What’s the Difference Between Ambition and Motivation?

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If you want to know what the difference between ambition and motivation is, you’re in the right place.

Ambition is pursuing your goals with determination and grit. It’s having a desire to accomplish great things and become excellent. Motivation, on the other hand, is the driving force that propels your efforts to achieve those ambitions. Motivation gives you the energy and perseverance to reach your big ambitions.

There are some interesting nuances here that we’re going to get into throughout the rest of this article. We’ll look at definitions and examples of each, and explore which is better of the two.

Here we go!

Ambition vs Motivation: Word Math

Word math is something I made up to help me understand words better. It involves getting the definitions of words and then combining them to make them clearer so it’s easier to develop and apply them.

All definitions come from Oxford Languages. Here’s how it works:

Ambition: a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.

Synonyms: aspiration, goal, desire, objective

Origin: From the Latin “ambire” or “ambitio” which means going around to solicit votes for a candidate for office

Motivation: the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way. The general desire or willingness of someone to do something.

Synonyms: incentive, stimulus, drive

Origin: The Latin word “movere” meaning to move

So ambition is the desire to achieve something that requires determination and hard work while motivation is the reason that you have for acting the way you do. 

Both definitions use the word “desire” and while I was researching synonyms I found that these two are synonyms of each other. 

When talking about goal-setting, ambition and motivation are interchangeable. When you look into the different kinds of motivation and uses for it, that’s where the two separate. 

An ambitious person might have a lot of goals, while a motivated person might have a lot of energy to achieve their goals. 

Motivation is the incentive, while ambition is the aspiration.

Let’s look at some examples to go even deeper.

Examples of Ambition vs. Motivation 

Ambition is all about setting goals. Click here to read an article that gives some in-depth examples that explain it.

Motivation comes in two parts, intrinsic and extrinsic. You can learn about these in these two posts:

What Intrinsic Goals Are + 7 Examples of Good Intrinsic Goals

What Extrinsic Goals Are + 17 Examples of Extrinsic Goals

I used the word goals in those articles but it’s the same thing as motivation in this case.

Here are a few quick examples of motivation:

  1. A musician gains joy and satisfaction from playing their instrument, so they practice diligently.
  2. An employee works hard to get a raise and promotion because of their desire to have higher status and to earn more money.
  3. A writer finds motivation to finish their book because they know that it’s part of their dream of becoming a published author.
  4. An entrepreneur works 12-hour days to get their business up and running because they have a vision of becoming a millionaire.
  5. A father maintains a regular exercise routine and eats healthily to improve his physical fitness so he has the energy to spend more time doing fun things with his kids.

Many of these are all about desire and the vision of a better future. Ambition is similar, but is more associated with goal-setting. Here are a few examples of ambition that explain:

  1. An Olympic athlete aspires to win a gold medal, so they make a plan to dedicate years of training, discipline, and hard work to get there.
  2. A painter pushes the limits on what they can accomplish and their creative boundaries because of their ambition to get their artwork into renowned galleries worldwide.
  3. An individual wants to become a CEO of a successful company and becomes dedicated to working tirelessly to achieve their dream.
  4. A freshman in college sets a goal to one day get their Ph.D. so they can become a recognized expert and to take advantage of exciting research opportunities.

Again notice how many of these have to do with setting and achieving goals. Ambitious people have goals, motivated people have the desire to achieve their goals.

Which is Better, Ambition, or Motivation?

Ambition might only get you so far without motivation. But if you’re motivated but don’t have any direction or grit, you’re not going to achieve much either.

So which one is better?

I don’t love this question for the sake of trying to answer it, rather, I’m going over it here because it gives us a deeper understanding of the difference between motivation and ambition.

Let’s look at some of the benefits and drawbacks of each, starting with Ambition:

  • When you’re ambitious, you set goals and thus you get a clear direction and purpose for your efforts. It’s the driving force behind reaching your goals and becoming excellent.
  • Ambition includes planning for the long term and then being willing to work at it.
  • On the downside, being too ambitious could lead you to burnout, make dishonest compromises, or overplan.

Now let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of motivation:

  • If you have motivation you’ve got the fuel to stay consistent over a long time and to stick to your goals through difficulties. Especially if your motivation is intrinsic.
  • You can take advantage of intrinsic or extrinsic motivation to help you achieve your dreams, depending on your circumstances.
  • Some disadvantages include the potential to rely on extrinsic motivation, which might make you inconsistent. Or if you set intrinsic goals and don’t nurture that natural joy you get from doing the work, you could lose your motivation.

If I absolutely had to pick, I’d say that motivation is better. However, the reality is that both ambition and motivation are connected and rely on each other. Ambition can fuel motivation and being motivated can sustain your ambitions when things are hard.

Wrap Up

In summary:

  • Motivation is the reason you act the way you do or your drive to accomplish things, while ambition is the desire to achieve something and setting goals to get there.
  • A motivated person finds satisfaction in the efforts or outcomes, while an ambitious person puts a lot of effort into setting big goals and planning ways to accomplish them.
  • Motivation may be better than ambition in some instances, but the two are interconnected and rely on and strengthen each other.