What would be a clear and concise way to describe someone whose ambitions or aspirations far exceed his means or abilities?

  • I hope that you want a more substantial answer than 'dreamer' or 'fantasiser'? Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 18:44
  • @Edwin Ashworth: Indeed. I would like something that emphasizes the disconnect from reality and the hopelessness of the situation.
    – Vectorizer
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 18:46
  • 3
    A possible term is simply "over-ambitious". It generally has the mildest negative connotations, admitting the possibility of reasonable mistake in prior assessment of the situation. Other answers here suggest much more strongly either that the person's ambitions are, in the assessment of others, clearly out of kilter with a reasonable assessment of means, that the person is a fantasist by habit who lacks any will to execute, or that other character defects are in play.
    – Steve
    Commented Jun 5, 2019 at 14:10

15 Answers 15


“His reach exceeds his grasp.” This comes from Robert Browning's poem 'Andrea del Sarto' which contains the lines:

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?

  • 1
    Related: "A man's ideas should exceed his vocabulary / Else what's a metaphor?"
    – TMN
    Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 16:09

A person with ambitions or aspirations that far exceed their means or abilities would be quixotic. The term is a good fit because of its definition and because it brings to mind Don Quixote providing a mental picture of aspirations exceeding abilities.


Extremely idealistic; unrealistic and impractical.
‘a vast and perhaps quixotic project’ English Oxford Living Dictionaries

In this case an example would be: "Bob has quixotic ambitions"


Quixotic Has Roots in Literature
If you guessed that quixotic has something to do with Don Quixote, you're absolutely right. The hero of the 17th-century Spanish novel El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (by Miguel de Cervantes) didn't change the world by tilting at windmills, but he did leave a linguistic legacy in English. The adjective quixotic is based on his name and has been used to describe unrealistic idealists since at least the early 18th century. Merriam-Webster

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    I prefer 'dreamer' because I think 'quixotic' has connotations of moral aspirations. Commented Jun 5, 2019 at 16:57
  • 4
    I've always heard "quixotic" to be more in the sense of "futile". Commented Jun 5, 2019 at 18:59

You could work in an allusion to Thurber's character Walter Mitty.

Wikipedia explains:

Walter Mitty is a fictional character in James Thurber's first short story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", first published in The New Yorker on March 18, 1939, and in book form in My World and Welcome to It in 1942. Thurber loosely based the character, a daydreamer, on his friend Walter Mithoff. It was made into a film in 1947 starring Danny Kaye, with a remake directed by, and starring Ben Stiller released in 2013.The character's name has come into more general use to refer to an ineffectual dreamer and appears in several dictionaries. The American Heritage Dictionary [see also the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms] defines 'a Walter Mitty' as "an ordinary often ineffectual person who indulges in fantastic daydreams of personal triumphs".


He has been described as the Walter Mitty of the political world, a complete nobody who has somehow contrived a career out of standing on a soapbox and protesting against anything the mainstream politicians do.


My father worked for the same company for over 50 years and never even left his home state, but he was always something of a Walter Mitty, dreaming about a life of adventure.

[both Farlex Dictionary of Idioms]


Overreach is a somewhat bland term for this. Collins:

If you say that someone overreaches themselves, you mean that they fail at something because they are trying to do more than they are able to.


If he is actively pursuing those unrealistic ambitions, you could say that he is biting off more than he can chew.


They're a dreamer

dream·er (n)

a person who dreams or is dreaming.

a person who is unpractical or idealistic. "a rebellious young dreamer"

synonyms: fantasist · fantasizer · daydreamer · romantic · sentimental(ist)

Your exchange with @Edwin Ashworth makes it seem more along the lines of egocentric (disconnect from reality). As far as hopeless, you could describe them or the situation as classically pathetic.

path·et·ic (adj)

marked by sorrow or melancholy : sad

pitifully inferior or inadequate "the restaurant's pathetic service"


You could also say they bit off more than they could chew or they are out of their league. Agree with @Robby Cornelissen and @Lee Daniel Crocker

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    I definitely would say someone's "dreaming" in the context of lofty aspirations. I probably wouldn't call someone "a dreamer" these days, as the noun form has taken on a special meaning in the US. Commented Jun 5, 2019 at 15:53

Wannabe (mild slang/ informal) might fit a person aspiring to enter some other social group. There's a strong implication by the person using the term that he does not think the aspirant will ever succeed. Use as a noun ("a pathetic wannabe") or adjective ("a wannabe rock-star")



One could say that "their ego is writing checks their body can't cash".

