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
- Achieved great things for the world
- Were happy
- 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?
Consider being hard to deal with as a byproduct of monomania. That is, I have a vision that is so clear, I don’t want interruptions and I don’t want anybody screwing it up. We can imagine all sorts of pathologies emanating from this. If the principal didn’t maintain a claim over his or her vision, it risks diffusing into the social network and we might never know that they were responsible for it.
I think as well that up until very recently, it wasn’t especially economical to chronicle the lives of people who hadn’t done anything publicly remarkable, because of the resources it would have cost to write it down and archive. Now we have blogs, social nets and facilities like Story Corps.
The other interesting element of greatness up until recently is the fascination with superlatives. Not just “great” but “the best”. The only way to establish that among candidates is by defining a selection criterion and then (sometimes literally) to have them duke it out in an arena. With the democratization of so much ability, the best (and the brightest) is becoming less meaningful, supplanted by “good enough”.
Jesus Christ was a great man for exactly the reasons you talk about in the third to last paragraph of your post. Whether you believe his teachings or not, you can’t dispute that his life was spent in service to others. The Bible’s full of other people like this, too: Joseph, Moses, Ruth (we can mention great women, too, right?), Daniel, Paul…
Abraham Lincoln comes to mind, too. I don’t know a ton about his relationship with his wife or kids but from books like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals it would seem that he was able to do great things without being a jerk.
Interesting. It’s worth teasing out the various bits that make up “hard to deal with”. Some of this has to do with people’s expectations and their sense of their roles. A very sweet, but confident person who is clear on what they want as a film director can earn the label “hard to deal with” from people who also want to be in charge, etc. Or who didn’t realize how much control the director expects to have.
Studs Turkel and other journalists have documented the lives of “ordinary” people – his book Working is a great example – it’s not focused on ordinary greatness exactly, but it is about how people in all walks of life think about their work. It’s good stuff. I bet StoryCorps and This American Life would name Turkel as an influence – as I think he did a lot of radio work as well.
Great article Scott;
In a totally non-religious way, is there any man in history that was greater than Jesus Christ?
Just looking at the historical impact and fame, no-one comes even close.
According to what we can deduce from historical accounts he was not a jerk. He passes the 3 points from your article.
Bad things were done in his name, but not by him or endorsed by him.
Interesting question. :)
The historical Jesus, as well as Socrates, Buddha and others definitely deserve mention for many different reasons. They all made sacrifices, they were mostly peaceful, they practiced what the preached and weren’t interested in wealth or fame (in the modern sense).
But it’s hard to tease out what they actually did or said as the historical records aren’t very good. Most of what was written about these people and their ideas came from their followers, often decades after their deaths.
There is definitely something noble/humble about the fact that Socrates, Buddha and Jesus didn’t write books self-promoting their wisdom (if they were born today – would they have a blog? a website? a TV show?) and let others who were so inspired to record their ideas.
But the problem this creates is we really don’t know what Jesus, or Buddha, or Socrates actually felt, or did, or said. We only know what we’re told by their followers, who had their own motivations in what they choose to report and how they reported it. It’s absolutely useful and inspiring – but harder to get a realistic picture of what they were like as neighbors, friends, brothers or co-workers.
John Stuart Mill was a good guy who treated those close to him well (by the accounts I’ve read anyway). It’s unclear whether he was happy – certainly early in life he suffered from depression and nervous breakdowns but he may have found happiness later in life.
Mother Theresa, Albert Schweitzer, Nelson Mandela, Manmohan Singh, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Herb Kelleher,
The bad ones get the press. But generally people are good. Of course, no one is an angel – everyone has their own flaws. And the good ones do succeed quite a lot. You will find them all over the place. Just look around. :-)
Dalai lama seems like not so bad a guy.
Einstein is one. Staying with the physicists Bohr is another. There is many examples, but intuitively I would agree that there is a trend towards a significant positive greatness / asshole correlation.
Commenting on other suggested names. Jesus: I wasn’t aware that it was OK to submit persons who’s existence has not been proven. Mother Theresa: Please read Christopher Hitchens’ “The Missionary Position” and reconsider.
We can model greatness in terms of a massive disparity of attention. I believe you’ve written about it yourself that the CEO of an organization has to tread carefully, because every burp and fart is taken as marching orders. There’s an interesting study that finds the same behaviour in primates. You can tell who the alpha is because the rest of the troupe watch him like a hawk.
