I’ve seen a lot of commencement addresses for the class of 2020 recently, an outpouring of advice prompted by the lack of a more traditional ceremony because of the coronavirus-related lock-downs. If we’re being completely, brutally honest, most of them have similar themes, and say similar things, and convey similar messages, whether they’re from a celebrity, a political figure, or a businessman. I generally skim through a few of these as I’m reading the newspaper, but one title, or rather subtitle, caught my eye. It didn’t catch my eye for being resonant with me, but rather because it was so completely contrary to any advice I would ever give anyone, if I were in any way qualified to give someone advice. It was talking about the important of letting go of myths of greatness.
Since I try very hard to approach things with an open mind, to read broadly, and to accumulate information from a wide variety of perspectives and viewpoints, I read this article about being not great. It’s core message was that we will be disappointed if we aspire to a greatness that most of us can never actually achieve, and so it’s best to just give up on those myths, and focus on being satisfied with living a life that’s good enough.
Well, I read it, and I thought about it, which I think was very generous of me, and I still think it’s a horrible piece of advice. “Good enough?” If the authors of the US Constitution had settled for “good enough,” they wouldn’t have written a document that has created the most enduring and prosperous republic in history. If Brunelleschi had settled for “good enough,” we wouldn’t have learned how to build domes without interior support. Had the engineers on the Apollo program settled for “good enough,” the crew of Apollo 13 might never have gotten back to Earth. We should never settle for “good enough.”
Greatness isn’t a myth. Greatness is what people who care about what they do accomplish every day. I say it often, because it has offered me insight into how people think: we are all of us the protagonists of our own story, and we spend each day writing our own narrative thread. That’s important, because it allows us to define greatness a little differently, which I think is where the article I read went astray. Although it never expressed it directly, the implication seemed to be that only so many people can be truly great, and that they are the people who are Names, the people that everyone knows who they are, either in the present or through history: Caesar, Shakespeare, Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Churchill, Euler, Greene, Einstein, Jordan, Musk, Bezos, Gates…those kinds of people. If that is truly what you think you must be to be great, you must be someone who is known and remembered by millions of people throughout history, someone who has a chapter in the history textbooks, then maybe the article did have good advice. Not all of us can be world leaders or famous inventors or brilliant purveyor of business.
That, to me, is not greatness. It’s not a motivation to do amazing things. I set out each day to be great at what I do. I set out to be a great engineer. When I sit down to write, I am setting out to be a great writer. When I go run, I set out to be a great marathoner. Would it be nice if some of those things brought me fame and fortune? Absolutely. But those trappings are not a requirement to be to be great at the things I do. Greatness isn’t a state of achievement. I don’t think you cross a finish line or reach a peak, look around, and say “yes, now I am great.” Greatness, to me, is an aspirational state. Caring about something, and doing whatever is in your power to be better at it, every day, is being great. And the achievement of greatness is in continuing to do that.
Sometimes, doing that will result in the other kind of greatness. I don’t think that most people who become Names set out with that goal in mind. Instead, I suspect that they spent each day writing their story, getting better, striving for that aspirational state of greatness. They strove valiantly, and kept on striving, and maybe one day they paused for a moment, looked around, and thought “wait, did I do all of that? Is that really me?” The Founding Fathers (most of them, at least) didn’t set out to have a revolution and create a new nation. They just wanted liberty and justice, and they set out to do what they could to bring that about. Lincoln didn’t become president so that he would be written into the history books. He became president because he thought he had something valuable to add, to make something he cared about better.
So I implore you: don’t abandon your dreams. Don’t give up on greatness. All of us have the potential to accomplish anything to which we set our minds. As individuals, the only standard we should be measuring ourselves against is ourselves, and as long as we’re getting better, we’re on the road of greatness. I don’t know where that road leads to, but I’m going to keep dreaming about the journey. I hope you do, too.