I just read an interesting article about what it takes to be great. It is a different take on the notion of greatness and success and a worthwhile read. I agree with most of it:
- Being consistent
- Doing the work that’s boring
- Instant success isn’t the same as greatness
- Success is never linear
- Before you can be great, you must be good
One aspect of the article that I disagreed with is that being great is really being good repeatedly. If you are repeatedly good then you are, well, good. If you’re not repeatedly good, you are either lucky or a “flash in the pan.” But if you look at the most successful people in all walks of life, you see that they aren’t just good; instead they do what they do exceptionally well almost every day (they are consistent, but not perfect; even LeBron James has bad games). At the same time, very few of us have the ability to be truly great. Greatness, by definition, is a statistical anomaly; if everyone was great then no one would be great because “great” would then be the “average” and everyone above that would be some other word that describes a new level far above “great” (e.g., exceptional, extraordinary, remarkable).
So, what does it take to be great? I thoroughly reject the “10 years, 10,000 hours” notion that anyone can be an expert if they just put in enough time. The reality is that genes matter, whether innate intelligence or inborn physical talent. For example, you might be an incredible defender in basketball, but if your dream is to be a center in the NBA and you’re not 7 feet tall (or close), then you’re not playing in the paint for the Knicks, Warriors, or another NBA team. Or if you don’t have an incredibly high IQ (which is largely genetic), you’re not going to win the Nobel Prize for physics.
Another reality though is that you can’t control your genes. If you received good ones from your parents, thank them profusely. If you didn’t, don’t blame your parents because they didn’t choose their genes either. Instead, let it go and focus on what you can control because pining away for good genes is a huge waste of time and prevents you from getting the most out of the genes you have.
Innate ability is certainly a wonderful thing to have been given, but it is a bit overrated. Inborn ability is a necessary, but not sufficient, contributor to greatness. You need inborn ability to be great, but it isn’t enough. The world is full of gifted failures, of “can’t miss kids” who missed. Talent is only the starting point to greatness. If you’re fortunate enough to have won the genetic lottery, it puts you ahead of the field at the beginning of the race to be great. But, of course, races aren’t won at the start, but rather at the finish, and you have to work hard, push your limits, and struggle mightily to get to the finish for anything in life worth pursuing.
Ultimately, being great isn’t about being objectively great because, as noted above, the chances that you will achieve true greatness in some aspect of your life is, statistically, very small. Rather, your goal should be to find your own personal greatness. I define that as fully realizing whatever ability you were born with. That innate ability may not be enough to be a superstar in your area of achievement, but, if you do what is necessary (as described in that article), you will be pretty darned good and, well, that is pretty darned good, which probably means that you will find a reasonable level of success.
You might think that personal greatness isn’t the same as true greatness, that it’s just not that great. Certainly, widely recognized greatness has a lot of benefits, whether acclaim, wealth, or status. But if you ask those who have achieved this form of greatness, rarely do they speak about the external benefits (e.g., the Olympic gold medal, the book deal, IPO). Instead, they revel in pursuing greatness, the struggles they experienced and the satisfaction of overcoming them, and the small victories that led to the big success. In other words, and I realize that this is a well-worn cliché, they celebrated the journey to rather than arriving at the destination of their success.
Anyone who aspires to true greatness, but who only ends up finding their own personal greatness (remember, that will be about 99.9 percent of us), can experience the very same intrinsic benefits as those who become superstars in their field. And that experience is the real reason why we suffer the blood, sweat, and tears as we pursue something as elusive and unlikely as greatness.
Is personal greatness a consolation prize for losing the race for true greatness? Perhaps so, perhaps not. Given that it offers many of the intrinsic rewards of greatness and, in all likelihood, some extrinsic benefits, it’s a pretty decent prize. And certainly better than earning the rubber chicken of failure for a lack of trying or an unwillingness to risk.
Achieving your own personal greatness boils down to being:
- Passionate and committed (because a lot of that striving for your own personal greatness is boring, monotonous, tiring, and painful, so you have to want it badly)
- Patient (knowing it will take a long time and being willing to stick with it until you’ve achieve your goals or come close)
- Persistent (just keep grinding away)
- Perseverant (hanging tough in the face of setbacks)
- Open (to learning, new ideas and approaches)
- Agile (adapting to new circumstances on your journey to personal greatness)
- Resilient (accepting and bouncing back from the inevitable failures you will experience along the way)
- Relentless (setting your eyes on the prize and never wavering from striving toward your dreams)
If you live your life this way, I can’t guarantee that you will completely accomplish your goals, find your own personal greatness, or achieve some absolute standard of greatness, but I can say with significant confidence that very good things will happen. At the same time, I can also say with 100 percent confidence that if you don’t live your life this way, you will never experience the meaning, fulfillment, pride, inspiration, and joy that comes from the journey to your own personal greatness.
Which option do you choose?
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