On Greatness


Making great things is hard. Really hard. I know this because my I try to make great things and fail. Constantly.

My English teacher often gives us a challenge to see “if you can write something great in six minutes.” I hate him for this; it’s really hard. To “say something worth saying” has been his mantra. That saying has really stuck with me and caused me to consider what greatness really is.

I think about being great a lot. Not necessarily of my own greatness—though that does use up plenty of its own cycles of consciousness—but the greatness of others. What exactly does it take to be great anyway? More importantly, why aren’t I great?

There seem to be a few unifying components of greatness. The first is willingness to work hard. No one has become great by surfing the internet. Anyone who you would consider great has most likely achieved their status through sheer hard work, not necessarily their genius. In fact, their genius probably came after the fact, as a result of their work, rather than through any latent brilliance that was lurking beneath the surface, ready to be sprung upon the world. Take this interview with J.D. Roth or this interview with Gina Trapani. I would classify both of them as great people, and, sure enough, both credit their success at least partially to hard work and, in Gina’s words, “stick-to-it-tiveness.” Their trials—their work—shaped their thinking, made them who they are. There are very few born geniuses.

These hard-working people are usually passionate, too. Their passion gives them the drive they need to work hard and stay ahead. And they are always on. They think about their particular area of expertise all the time. Of course, I can’t be sure about this, but some of these great ideas and creations are so heady that one must think that they were the result of some intensely deep thought or else a seriously impressive stroke of genius. Without passion, they would likely fade away as have the millions of one hit wonders both on the internet and off. It takes a certain type of person to attract people to their creations; it takes a completely different type of person to keep them coming back. Actual great people—those who can consistently attract people—need passion to continue during the hard times, the times when the mediocre would have given up. Perseverance is just a derivation of passion and passion a derivation of brilliance.

Great people don’t just sit around thinking, either; they’re creating. Without creating something, there would be no sign of their greatness. They would be another cog in the mass machine, churning ideas. They’d be addicted to brain crack. But they’re not. Great people make things: books, songs, blogonet posts, videos, programs, stories, websites. Their greatness is in their creations. Their creations show signs of the hard work and unique genius of the person making it.

Finally, as a result of all these qualities, brilliant people have a lot of ideas. Not many are good, but they either work on them until they are good or come up with new ones. If there’s anything I’ve learned from looking at their creations, it’s that whoever made these things has a lot of ideas and does something with them.

The only question now: do you have what it takes to be great?

(I just realized that this brings up the question as to what a great person actually is. Does he or she have to be public to be a great? Obviously no, but these are the only ones we really hear about. In this post, I meant the people we can see that make great and interesting things, things that inspire you, fill you with wonder, and make you think.)

1My English teacher is a really interesting guy. He says a lot of really great things, and I can easily imagine him living up to the task he gives us. He’s funny, but he’s also a little arrogant, which might be another quality of greatness. While I don’t really like the guy, I’ve learned a lot from him.