The idea of greatness can be pretty intimidating. We reserve the word for only the best of the best, battle-tested heroes that history reveres. To be considered “one of the greats” is to achieve god-tier, and the hashtag GOAT is not used lightly. Certainly none of us would ever even dream of describing ourselves as great, and to have someone else describe you that way would no doubt elicit protest from you that you aren’t great (maybe you’re really good, but not great, ya know?). But greatness is not something to be embarrassed about, or to shy away from.
In his work Twelfth Night, infamous playwright, wordsmith, and notorious plagiarist William Shakespeare tells us not to fear greatness: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” The quote, often misattributed to former President Teddy Roosevelt, serves both as an inspirational tool and as a warning. We can understand the silver-spooners who are born great. And it’s easy to look around and see the people who are chasing greatness, who put in the work day and night to be the best of the best at every turn and have dedicated their lives to becoming great. But what of those in the third category?
It’s not possible to accidentally fall into greatness. Greatness is purposeful. If you become great, it’s because you put in hours on hours of hard work, you sacrificed wants for musts, and you never gave it less than your best. To have greatness thrust upon you doesn’t mean you accidentally became great; it means that you were put in a situation that required greatness to succeed, and you met it. You didn’t decide to become great- you decided not to lose. You chose not to give up and you made it to the other side of adversity, becoming great in the process.
But when we find ourselves in that situation, it can be terrifying. How do you meet greatness head-on if you never expected to be staring it in the face?
Three years ago when he spoke here at Montclair State University, multi-Grammy Award-winning rapper Common advised students to follow three steps to greatness:
- Step One: Find your path. Sit down and determine the way you need to go and what you need to do to push yourself further and higher. Make sure the prize your eyes are on is at the end of that path, too! Without an end goal, that path is just a meandering waste of time. And don’t settle for less, either.
- Step Two: Believe in your path. Trust that you have made the right decisions and that you’re moving in the right direction. Second guessing yourself will ruin your confidence, and without confidence, every day will discourage you, and every failure will push you backwards. But belief is contagious. If you believe in yourself, so will everyone else, and that will give you a bottomless well of confidence to draw on.
- Step Three: Live your path. Greatness is not a short-term goal. It’s a long game. Don’t give up when you don’t see immediate results, and make sure you are incorporating your path into every aspect of your life. Don’t feel bad if you don’t win right away: every non-win is a learning experience, and what doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger. Even if it takes years, keep living like a winner with your goal in mind. After all, you only fail if you stop trying.
If greatness is thrust upon you, don’t panic. Although his recitation of Shakespeare’s words was not original thought, President Roosevelt did say, “We must dare to be great.” Even the man after whom the teddy bear was named recognized how daunting greatness can be! But to dare means to make a bold decision in spite of fear. So dare. Believe in yourself, take a breath, and accept the challenge. All of us are capable of greatness. You just have to take a step forward.