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As a young teen in the 1980s, I revered the cult classic rock n roll movie, Eddie and The Cruisers.
The film centered around a band from New Jersey that produced a surprise hit debut album. Eddie, the band’s leader, wanted to do something revolutionary for their follow up, but the record company and his bandmates hated the new sound.
When the conflict reached a critical mass, Eddie announced, “If we can’t be great, then there’s no sense in ever playing music again.”
That may sound like a twisted view of greatness, but it’s not uncommon. As a budding tennis player at the time, it mirrored how I thought about greatness. I had reached the point where I consistently beat everyone in my town; dreams of stardom took hold, and I became obsessed with getting ranked.
Destined to etch my name among other greats, my parents signed me up to play in regional tennis tournaments. To get ranked, I only needed to win two of them.
When I arrived at the tennis center for my first match, I watched some of the other players warm up. Thirty-four years have passed since that day, so I don’t remember what went through my mind. But it must have been something like, oh sh*t.
They hit and served harder than anyone I’d ever played. They put so much spin on the ball; I wondered if I’d even be able to maintain a rally with them.
When my time finally came, the results played out predictably. I failed to win a single game. A year later, I had to accept I’d never become great at tennis — at least my definition of it. My love for the sport faded, so I quit.
The fuzzy meaning of greatness
The words greatness and great are nouns. They’re abstract words, so we assign them whatever arbitrary and subjective meaning we want. For most of us, it means reaching the upper echelon of our domain. A ranking, award, or general consensus often confer the title of greatness.
But only a tiny minority ever reach that point. The rest of us dream of achieving that status. There’s nothing wrong with wanting that. Problems arise when we pin our happiness on attaining it. We might experience our oh sh*t moment — the recognition that we’re not as skilled as we believed. Or we refuse to face reality. Either way, we become disillusioned, lose our passion, and quit.
This universal experience has become a staple plot device in countless movies and novels. In the fictional world, the hero often gets their victory dance at the end, but that’s an unlikely reality for most of us.
“Great” and “Greatness” as Verbs
When Eddie, from Eddie and The Cruisers, realized he hadn’t achieved his arbitrary goal of greatness, he faked his death. Thankfully, I took less drastic action. I merely moved on with my life.
Like Eddie, I wanted greatness and would settle for nothing less. When it became clear I could never reach it, I gave up. But then I missed out on a sport that I once loved, and that should not have happened.
Few of us will ever write the most celebrated American novel, make music that will last generations, reach number one in the world in a sport. But we can still enjoy our passions by redefining greatness as a verb. Think of it as an action you do, rather than a status you attain.
Greatness is what you do each day on your mission to be the best you can be.
Adopt the “doing greatness” mindset
Adopt the mindset that greatness is something you do each day. Don’t think of it as a final state. Approach it as a series of daily actions. You can still aim to win awards or get ranked on someone’s best-of list. Those kinds of targets motivate us. Continue to dream, but don’t fixate on it like it’s an all or nothing obsession.
Give up the self-talk that success and happiness come only when you reach the top of your game. Reaching a glorified destination never compensates for a miserable journey.
Aim for slightly better than yesterday
Seek to improve upon what you have done the previous day. That could mean learning and implementing something new, improving the quality of earlier work, or practicing your craft. Shoot for realistic objectives you can accomplish each day. By doing so, you’re always improving — supporting the “doing greatness” mindset.
Put yourself in positions where you can test your skills. To do better than yesterday, you must face your competition and test yourself in challenging situations. That means you will fail more often than you succeed. Each failure brings with it a learning opportunity. Dissect your disappointing outcomes and use those lessons as a springboard for bettering yourself.
Respect the world you don’t know.
When you put yourself in the arena and compete against people with more skill, you will come to the same awareness that I came to after my tennis career buckled. You realize you’re not as masterful as you thought you were.
When we start on our journey, even when we’re deep into it, we cannot conceive of the vast expertise of the top people in our domain. It’s beyond our comprehension until we experience it.
World-class athletes make their sport look easy. The best novelists make it look effortless. Master carpenters employ techniques we can’t fathom. The moment of reckoning, where you realize you’re not as skilled as you had believed, always stings. And it doesn’t just happen once.
The gap between where you are now and where you think you need to end up is always wider than you believe. “Doing” greatness demands that you respect that gap. Learn from those experiences, and you’ll not only survive but also inch closer to your ultimate dream.