The Pursuit of Greatness

I’ve never been great at anything. It drives me fucking nuts.

John Wooden and Vince Lombardi were great coaches. They’ve won multiple championships in their sports. They are still incredibly respected. They are quoted all the time. I’m a good coach but I’m certainly not wearing any championship rings.

Michael Jordan was a great basketball player. Maybe the greatest. I was a decent player who got the attention of some smaller D3 schools. I ended up going to Syracuse where I certainly wasn’t good enough to make the team.

Michael Jordan

I could fool you into thinking I was a great guitar player if you listened to me for no more than 3 minutes. Then you would quickly realize that my skills were pretty limited, my licks repetitive and my sense of time just slightly off.

I was watching one of those 10-minute ESPN documentaries the other day. You know, the one’s that make you cry every time you watch them because they are about soldiers coming home from overseas to surprise their kids at a Little League game or some 9 year-old who is an enormous USC fan and is about to undergo surgery that will make him blind so they make him part of the team for the day and let him lead them out of the tunnel on game day right before he heads into the hospital.

The one I was watching was about a single guy who adopted a boy with no legs. Not only does he care for the boy and act as his aid in the classroom during the day, he takes him to wrestling practice with him after school (the Dad is a wrestling coach) where the kid sits in the corner and does his homework. Then, the Dad takes the kid through a wrestling practice. He’s gotten so good he’s won tournaments in his age group. Without legs!

Now that is a great Dad.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d wrestle a bear if it threatened my kid. Hell, knowing me, I’d fight the bear if I thought my kid would get a kick out of it. I love him more than anything in this world. But a successful Dad day for me is if we get to the movies on time and no one chokes on the popcorn while we’re there.

fighting a bear

You may be thinking that this is no big deal. Very few people are truly great. There is a reason everyone I mentioned is famous and I’m sure you could come up with your own list of exceptional people like Steve Jobs or Abraham Lincoln or Wayne Gretzky. And then there are the billions upon billions of us in the world that never really achieve this level of recognized greatness.

The problem lies with the fact that I really, really wanted to be great. Part of the issue is that I never really had the natural talent to excel in the things that interested me. I never had a great eye for drawing even though I was obsessed with it as a kid. I spend a lot of time weightlifting but I’m not really built well for the sport and I picked it up way too late in life. I loved playing the guitar and used to practice all the time but I’ve found plenty of excuses to not play at all the last few years.

And, if I am going to be honest with myself, on top of not having exceptional talent, I probably haven’t done the things it truly takes to be great, which is the actual topic of this post – what do people who are great do to become and stay great. Clearly this is not a “how to become great in 12 weeks” type of list. If you want to be great you must be in it for the long haul.

They Consistently Work At It Every Day

When it is greatness that you are after, there are no off days. People like Kobe Bryant and Bill Gates work tirelessly and constantly in order to improve their skills, their products, their business or whatever it is they are trying to achieve. High level CrossFitters like Ben Smith, Rich Froning and Katrin Davidsdottir will perform 4 or 5 workouts per day. Floyd Mayweather would go for a run at 2AM just to get some extra work in. Gates found himself sleeping in his office in the early days of Microsoft.

If you want a great example of this I highly recommend you seek out the documentary “Jiro Dreams Of Sushi”. It is about a man who has been working on perfecting his skills at creating sushi dishes for 75 years. 75 years! His team of chefs and apprentices work just as tirelessly spending years on creating exceptional rice and omelettes. Years. On an omelette. Jiro’s restaurant is in a subway station. A very nice subway station, but still, it’s a subway station. They’ve received a 3 star rating from Michelin. For a 10 seat sushi restaurant. In a subway station.

omelette sushi

If you want to be great you are going to need to expose yourself to the thing you want to get great at over and over and over again. And your one-hour workout or 8 hour work day just doesn’t cut it. It has to become an all-consuming obsession. At least for a while.

They Seek Solutions

As critical as consistency may be so is being creative and seeking solutions to problems and issues that arise. Very few achievers work in a total vacuum. They have surrounded themselves with the right physical therapists, shot doctors, computer coders, advisors and small teams of trusted experts that can help them solve any problems that may hinder them from getting to the next level. Remember, these are people who are already exceptional and they are endlessly scouring for ways to get as little as 1% better. The rest of us who think we can get by just fine without coaching and other outside input are either too naïve, too egotistical or too embarrassed to realize that we don’t have all the solutions ourselves. The minute you let that go and seek the help of others (and you should be relentless in making sure you are seeking out the right people) that is the minute you are on a faster track to greatness.

They Are Not Afraid of Failure

This notion is so cliché at this point that I really want to skip right over it but it goes hand and glove with the point above. When you try different things not all of them are going to work. The greats have no problem with this, realizing that it is merely part of the process. They make no excuses for failure and use the experience to learn and become even greater. So never fear failure. In fact if you are failing on the regular you should be assured that the correct answer or path is right around the corner. Remember, Apple released the Newton long before they ever got to the iPad.

They Surround Themselves with Excellence

This is one of our Commandments of Fortitude and something you should strive for whether you seek greatness or not. But you will rarely find the greats surrounding themselves with losers or hangers-on (and if they do, they won’t be great for long). Rather they surround themselves with people who can compliment and elevate whatever it is they are trying to achieve. Is there a Jobs without a Wozniak? Who knows?

The flip side of this is the great ones definitely make the people who are around them much, much better. Scottie Pippen and the rest of the Bulls would have paled without Jordan. And we certainly wouldn’t be taking about Woz if he hadn’t been partnered with Jobs. But the fact remains that the greats have a tight circle of people they can trust who bring something to the table that makes them even better.

They Sacrifice

If you are an everything-in-moderation person or believe life should be a perfect balance of home, work, spiritual and whatever other values you hold important than a life of specific greatness will most certainly elude you. This is not necessarily a bad thing. No one said the greats are happy. They are merely great at something. You may be completely satisfied with being a Mom who also works 30 hours per week, goes to the gym every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and is active in her church. Sounds like a very full and fulfilling life. But distributing your time in this way doesn’t leave you much time for the first item on our list – obsessively working on that which you want to be great at. Those at the top sacrifice nearly everything else to be excellent. It’s up to you to determine whether it's worth it.

They Have Talent

Pretty serious list so far. And now that you have a small insight into what it takes to be great you would think that greatness might elude everyone. Yet there are plenty of people willing to do all the above but only a few of them will truly be great. Because to really separate yourself from the herd you do need the talent of an outlier. David Robinson was 7 feet tall and moved like a gazelle. This is not something you can just work for. The right genetics, opportunities, coaches, nutrition and a whole host of other factors had to line up just for him to have a shot at working hard enough to have a decade plus career in the NBA. I believe that guys like Gates and Zuckerberg have a mind for coding. Sure they did everything else on this list to get great at it but they also started way ahead of someone like, say, myself, whose complete understanding of binary code begins and ends with the one and the zero. The greats have a built-in “X factor”. A head start that so few get.

But this guarantees nothing. There are plenty of talented people who washed out because, while they had all the talent in the world, they had no work ethic or surrounded themselves with a posse of losers or were too afraid to fail.

At 44 years old my chances at greatness are slipping away. I’m too old to be a child prodigy. My talents have already revealed themselves. When you get to this point words like potential no longer apply to you. But, still, I find myself trying to apply all the principles above. Trying to be great. To not do so would be to give up.

And I won’t give up.

I won’t stop working.

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