There is a finite amount of attention in any connected population over a given period, and within this population travel units of culture we currently call memes. Interpreting a meme costs a certain quantity of attention on the part of the recipient and forwarding it costs a certain quantity of attention on the part of the sender. Necessarily then, a meme must accrue a disproportionate amount of attention in order to spread.
If any meme grows disproportionately in its representation, it necessarily crowds out competing memes, mutually reinforced by the network. This is known as the Matthew effect (in keeping with a theme).
People are synthesizers and forwarders of memes. Moreover they can bolster their own reception, or have their reception tuned for them. This can be achieved by marching a legion into a neighbouring country, employing Hollywood and Madison Avenue, creating something that people genuinely value, or apparently, losing composure on camera over a weather phenomenon.
The greatness equation really seems to be a matter of how much attention you can muster for your ideas and your ethos, whether you are consciously trying to do it or not.
To add, it’s interesting that we distinguish at all between ordinary people and extraordinary. The requirement for what made an extraordinary person has also declined in magnitude over time. First it was the biggest bully, then the most divine (often with a lot of crossover), then the highest material achiever, then the most publicity-friendly, and now the requirement seems to be merely to be interesting in some way. I have a feeling that the biggest contributing factor is the economics of recording a story that has a sufficiently balanced cocktail of intrigue, accessibility and continuity.
It begs the question: is being a jerk a necessary quality to achieve greatness?
I think there is an easy answer for that.
Think about the greatest men for 2000+ years ago: Jesus, Buddah, Socrates. They were not jerks, and are still remembered.
(BTW: I’m not religious.)
I like to think that it’s better to change only a teeny slice of the universe, namely people who are closest to me, and succeed than try to save the world and fail. This is of course selfish point of view because it gives me a chance to feel good about my deeds and doesn’t push me to do Big Things, but well, isn’t that the image of good policeman, teacher, parent etc?
I believe world would be much better if everyone strove to be great person in their tiny scale. Because if you ask me who had more influence on me: my Dad or Einstein I’d point (obviously) the former. And my Dad somehow isn’t considered as a great man worldwide. But if you multiply these people by millions their collective impact on the world is bigger. Even if they didn’t changed rules of physics (or the way we perceive rules of physics to be more precise).
How about Paul Graham?
He’s not at Steve Jobs or Bill Gates level of fame, but within his particular niche he’s achieved a lot, is well respected, and seen as a likeable guy.
You’re looking for someone wildly successful, who has a great relationship with their friends and families, and who hasn’t sacrificed their health. That person doesn’t exist. We all make trade offs, there’s an opportunity cost to every decision. But you can achieve some semblance of balance between those three areas of your life and I think that results in people (like Paul Graham) who become a sot of “local maximum” within their niche.
Answer to question one: As you say in the second half of the post, obviously the answer is that greatness cannot include being an asshole. Also depends how we define greatness.
If we want to keep fame as a criterion for greatness, I propose that we define greatness by the number of followers that one person has been able to produce or influence to spread a message. By this standard, Jesus would be a great example. But then so would many of the influential people online (I’m thinking of Seth Godin).
But why does this post focus on “the greatness of one” instead of “the greatness of a group”? I have been fortunate to be part of many groups that were a great community or a great work team; great here being defined as generous, mutually beneficial, and loving.
I think fame is a lousy measure of anything.
It matters much more what you are famous for, than how famous you are.
Stepping back from American culture, it’s curious that our heroes are either athletes, moviestars or wealthy people, as it’s easy to question how the values any of these three groups of people have has any real bearing on how we want ourselves, or our children, to be.
One, am I the first woman to comment on this thread? I think there’s something to think about. Women are generally conditioned to value connections over achievement. Ack, what a sweeping generalization. Certainly not all women, but this is the standard party line.
Two, with famous people who seem to not be jerks, let’s not forget that we actually don’t know what they’re like. For all we know, Tom Hanks yells at his assistant, too.
Three, does it have to be such a binary, i.e. “the best” versus “anonymous nice and dedicated guy/gal”? I would be happy to settle for being only moderately famous and making less than a billion dollars. : )
For what it’s worth, there are many people who aren’t bound for greatness who are also assholes.
Walt Disney I think would qualify against all 3 of your criteria. He’s a personal hero of mine.
My other hero, Frank Lloyd Wright is the perfect illustration of your point. He was happy and completely revolutionized American architecture. But he was morally reprehensible as a father, abandoning his kids and first wife.
