In Search of Greatness, Part II: The Laws of Nature and Trade-Offs

by Lane Wallace on June 18, 2015

When I was growing up, my father repeatedly told me that I could be anything I wanted to be, if I wanted it badly enough. It was wonderful aspirational encouragement, and I love him for being so supportive of my dreams. But in truth, he was only partly right. No matter how badly I might want to be a top quarterback in the NFL or a prima ballerina in the New York City Ballet, it was never going to happen. I don’t have the right gender, in the case of the NFL, or the right body type, in the case of the ballerina. There’s also the not-insignificant matter of talent. Not everyone can throw a 95-mph fastball, no matter how hard or long they try.

There’s also all the fickle elements of luck, serendipity, connections, opportunity and timing that make such a difference in people’s “success.” (I don’t disagree with Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion about all this in his book Outliers … I just don’t think it’s a new or ground-breaking idea.) I’ve always understood that many things–a number of them out of our control–play a role in how “successful” any of us are. The task for any entrepreneur or dream-chaser is to do the best you can at the parts you do control, and hope for fair winds and favor from the gods on the rest.

But my father was right about one thing: part of being successful at something is how badly you want that goal. As a mountain-climbing friend put it to me once, “summiting isn’t about being the most talented or the best trained climber out there. Assuming you have the basic required conditioning and skill, whether or not you make the peak often comes down to ‘how bad do you want the mountain?’” Do you want the goal badly enough to make the sacrifices great goals require? To sign on for the pain, the long-haul endurance, the suffering, the discomfort, the self-discipline, the pushing through, the risk, and the cost?

Now that I’m older, I know that my father didn’t mean those words lightly, either. “If you want it badly enough” may bring to mind Disney-movie images of a kid trying just that much harder on a sports team, but I think my father meant to convey more cautionary advice. “For if you want to shoot high, there will be sacrifices and trade-offs involved–some of them significant,” he could have added.

It’s why I’m such a big believer in the importance of figuring out what’s most important to you; what your real, no-kidding, down-to-brass-tacks priorities are, before you go chasing after a dream or envying someone who has a different life path. Because everything has trade-offs associated with it. Every life path, every job, every relationship, every accomplishment. Happiness isn’t about having it all–it’s about understanding that what you have is what’s most important to you.

And that includes achieving the high luster of “greatness.”

In my last post, I noted that the men who made the first exploratory attempts to climb Mt. Everest–a feat that would have given them the mantle of “greatness,” had they accomplished it (and in George Mallory’s case, gave him that mantle anyway, even though it’s probable he didn’t succeed)–took tremendous risks and made enormous sacrifices in pursuit of that goal. Indeed, a number of them gave their lives in its pursuit. The point being that greatness often comes with a very steep price attached …which should give all of us at least a moment’s pause in envying, or wishing to achieve, true greatness, whether in adventure, sports, science, social justice, entertainment, politics or industry.

Not only could all of us not be Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, George Mallory, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mikhail Baryshnikov, Tom Brady or Usain Bolt (see earlier points on talent, connections, timing, luck, etc.) … we might not want to be. And backing me up on this is a woman who knows from whence she speaks: the ex-wife of entrepreneur phenom (and boundary-pushing backer of exploration) Elon Musk. In a series of posts she made on the website Quora this spring, she responded to a user’s question of “How can I be as great as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Richard Branson?”

“Extreme success results from an extreme personality and comes at the cost of many other things,” Justine Musk wrote (according to an article in The New York Times). She noted that extreme people “combine brilliance and talent with an ‘insane’ work ethic,” and also tend to be obsessed with whatever they’re working on. She didn’t sound like a bitter ex-wife, however; ┬ájust someone who’d been part of the cost paid by a “great” man, trying to offer a realistic and cautionary perspective to those who aspired to that same lofty plane. Indeed, her advice to people wanting to be “successful” also included trying to “shift your focus away from what you want (a billion dollars) and get deeply, intensely curious about what the world wants and needs.”

In that point, she echoed much of what I’ve repeatedly said about the power and importance of passion. Passion ignites a fire that fuels endurance and creative solutions, and allows you to inspire and convince others to help you in your goal. But even passion has its trade-offs. There’s a tricky tightrope act to walk between passion and balance, and more than one passionate entrepreneur, crusader, adventurer (or even golfer) has found themselves paying a personal price for their devotion to their pursuit.

Part of the kind of greatness Justine Musk was discussing still comes down to inherent talent, hard-wiring of personality, and the vagaries of timing, luck, connections and opportunity. But her caution is real: greatness, at least the kind the world recognizes, is an extreme achievement. Which means the people who achieve it are likely to be extreme in their focus and personalities, and will pay an extreme price in sacrifices to get there. If the goal or the passion matters enough, it might be worth it. And there are plenty of passionate people who are more moderate in their goals–and therefore, correspondingly–face more moderate costs and trade-offs in the effort to achieve them.

But there is one more important idea I’d like to offer before I close out this mini-series on greatness: A very wise mentor and friend once said to me that being the best at something wasn’t the same thing as being great. That true greatness came from within, and that the people who were truly great were often never the best at anything. The greatness my friend was referring to has to do with character: with strength, integrity, loyalty, leadership, compassion, and a willingness to put something other than yourself first.

Even that inner kind of greatness still has its costs and trade-offs, of course. There can be social or even financial consequences for doing the right thing, standing tall, or eschewing your own achievement for the sake of others’ welfare or a more important concern. But the point is, the Elon Musk/George Mallory/Edmund Hillary kind of externally-recognized greatness is not the only type there is. And while the world certainly benefits from the achievements of men like that, the kind of greatness my mentor friend was talking is every bit as important, in the end. It produces a kind of leadership that may be quieter and less flashy, but can be profound, powerful, and incredibly effective in terms of team-building.

Inner greatness has one more compelling element to it, as well. It’s something all of us have the talent and opportunity to aspire to and achieve.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Jeff 07.14.15 at 7:46 pm

Lots of interesting things in this article.
I’m pretty much ” Joe Average” I guess. I have never met a Bill Gates, but it makes sense that they would have to have a combination of brilliance, drive, determination , timing and luck.
I have known a few folks that fit your discription of great though, and I am a better person for having known them.

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