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?