How Ambition Has Changed During The Pandemic

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. and other elected official at the U.S. Capitol. (AP Photo/J. Scott … [+]

Can you be ambitious during a pandemic? After all, the root of the word ambition is the same root found in words that denote walking, like amble, ambulance, and perambulate.

The word origin website Etymonline says the origin comes from a Latin root which means to wander around to become more popular, which is a pretty good definition when you think about it. The site explains the word’s derivation: from Latin ambitionem (nominative ambitio) “a going around,” especially to solicit votes, hence “a striving for favor, courting, flattery; a desire for honor, thirst for popularity.”

When I think of the word in its original Latin form, I can easily imagine a Roman politician working the Forum, shaking hands, slapping allies on the toga, walking from house to house and shop to shop. We know that Roman politicians did this. There have even been some early campaign posters found in the ruins at Pompeii.


The modern form of politcal ambition has often meant flying, not walking, to greet supporters and well-wishers. The biggest prize to offer a significant donor was a chance to meet and shake hands with a candidate. Campaigns would offer photos, dinners, or autographs with the candidate to big donors or, sometimes, a lucky lottery winner. Elizabeth Warren became famous for taking selfies with every single member of her audience who wanted one.

That was only a year ago.

But what does it mean to be ambitious in the Covid-19 era? The new reality doesn’t just affect politicians. How can you be ambitious if you’re a young person, just out of college, who hasn’t secured a job yet? Or if you’re a junior executive, hoping to get some time with the boss, who just gave you a big project which gives you a chance to prove yourself?

You could ignore the CDC Guidelines and continue to work as though nothing has happened. Plenty of people are doing that. But a truly responsible ambitious person would know how out of touch that kind of behavior would be during this pandemic. It’s just not cool. Or smart.

There are famous examples of the walking around kind of ambition in history. Johnny Appleseed literally walked his way into the history books by going from plot of land to plot of land planting apple trees. Ben Franklin was ambitious by proxy, being carried aloft in a sedan chair by four prisoners to and from the Constitutional Convention. John Kennedy famously courted women voters by attending in-person teas arranged by women in his family.

The Zoom era has tried to replace the face-to-face meeting with more interactive opportunities. But do these allow room for ambition? Can virtual be just as effective as in-person?

By strict definition of the word, ambition is limited during this time of pandemic. Maybe now is the time for more thinking and reflection. It’s a great time to write. To archive your business or life files. When was the last time you organized your digital photos or reached out to a college friend?

Precisely because you can’t be truly ambitious in the original root sense of the word, maybe now is a time to dream, innovate and create. Maybe now is the time to write and record the album.

With the vaccine rollout gaining steam, this opportunity for reflection will move into the rearview mirror sooner than you think. Once enough people are vaccinated and herd immunity kicks in, there will be more opportunities for ambition than ever before. America has always been a land of movement and ambition. Will our panedemic year of stasis change what that means?

I’m an author, entrepreneur, former CNN exec, comedy writer, husband, and father. Tips, quips, advice and jokes on Twitter @willjeakle


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