Ultimately, there’s no causal law that says you have to be a horrible person to be successful. And even if there was, then you’d have to hold that in context when you judge people. Real heroes exist, and it’s completely possible to achieve greatness. Don’t use someone’s faults as an excuse for you to live a life less than what’s possible to you.
Milton Hershey and George Westinghouse were both good people who did great things and weren’t assholes (as far as I’ve ever heard/read/learned).
Ben Franklin did 1 and 2, though you could debate the third criteria (he was good to his son and to the many people he lived with abroad but wasn’t nearly as attentive to his own wife and daughter).
Since my examples are historical, perhaps there’s something to be said for how the public, over time, has treated these great people differently, so as to allow the asshole effect?
As for women, I can think of a whole host with whom I share a connection via Bryn Mawr College: for example, M. Carey Thomas and Katharine Houghton Hepburn (both the famous actress and her mother, the activist). I realize that I have to tread carefully, though — my initial list included a number of women for whom I equated “great” with “selfless” — and that’s not the same thing, though I think we commonly equate greatness in women with selflessness.
I think many philosophers have written about “great” people and how their work and life related. Karl Jaspers comes to mind for his “Great Philosophers” books starting with “Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus.”
Fred Rogers. On all three criteria.
This is one of my favorite Mr. Rogers moments, from his 1969 testimony to Congress on behalf of PBS funding: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXEuEUQIP3Q
Great article, I’ve wondered about this too.
While I will never meet him personally, I beieve Ben Franklin was a great man and was probably not an asshole by most standards. At this point it is all journal articles and hearsay.
I’ve read several times though that Ben would try to steer people toward his line of reasoning by asking questions until they fell upon his way of thinking. Nobody has the patience for that today — certainly not a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates.
I think C-level executives and leaders get where they are by making sure all the details are considered without stopping where 99.95% of us would say “good enough”. They are competitive, internaly driven, and frustrated and embarrased by their own flaws.
You are right to consider reshaping our definition of “great” because the people idolized in sports, business, on T.V. and in the news aren’t often great, they simply excel.
Many of us are probably guilty of letting the media define “great” for us where we don’t have a good example to fall back on as an achetype.
If many of us will just try to achieve 2 & 3 as best as they can, we will get closer to 1.
A couple of Mark Twain quotes first:
“Really great people make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
“Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”
The truly great people are those who lift up those around them, doing what’s right regardless of whether they are paid or recognized.
I personally think that those that spend their time accumulating wealth and power don’t have the time it takes to do the right thing for those around them.
Excellent post. I’m still waiting to find a great man/woman that is not a jerk.
When younger, I was impressed by people. As I worked for different companies, talked to CEOs, met lots of professors, etc… I learnt something: mistrust, by default, all the “big names”. Their reputation can naver be taken for granted.
As Scott wrote, most of them (especially men) only work to impress others, and their work is generally done by the anonymous dedicated person.
U.S. citizens are wise to hero-itize people of inherited wealth or the circus realm of entertainment and sport, for then the competent “man on horse back” is never implored to take over the country.
I think Theodore Roosevelt met all three criteria. He did a lot of great things as president (I am not an American by the way), he seems to have been very happy and it appeared to have a great relationship with his children – some of his letters to them are actually published.
He is one of the few people that I can think of that was happy.
I’m seeing a lot of religious figures – and to be honest, that was the first thing that came to my mind too. But I think there’s one person who is not yet old enough to have influenced the world, but has been able to influence the lives of quite a lot of people and achieve quite a following in his own persuit of happiness through the help of Web 2.0. He’s Kyle Macdonald. To quote from his site: “My name is Kyle MacDonald and I traded one red paperclip for a house. I started with one red paperclip on July 12 2005 and 14 trades later, on July 12, 2006 I traded with the Town of Kipling Saskatchewan for a house located at 503 Main Street.” What’s impressive here, is not that he succeeded, but rather one of his realizations along the way – that his project was taking up a life of it’s own, and had given him the power to make people happy.
I think you hit it on the head with your last couple paragraphs. It doesn’t mean that those great men don’t have flaws or have not made mistakes, it just means that they have made done their best, made it the highest priority, to be of service to others.
Interesting word happiness, I believe the great ones do not strive for happiness and may never achieve it. Instead they are trying to achieve a sense of satisfaction. That satisfaction is the only way they are at peace.
