Where Does Greatness Come From?

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Yesterday, I offered some thoughts on what actions and mindsets differentiate the great individual from the good individual. I concluded that there are two facets to the great person that the good person does not possess:

  • Endurance (The ability to put up with the hardship that the path to greatness brings with it for most people)
  • Contrarianism (The decision to go against the grain and do something different)

These are both important characteristics of great people, but they are merely that: characteristics. They do not actually tell us what motivates the great person and how that is different from what motivates the good-but-not-quite-great person. These mindsets -- these abilities to act in ways that others cannot -- are natural consequences of deciding and being motivated to greatness, but they do not constitute that itself. Simply being able to put up with hardship and being able to go against the grain does not make a person great. A person who stands against the tide for no reason other than to stand against it and to feel the pain of it on his face is not on the path to greatness.

Rather, the great person is motivated differently.

Being good typically brings with it all the laurels of success for modern western society. A nice home, a steady income, a beautiful home, a good car, and a job that makes Aunt Susie nod in approval over Christmas dinner.

Being great is a much more abstract concept. Breaking "good" down into a basic idea shared by most people is easier than doing the same for greatness. Greatness may mean being an excellent mother to one person, a fulfilled entrepreneur for another, being in charge of one's own life for yet another, and so on.

There's a reason for this disparity in definitions when mapped onto social conceptions of good versus great. The good person is motivated by outside desires -- an exogenous definition of success and how to achieve it. They look to other people -- possibly with envy or jealousy -- and decide that what those people have they too must achieve in order to be successful. They chase after jobs that have high starting salaries, are in sexy cities, and they can tell their friends about over alumni meetups. They cull the lists of universities for the most prestigious schools and then compare their median starting salaries for recent  grads as the way to make their final decision, without ever really confronting why they themselves are motivated to do so. They go for the most prestigious/envied person to go out with, without confronting what values that person holds may be.

Striving for good is therefore a self-fulfilling prophecy. Everybody is looking to everybody else to achieve what is defined as good, successful, or laudable in the eyes of their peers and their community.

The great person is motivated differently. They examine what their own values thus far are and how they can live these out in the world around them. They see what they want, reflexively look back on what those things are, and ask themselves why they want them. When they can justify those things as being willed from their own decisions, they pursue them and achieve fulfillment -- or greatness. For some great people, this results in having many of the status symbols for which the good-but-not-quite-great also strive. They may launch a company, build a family, write a book, or build a financial portfolio, but they know why they are doing it. They know what motivates them, even if it is just a curiosity to explore these things.

This is where they come into conflict with the world.

The great are contrarian not for contrarianism's sake, but because actually reflecting on what you want and how to achieve it requires thinking for yourself. While most others are looking to others for what it is they must strive to achieve, the great are looking inwardly. The incongruity in what their values lie out for themselves as a life plan and what the life plans of the good lie out lead to conflict. Maybe they'd rather start a family at 18, or drop out of college, or quit their corporate job, or take a corporate job, or simply do something unthought-of for others, because that is the natural consequence of being self-motivated.

Even when the great get carried away by their desires for status and material wealth, they secure themselves on stronger ground than the good. They can take solace in the fact that even if they fail, they were in the driver's seat of their pursuit the entire time. They are considerably less likely to look back over 25 years of life at age 50 and ask, "what was it all for so far?" than the good person is upon critical reflection.

To be great, examine what you value. Examine what makes for a good life for you. Examine what (and whom) you love. Lead an examined life. Be self-willed. Don't look to the outside world for definitions of success -- everybody in the outside world is doing that already.

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