On Being Great

Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great. – Mark Twain

I’ve noticed a trend on social media these days in which some professionals regularly publicize how many followers they have, or promote their rankings, or note why they are amazing and how you can be amazing like them if you a) follow them b) take their courses c) read their books, and so on.

While those individuals may be great, the people I tend to admire and aspire to are often immersed in causes and ventures that are larger than themselves with little time for self-promotion. They are engrossed in being, doing, innovating, creating, discovering, and empowering others, often without realizing their impact and hero-like status. Generally, we don’t get to celebrate these amazing individuals until someone else brings their accomplishments and ventures to light, at which time we get to experience and reap what they have created and contributed. Sometimes, they write books which enable us to share in their recent discoveries and knowledge, such as Brene Brown (Braving the Wilderness), Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandburg (Option B), and Dr. Edith Eger (The Choice), the latter, who, having survived the death camps of the Holocaust in her young adulthood, went on to become a psychologist, who at 90 years old, maintains a busy clinical practice and serves as a consultant for the U.S. Army and Navy in resiliency training and the treatment of PTSD.

Daily, preachers, teachers, doctors, family members, and colleagues—just by being their own thoughtful, caring, hardworking, trustworthy, and reliable selves—impact others in meaningful ways. We each get to define greatness in our own terms. For me, great individuals possess a blend of knowledge, experience, humility, and vulnerability that captivates, encourages, and empowers me to strive beyond my self-imposed limitations. Great people remind us that while we are each on our own unique journeys, we are also in this life together, and they inspire us to be the best possible versions of ourselves while remaining mindful and considerate of the world around us. Great people don’t focus on the obstacles; rather, they seek a way through, above, and beyond. In their quest for solutions, they are inquisitive and thoughtful, and understand and value the power of persistence, hard work, and a growth mindset. They remind us to keep going, striving, believing, and most importantly, to seek our calling, define our purpose, and follow through on our paths.

We take ourselves wherever we go

In my classrooms, I have witnessed students who worked multiple jobs to help their parents to pay rent, were in earnest to maintain straight A’s, and often came to my office to review their course papers, ask for help, discuss and plot their goals, and looked to me to help them stay on track. While I cannot predict the future, my instinct is that they are going to be successful. Their work ethic and commitment to succeed was potent, as was their clarity that their success would benefit not only themselves and their families, but their communities, too. Their self-awareness, sense of purpose, and dedication to rising above to help others to succeed was, for me, a reminder of the essence of greatness.

My mom fell into the hero category for me. Although she knew she was going to die from terminal cancer, for over five years, she woke up each day and put on her makeup, did her hair, went for her transfusions or chemotherapy, depending on the day of the week, and kept her nurses and doctors entertained and laughing with her stories. When she felt low, she said so, but it was in the same tone she talked about the weather—matter of fact and subject to change. She didn’t let something negative define her; rather, she accepted her reality and chose to smile her way through it. She made others feel hopeful by exhibiting her own hope, even when the cards were stacked against her. My dad is another example of greatness to me; the world may be falling apart, but if you ask him how he is, he will tell you day after day that he’s good—thankful to be alive and well. He lives by a simple methodology—he eats what he likes, but only enough to fill him. He chooses to wear a smile as his go-to disposition, and his face lights up when he sees someone he enjoys or hears something that amuses him. Being in his presence reminds me of the simple and profound joy of existing.

Perhaps being great is not so much about the grand gestures we make, but our simple, daily acts of humanity: holding the door open for a stranger, smiling as you move past someone on the street, paying it forward at Starbucks. Small gestures often move people in substantial ways. Doing small and good deeds reminds us that we are in it together, which reminds us that the world is so much bigger than our own thoughts and feelings and desires.

Some steps to consider along the path to greatness:

· Be a hungry and lifelong learner—ask questions.

· Be true to yourself—it’s okay to be different. Do not worry about fitting in.

· Lift others up—through kindness, respect, and acceptance.

· Listen—hear what the people around you have to say.

· Treat time and energy like the valuable commodities that they are.

· Exercise! The mind and heart work better when you sweat.

· Work on your self-awareness through 360 feedback and journaling. Ask your peers, colleagues, trusted advisors, and bosses to share their impressions of you. Use this as a map to enact change.

· Be a team player, both in your career and your personal life.

· Take risks, and do not look back.

· Respect and honor yourself—if you do not, no one else will.

· Tackle the world with humility, honesty, a willingness to adapt, and good cheer.

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