Intelligence without Ambition Is a Bird without Wings

Salvador Dali? Walter H. Cottingham? Laura E. Riding? C. Archie Danielson? Anonymous?

dali08Dear Quote Investigator: Some individuals have impressive natural gifts and aptitudes but do not have strong desires or motivations. Their worthwhile potential achievements often remain unrealized. The following adage embodies this notion:

Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.

These words have been attributed to the famous surrealist artist Salvador Dali, but I have never seen a convincing citation. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence to support the ascription to Salvador Dali. A partially matching statement appeared in 1908: “A man without ambition is like a bird without wings”.

An exact match with an anonymous ascription appeared in 1996. In 1997 the statement was attributed to a person named C. Archie Danielson. These two names are alphabetically very close, and QI conjectures that a mistake led to the reassignment of the saying from Danielson to Dali. Detailed citations are given further below.

A wingless bird has been used in metaphors and similes for many years. In 1732 an influential compilation called “Gnomologia” was published by Thomas Fuller, and the following statement about money was included. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

He that is without Money, is a Bird without Wings.

In 1806 a translation of the work titled “The Rose Garden” by the 13th century Persian poet Saadi was published. One aphorism in the book referred to a wingless bird: 2

A student without inclination, is a lover without money; a traveller without observation, is a bird without wings; a learned man without works, is a tree without fruit; and a devotee without knowledge, is a house without a door.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1818 a journal called “The Parlour Companion” printed an article titled “The Passions” that included a bird simile. This instance moved closer toward the saying under analysis. Since “ambition” is a passionate feeling, the following statement was a thematic partial match for the modern adage; however, intelligence was not mentioned: 3

Our passions are the gift of nature, and the main spring of human actions; without them, man would be like a bird without wings, or a ship without sails.

In 1908 Walter H. Cottingham published an article in “System: The Magazine of Business”. The simile he presented moved even closer to the modern saying. The expression referred to ambition and a wingless bird, but it did not mention intelligence: 4

A man without ambition is like a bird without wings. He can never soar in the heights above, but must walk like a weakling, unnoticed, with the crowds below. He never feels the thrill of enthusiasm which pulsates through the veins of the ambitious man as he presses forward in the exciting struggle to reach his aim.

Cottingham’s words were memorable and other periodicals reprinted them. For example, in 1912 the “Independence Daily Reporter” of Independence, Kansas and “The Oswego Palladium” of Oswego, New York disseminated the following passage together with an ascription to Cottingham. The word “crowds” was changed to ‘crowd”: 5 6

A man without ambition is like a bird without wings. He can never soar in the heights above, but must walk like a weakling, unnoticed with the crowd below.
Walter H. Cottingham.

In 1916 “The State” newspaper of South Carolina printed an advertisement for a local bank that included an instance of Cottingham’s aphorism between quotation marks though no attribution was listed: 7

“A man without ambition is like a bird without wings. He does not progress and achieves no success.”

In May 1996 a student at the University of South Florida employed the saying under investigation during a speech given on graduation day. This was the first strong match located by QI, and the attribution was anonymous: 8

Laura E. Riding, the student treasurer, was named outstanding graduate. “I once heard a saying that ‘intelligence without ambition is like a bird without wings,'” Riding told students. “Well, let me tell you, these graduates are flying. I have never struggled with and laughed with a more ambitious group of people.”

QI hypothesizes that the saying above was derived directly or indirectly from the aphorism written by Cottingham in 1908. The statement was a bit more complex because it referred to “intelligence”.

In 1997 a collection called “Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes” included an instance of the metaphor with a precise ascription. Yet, QI has remained uncertain about this linkage to Danielson because the earlier citation was anonymous: 9

Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.

In September 1997 a college administrator welcomed students at Piedmont Technical College in South Carolina with a speech that included the simile: 10

Jo Groomes, vice president of student development, quoted a sign she saw on her way to work, “Intelligence without ambition is like a bird without wings.” She encouraged students to become involved in campus clubs and leadership activities.

By 2004 the saying had been reassigned to the prominent painter Salvador Dali who had died in 1989. The saying was printed in a Lakeland, Florida newspaper as a short item under the title “They Said It”: 11

“Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.”
Salvador Dali (1904-1989)
Spanish painter

How was the connection to Dali established? QI speculates that the quotation appeared in an alphabetical listing of quotations in which statements from Dali and Danielson were contiguous. An ascription was listed below each quotation. An inattentive reader grouped the quotation with Dali instead of Danielson by looking above the expression instead of below. This mechanism of misattribution helps to illuminate other misquotations; however, in this case, there is no direct evidence; hence, this conjectural explanation might be incorrect.

In 2007 “The Times” newspaper of London published a collection of supposed quotations under the title “The Wisdom of Dali in his own words”, and the saying was included: 12

The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet. The first to repeat it was possibly an idiot.

Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.

The only thing that the world will not have enough of is exaggeration.

In conclusion, QI has located no substantive evidence that Salvador Dali wrote or spoke this saying. The words were attributed to C. Archie Danielson in 1997 although an anonymous instance was published in 1996. The attribution may have shifted from Danielson to Dali due to an error. In 1908 Walter H. Cottingham crafted a precursor, and QI believes that the current adage probably evolved from Cottingham’s simpler statement.

Image Notes: Illustration of a bird without wings called the little spotted kiwi (Apteryx owenii) from G. D. Rowley, Ornithological Miscellany, via Wikimedia Commons. Portrait of Salvador Dali from Roger Higgins. Image from the New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection of the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Dr. Mardy Grothe and Ani Thompkins whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Grothe has published a series of books filled with sayings and quotations that have been beautifully curated and cleverly categorized.)


  1. 1732, Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs; Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British, Collected by Thomas Fuller, M.D., Quote Page 89, Printed for B. Barker at the College Arms, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1806, Persian Classicks, Volume I, The Gûlistân of Sâdy, Persian with an English translation by Francis Gladwin, Passage Number 71, Quote Page 319, Hindoostanee Press, Calcutta, India. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1818 November 14, The Parlour Companion, Volume 2, Number 46, The Passions, Quote Page 183, Column 1 and 2, Published by Thomas G. Condie Jr., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (ProQuest American Periodicals)
  4. 1908 December, System: The Magazine of Business, Volume 14, Number 6, The Greatest Game in the World: III Purpose and Plan by Walter H. Cottingham, (Vice-President and General Manager, Sherwin-Williams Company), Start Page 569, Quote Page 570, Published by The System Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1912 April 30, Independence Daily Reporter, (Quotation in box), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Independence, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1912 October 23, The Oswego Palladium, The Kitchen Cabinet, Quote Page 7, Column 5, Oswego, New York. (Old Fulton)
  7. 1916 November 07, The State, (Advertisement for The Palmetto National Bank of Columbia, South Carolina), Quote Page 7, Column 5, Columbia, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1996 May 6, St. Petersburg Times, USF holds packed graduation by Julia Campbell, Edition: South Pinellas, Quote Page 4B and 3B, St. Petersburg,, Florida. (ProQuest National Newspapers)
  9. 1997, Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes: Wit and Wisdom for All Occasions, Quote Page 21, Published by Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper)
  10. 1997 September 5, The Index-Journal, Piedmont Tech welcomes students with convocation, Quote Page 4A, Column 4, Greenwood, South Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 2004 January 2, The Ledger, Section: East Polk, They Said It, Quote Page F4, Lakeland, Florida. (NewsBank Access World News)
  12. 2007 June 2, The Times, Section: Features, Article: The Wisdom of Dali in his own words – Focus report, Byline: David Watts, Quote Page 3, London, England. (NewsBank Access World News)