“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 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. It means 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. Being 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?
It takes 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, 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.