I don’t believe Jesus was happy. He may have had moments of joy but by all accounts he was quite distraught with the situations he found himself in and those he was surrounded with. Instead he sought peace and satisfaction that the work he did achieved a greater good. Jesus did not make everyone around him happy either. The Jewish leaders probably called him “asshole.” He treated his closest friend with dignity but he was critical of them. He also challenged authority and forced uncomfortable situations.
Regardless of their motivation, the true greats are often viewed as a jerk, distraught, difficult and sometimes unhappy because above all else they seek satisfaction and a desire to achieve something that the larger community can benefit from.
SAS founder and CEO Jim Goodnight. From all account he has been able to accomplish all three.
“Behind every great fortune there is a great crime”, attributed to Honore de Balzac
Its unlikely to find such a person in Politics or Business. Several scientists, economists, writers, philosophers would qualify
On a balance Gandhi does qualify on lots of counts, though his relationship with one of his sons was troubled (movie gandhi my father). Anti-Apartheid movement through up several greats beyond Mandela (Oliver Tambo, Desmond Tutu)
Scott, this is something which deserves lots of thinking and attention. I keep wondering what i should tell my 8-year old son as he grows up.
Greatness to me … someone who KNOWS and has the COURAGE to be True to Himself / Herself without the need for any pretense.
This to me seems to be the recurring pattern that underlies all the names taken in the post and the comments … from the friendly neighborhood policeman to Jesus Christ. They had no need to be somebody, but they just were True to their beliefs and the world around them responded in a variety of ways – from showering great fame to quiet gratitude.
It follows therefore that anyone of us can strive for that Greatness :-)
Aristotle’s view that a great man possessed Hamartia (a tragic flaw) i.e. is an asshole despite their strengths seems to agree with your initial definition of a great man. However, is it not our expectation to deny the human aspect of people as contributing to this mistaken view of great men? We all have failures and are at time assholes. Is this an aspect of us trying to deify people? And, are we not forgetting that although great people can have flaws, they are also capable of change?
I think success by itself transforms people and is capable of activating the asshole gene, and that many of the great men are driven by a maniacal need to do something and many seem unhappy with success, such as Jim Clark (Netscape) who was aggreived that Larry Ellison always had a bigger yacht than him.
Having said that a person who seems to fit the bill of being a great man without being a jerk is Stan Brock of Remote Area Medical who has lived a life of self-sacrifice, ignores ego and lives to help others http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/ariel_leve/article6015125.ece . The many men and women volunteers necessary for such relief are also great men/women, so I would agree with you that those who pursue good things without fame/attention and the expectation of reward are the truly great.
I believe Feynman could be considered one of the greats who fits in the 3 criteria above…
I think you’re absolutely right when you said that this world turns around egocentrism. Even though I did remember one guy that is truly a great man and definitely not an asshole: Ben Carson. The most important (and the most basic) difference between Ben (and others like him) and the actual (not so) great men is what fulfills their heart.
The real reason that motivates people to do what they’re doing, defines the greatness of their contribute to this world, and shows how great that person is.
G.B. shaw put it well by saying “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
This definition makes sure that you will find some unreasonable-ness in all great men.
Anyways, my pick will be Mahatma Gandhi….
How about Mother Theresa and Gandhi.
What about Warren Buffett?
well, I dont know much about his style apart from donated his fortune to charity and very good at earning money.
How can you be great
There’s a book by the same guy, very good. Highly recommended. Might shift your view a bit of whether great requires being a jerk.
On top of that, I might suggest that you’re looking at a subset of great men, which also were well known. There are a lot of great men who have done great things, but who do them in such a way that they don’t draw a lot of attention to themselves.
Great men don’t always make history. Jerks tend to make the news, and thus make history.
BTW, Lincoln was a huge jerk. He regularly told terribly crass jokes in polite company, often being very rude particularly to women. He was also a tyrant and a horrible racist, despite the way history paints him. Even after the war he continued to express his opinion that white people and black people were not equal, and his preference was to ship them all off the continent.
Here a name that came to my mind for a great person that seams to meet all three criteria:
I don’t him personally but I think Tony Hsiegh founder of Zappos, is a great personality. Just finished off reading his book “Delivering Happiness”. It never was a self centric book. He wrote about his experience, how he build the business, how the entire management treated employess and customers. In most of time his cofounders and employees drives the story. The only thing he explained himself on his childhooddays and the way till he reached LinkExchange. Truly inspired about his writing style and story.
you are so true
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.)
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.
In my opinion, Sir Walter Scott is a ‘great man’ who meets all the criteria you’ve mentioned.