From the 1986 movie Top Gun (imdb):

Top Gun

  • or you "that you can't cash." I've heard it "Your mouth is writing checks that you can't cash"
    – Carly
    Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 19:12
  • This quote is about high-risk behaviour, not necessarily about the lofty ambitions of a person without the skill to execute. Here it's about Maverick taking big risks with expensive military equipment that he has been given the privilege to operate and which he has not the means to replace should said equipment be destroyed as a result of that action. In this case he actually did successfully complete the risky mission, saving Cougar and his aircraft, but only as a result of a high risk action that could have ended up costing two pilots and two aircraft. Clearly he wasn't lacking ability.
    – J...
    Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 13:28

One might say the person is "Too Big for (his/her) Britches"

Urban Dictionary

Adjective phrase meaning that your assumed position is slightly larger than the actual position you belong in, hence the idiom referring to the too big for the pair of pants.

When you smarted off to the boss yesterday, everyone in the office thought you were too big for your britches.

  • Or he can be a Big Talker
    – Carly
    Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 19:13
  • 1
    Over here in the UK the equivalent would be "too big for his boots". Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 14:58


You may want to use the word "fanciful" in the context of "fanciful about his/her aspirations."

The definition of fanciful means that something is "overimaginative and unrealistic."

See here and here

  • Hi MilkyWay90, welcome to our site. This is a good start, but it's lacking one thing: supporting evidence. You've provided a definition, but there's no link or reference to indicate that you haven't simply made up the definition yourself. You'll give yourself a much greater chance of upvotes if you edit your post to cite the source of the definition and add a link to it. For further guidance, see How to Answer and take the EL&U Tour. :-) Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 0:30
  • @Chappo Great, thanks! I will update my answer as soon as I get done with my work
    – MilkyWay90
    Commented Jun 7, 2019 at 2:15

I think megalomaniac comes close to what you are referring to:

someone who has an unnaturally strong wish for power and control, or thinks that they are much more important and powerful than they really are.

(Cambridge Dictionary)

  • Thanks for the input. I thought about that and also delusions of grandeur but what I am looking for is not that the person believes that he is all that; instead his abilities not being in line with his desires.
    – Vectorizer
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 19:32
  • @Vectorizer - you say “whose ambitions or aspirations far exceed his means or abilities
    – user 66974
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 19:40
  • Yes, he is aspiring to but not believing that he actually is (just yet at least)
    – Vectorizer
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 19:46
  • A megalomaniac is someone normally who has an obsessive desire for power.
    – rghome
    Commented Jun 5, 2019 at 15:46

A phrase I have often heard in that context is Head in the clouds.

Head in the clouds

- (plural heads in the clouds) (figuratively, usually with have or with) Used to indicate that a person has fantastic or impractical dreams

  • Interesting! I've always heard this as an indication that someone is flighty or lacks focus. Welcome to EL&U and thanks for your answer. Commented Jun 5, 2019 at 15:57

There is a term in the psychological literature that might apply here or could be adapted for your use. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which a person believes their abilities are stronger than they actually are. See the wikipedia entry here for more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

This term seems to have the "disconnect from reality" emphasis that you mentioned you were looking for in the comments too.

For example, you might write something such as:

The candidate, having years of experience in politics believed she had the election won. She was certain she was better able to connect emotionally with voters, but when the results were tallied, she had lost to a political neophyte. The Dunning-Kruger effect, it seems, had robbed her of the election.

(Personal writing)

As empirical evidence of meta-ignorance, I describe the Dunning–Kruger effect, in which poor performers in many social and intellectual domains seem largely unaware of just how deficient their expertise is. Their deficits leave them with a double burden—not only does their incomplete and misguided knowledge lead them to make mistakes but those exact same deficits also prevent them from recognizing when they are making mistakes and other people choosing more wisely.

Dunning, David. Chapter five - The Dunning–Kruger Effect: On Being Ignorant of One's Own Ignorance. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. V44 (2011), p247-96.


You could say that his plans or ambitions are "grandiose". For example, the artilleryman in The War of the Worlds "briefly persuades [the narrator] of a grandiose plan to rebuild civilization by living underground".


I have heard the term " Would be could be " This is somebody that would be great if he could be but he really cannot be anything other than mediocre .

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