nodding heads as a chorus of yeses filled the air.

‘Do you all understand that the CEO makes the most money?’

More head nodding and more yeses.

By then I was flabbergasted. These were some of the best students I know students of the historic Butler Street YMCA’s Multicultural Achievers Program of which I’m am the Steering Committee Chair and the Life Skills Coach.

The students were in the middle of a project that involved creating a company. As a part of the project, they were applying and interviewing for positions in the company. Out of a few dozen high school students not one of them had applied to be the CEO.

When I started to investigate why no one wanted to be CEO I got all kinds of answers.

They didn’t know what to expect. (Fear of the unknown.) They didn’t know if it would be too much work for them to handle or if it would be too much responsibility. (Fear of success.)

If anything went wrong they would be the first ones blamed and the first ones fired. (Fear of failure.) They were worried about what might happen. (Fear of success or failure: the unknown.)

They were afraid of the unknown and it was killing their ambition.


For many people fear of the unknown is a debilitating phenomenon that fuels a poverty of ambition. Here are five questions, however, to help you deal with fear of the unknown:

1. What could happen as a result of doing (whatever the action or decision maybe)?
2. What probably won’t happen as a result of doing?
3. What could happen as a result of not doing?
4. What probably won’t happen as a result of not doing?
5. How will I deal with each of the four answers from those questions?

If you don’t know the answers to those questions then do some more research, get some more guidance or advice, and make the best educated answer you can.

(The students couldn’t answer those questions at first, so the Program Director and I asked the CEO of the Butler Street YMCA to come in and talk to them.)

It’s that simple and, at times, that hard. But the unknown and your fear will be minimized,not necessarily gone, but minimized by answering these questions.

Let’s get back to those birds in the bush.

Here’s the interesting thing. None of this means that you have to necessarily let go of the bird in your hand.

While you are looking at the two birds in the bush and squeezing that bird in your hand to death, here’s a something to ask yourself.

The Million Dollar Question: Who ever said you couldn’t have all three?

And no that’s not being greedy. That’s called abundance.

Stop asking too little of yourself.

Lose the poverty of ambition.

Get the know-how, a good plan, and put them to use because you deserve a life of abundance, don’t you? A life overflowing with achievement and fulfillment is waiting for you if you will simply:

Get better.

Al “The Inspiration” Duncan is America’s Leading Youth Empowerment Advocate, a self-development expert, and a World-Class Youth Motivational Speaker. Visit him online at Youth Motivational Speaker