The Two Facets of Greatness


In my blog post at the Praxis Blog today, I focused on what it means to be great. More specifically, I focused on what it takes to become something or somebody great and what you have to do to become great. Greatness is something almost all people say they would strive for, but very few achieve. Many become good, I note, but good is still at least a step away from great.

Being great is hard and it is different. You will have to go do something that others aren't doing, and this will likely result in you not being liked very much, maybe even by your own friends and family. This doesn't have to mean becoming Steve Jobs, either. It can mean being a homeschool parent in a community that places a heavy emphasis on traditional schooling. It can mean quitting your job at a large firm to start your own consulting group. It can mean dropping out of college to educate yourself and deschool your life.

Regardless, no matter which path to personal greatness you choose, you will most likely be looked down upon by the conventional, by the safe, but the good-but-not-quite-great. You will have to engage in the painful process of defiant creation. You may not succeed. You may fail miserably, with every physical and intellectual and moral muscle fiber in your body aching and pulsing, with your entire world against you, with nowhere to turn but the solace and comfort of the knowledge that you did what you wanted to do.

You may fail, but you may also succeed. You will certainly not succeed at greatness if you settle on being simply good. Being good is settling, because it requires doing what is traditional, what is tested and true, what is conventional.

It is said that the perfect is the enemy of the good, but the good is the enemy of the great. However you define greatness, don't settle for merely being good.

The following originally appeared on the Praxis blog.

“Would you like to be great?”

This is a question that lots of self-help and college freshmen ask themselves and others. “Sure, who wouldn’t?” is the usual response. Nearly everybody likes the idea of being great, whether this means achieving great wealth, securing an exclusive position in society, or absolutely crushing it at something they derive meaning from. Lots of people say yes to this question, but very few achieve it.

Many people achieve being good. They may have a nice family, a good house, a solid job, a degree from a prestigious institution under their belt, and drive a car that makes them feel good about themselves. They may be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, or some kind of job that gets the nods and applause of family and friends at Christmas dinner when Aunt Susan asks what they are doing with their lives now.

These people aren’t far from being great, and many would kill to be in their positions. Being good is good, but it is still not being great.

What separates the good from the great? What separates the moderately-successful businessman from the great businessman? What separates the good intellectual from the great intellectual?

There are as many variables in greatness as there are individuals, but there is one key question the great ask themselves and commit to that the good cannot:

“Are you willing to do what it takes to be great?”

Sure, some of the good nod when asked this question and say they would, but very few carry through on it. Being great may mean not having the same level of material comfort as quickly as one’s peers, not having the social approbation of holding a degree from an elite university, having to explain to grandma what you do, only to her confusion, and all the loneliness that comes with the road to greatness.

Going from good to great (or bypassing good altogether) takes being somebody who is willing to forego these basic comforts of success for a vision of something more. It takes being somebody who is okay with risk, okay with some discomfort among friends and family, and definitely okay with being lonely on that path.

Steve Jobs was fired from Apple. Bill Gates was drug in front of Congress on accusations of building a monopoly. Elon Musk is regularly labeled a madman in media outlets. Travis Kalanick’s first company was shut down by the government.

Besides having put up with the pain of being on the road to greatness, what substantively separates these people from the good? What can you realistically do to set yourself apart from the mediocrity of being good and put yourself towards being great?

Something different.

There’s no formula to greatness beyond doing something different. If you follow the worn path of being good by so many before you, you will most likely be good, but not great. To break out into greatness you have to buck the norm, break the mold, and strive for something more. While all your friends and peers are heading off to college or graduate school, you have to look to do something different. When everybody else is settling down in their familiar communities, you have to try something different. When you are thinking of heading back to college after taking a semester off, drop out and go found a company, fly across the world in a small airplane, write a book — whatever you do, do something different.

If you aren’t comfortable with the grit, pain, and loneliness that comes with doing something different to achieve greatness, then that’s okay. That just means that greatness isn’t for you. But if you are comfortable with the very real possibility that you will, at one time or another, be an outcast, be vindicated, be destitute, and be risking it all, then you can strive for — and quite possibly achieve — greatness.

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I'm Zak. School should have taught you how to succeed at work and build a great career. Instead, it taught you that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. Thankfully, I teach what school never taught.

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