Can you be a great man (or woman)?

I was talking with friends last night over wine and the notion of being a great man came up. It was surprising at least two of us had thought about this at one time or another, yet I can’t recall the last time I’d seen a magazine, a TV show or essay explore the idea.

So we spent some time running through names of some potentially great men/women, and then settled on two more challenging questions.

1. Can you be a “great man” or “great woman” without being an asshole?

The easy definition of a great man/woman is based on external achievement. People who cure a disease, lead a nation, pioneer progress, earn great wealth, or inspire many others. And for a variety of reasons, I’ve read many biographies about people who qualify in various fields.

It turns out many of them were jerks. Talented and driven, but hard to like.

Some were estranged from their families (Woody Guthrie) , had difficult marriages (Martin Luther King. Jr, and too many others to count), behaved unethically (Any of the robber barons of the 19th, 20th or 21st centuries) and treated co-workers, partners or subordinates poorly. Edison ignored his kids. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were notorious for yelling at people who worked for them. Run through any list of greats and you’ll find many were quite mean, immature or depressive, despite their legendary success.

It raises the question: is being a jerk a necessary quality to achieve greatness?

It’s surprisingly hard to find people who

  1. Achieved great things for the world
  2. Were happy
  3. Treated people closest to them well

Can you think of people who meet even two of these criteria (1&2 or 1&3)?  Please leave a comment.

2. Are the truly great people the ones whose names we’ll never know?

For someone to be famous enough to be a household name in their lifetime, they’re likely fame seekers. Prolonged fame is unlikely to be accidental. This means the names we know of great people are ones who chose to put energy into being perceived as great, and the books and movies are slanted towards people egotistical enough to set out to be seen as great. These are people who focused on how the world sees them, perhaps at the expense of how their children, their partners, their neighbors, and their community sees them.

Perhaps true greatness, or a truly great person, is someone who does the right things for the right reasons without expecting grand external rewards. They don’t do things “to be the best” or “to be famous” or “to be a legend”. Instead they sacrifice those ambitions in favor of simply doing what the people around them most need. They want to be great only through being useful to those they care about most, regardless of how little acclaim they get from the whole wide world for it.

It might just be that the dedicated policeman, the passionate high school history teacher, the great Mom/Dad, the wonderful Uncle, are the people who are truly great, because they add real, honest, local value to the world for its own reason. They’re not blinded by ego, so they can more clearly see the simple, obvious, but critical  needs they can satisfy.

While someone else might be able to make a billion dollars, they know only they can raise this child, teach that student, support this community, or help that friend in times of need. And unlike the worldly kind of greatness, which is spread wide and thin across thousands of people, it might be only the other kind of greatness, the humble local kind, that has the potency to run deep into people’s hearts and memories, changing them for the better, forever.

What do you think? What does it mean to be a great person?

61 Responses to “Can you be a great man (or woman)?”

  1. Divine Idiong

    True to the comment of John Weldon, Jesus remains the greatest man that has ever lived(historically and ‘biblically’).

    Again the writer of the article has a great point when he said great men are hard to like. Jesus very likely caused his immediate family members and immediate community pains. Imagine what Mary and Joseph went through when Jesus brought up new teachings that ran contrary to the ones the Jews already had; making them sought to kill him. Jesus did not acquire or achieve great things(riches and political power) of the world. He treated people well and He achieved his goal on earth but as for his happiness while on earth, I can’t say much. I only know he went through a lot of difficulties that would make any man unhappy.

    I have been seeking greatness. And through this article, I can see exactly where to focus.

  2. Michael

    Scott could I use the few lines below to put on my friends award application.

    might be only the other kind of greatness, the humble local kind, that has the potency to run deep into people’s hearts and memories, changing them for the better, forever.

    It just suits him perfect.

    Kind wishes Michael

  3. Jeff Ryan

    Great post, and a subject some of us “common” folks have been pondering recently since the death of Steve Jobs and Dennis Ritchie (the creator of the C programming language) this month!

    One person I can think of who may fit the answer to your question is John Bogle – founder and CEO of Vanguard Mutual Funds. He had a solid character, and a great reputation with those who he worked with. John is a man who changed the world of investing and brought Wall Street to the common investor.

  4. Den

    Nikola Tesla. He achieved extraordinary things. Although he never sought fame and isn’t truly remembered for his achievements in the general public may have been a sweet and modest man, according to personal accounts anyway.

  5. Kenna Smith

    The only great man is God ( AKA Jesus). There are some people who try very hard to be like them but we are not even capable to achieve such greatness, no matter how hard we try. The only greatness we EVER achieve in life is to get out of the world and its sin and live a Holy life.

  6. jamie

    hum, Gandhi, Mandela, Luther King jr, mother Theresa, Bagat Shing, Terrence mekkna, the Beatles and maybe Buddha, Mohamed, Jesus, Confucius but i guess the latter are mytical now.

    you where just limiting your self to tech people, though i will like to point out Feynman he always seemed happy

  7. Sean Crawford

    Three good political leaders who did not seek fame: Lincoln, who he barely got the nod from his party at a leader convention; Diocletion, who revitalized the Roman Empire, but couldn’t stop its decline. (no one could) He was found by the praetorian guard hiding behind a tapestry (his feet showed below the curtain) and Harry Truman, my favourite 20th century U.S. president.

    Truman got in only because Roosevelt picked a little known guy to be the vice president, and then died. Yet Truman went on to do the Marshal plan, swiftly racially integrated the armed forces (in contrast to the laboured “don’t ask, don’t tell”) and stood up to communism. He fired MacArther too.
    (In contrast, Prime Minister Loyd George was helpless to fire the general who broke his word to George by continuing the offensive in Flanders Fields.)

  8. Sean Crawford

    Perhaps I should add that the praetorian guards were going through the palace with drawn swords, having killed the current emperor. They needed a new one, so they grabbed Diocletian, to everyone’s surprise.

    Perhaps the Dalai Lama is so mentally healthy because he never had to strive to seek fame, either. He was chosen while a small boy. The communists have since outlawed the practise of picking a child Dalai Lama. I don’t know if that’s to end the Lamas, or to ensure the next one is as flawed as a communist party member.

  9. Siddhartha Dutta

    In my opinion, Sir Walter Scott is a ‘great man’ who meets all the criteria you’ve mentioned.



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