Choose Greatness

“The Price of Greatness is Responsibility!”

Winston Churchill, former British Prime Minister

“What do you want?” he asked. “What you really, truly want?”  

I was having coffee with a friend and the question came out of nowhere. Mind you, with this particular friend, this is not unusual. In the middle of a conversation he will often stop, take a deep breath and make an abrupt change in direction. I think it is one the reasons I always enjoy our discussions – the pure unpredictability.  

I set down my coffee cup and thought about it for a few moments.

“To make a difference,” I replied. “To leave this world a little bit better place for having been here.” I paused a moment to reflect. “To be truly great at something.”

If you made a conscious choice to do so, could you be great at something? I mean, be truly exceptional to the point where other people are motivated by your example?

When I began my journey of self-esteem-building, I did a lot of reading – I still do. I read about the lives of people who excelled in various fields. I wanted to know the secret to greatness. Beyond having a talent or knack for something (which is no guarantee of success), I tried to understand how and why certain people became genuinely exceptional. Was it the result of luck, genetics, a particular technique or unusual way of thinking? The more I read, the more I realized the old axiom was right, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” I was not so much interested in those who had been born great or had greatness thrust upon them, but in the people who made the conscious choice to be truly remarkable individuals.  

I discovered that for many great people, a shift had occurred in their lives that changed everything. Something happened that made mediocrity no longer an option. I started my journey following a medical crisis. As I lay in the hospital, I remember thinking, “I can’t live like this anymore.” For me, it wasn’t necessarily a commitment to greatness but certainly a commitment to a healthier, more empowered way of living.

One of the life stories I found most inspiring was that of James Michener – American author of more than 40 titles. Michener made a commitment to greatness one stormy night in the South Pacific. After numerous failed attempts to land his plane, Michener finally touched down safely on the Tontouta Airfield. In 1942, Tontouta was a 5,000-foot runway used extensively by the Americans during the early stages of the war – the final refuelling stop on the aircraft ferry route from Hawaii to Australia. Michener walked the length of the strip and gazed at the outline of mountains he had narrowly missed.

In recalling the event, Michener wrote, “And as I stood there in the darkness, I caught a glimpse of the remaining years of my life and I swore an oath when peace came, if I survived, I would live the rest of my years as if I were a great man.” Michener had never presumed to think he would be great, but chose to conduct himself as if he were.

The next day he began work on his classic, Tales of the South Pacific. Shortly afterward, Michener’s entire staff was killed when they crashed into those same mountains. For Michener, the tragedy underscored the significance of his oath to greatness.

I realized that in my own small way, I too had narrowly missed the mountain range. If I wanted to become truly great at something – if I wanted to make a difference – I needed to decide what that “something” was and commit my life to it. I decided that I would learn everything I could about self-esteem and personal empowerment. I would work to become a truly great “me” and openly share what I learned with the world.

I remember at the time reading that if you have a nagging feeling that you could do more, contribute more, grow more and ultimately, be more, then it’s likely you’ve settled somewhere along the way. I had to take a serious look at my life, step out of my comfort zone, learn to face my fears and challenge myself to “be more.”

One of the first things I discovered was my lack of self-awareness or adaptability. Greatness requires both self-awareness and adaptability along with the acknowledgement that tactics and attitudes that worked yesterday may not fit or help to resolve today’s problems. As tough as it was, I had to challenge my perceptions and unlearn a number of destructive coping mechanisms.

Greatness also requires that we get up again and continue on our path, no matter how many times adversity knocks us down. Doggedness and tenacity are primary factors that determine how high we rise. Many people have greatness within their grasp, yet greatness eludes them because they give up too soon – they don’t stick with it.

I wanted to be able to help people. Michener wrote that he would willingly help others reach for greatness. “I would truly believe and act as if all men were my brothers. I would strive to make whatever world in which I found myself a better place.”

We are not judged by what happens to us, but rather by what we do with what we are given. That’s the measure of our greatness. Each life counts and when we make a commitment to positive change, we actually change the world and that’s greatness.

You may ask yourself, “Who am I to be great?” Who are you not to be? Playing small does not serve the world. The potential for greatness exists within all of us. I’m walking in that direction now and so can you. I might never achieve greatness but I would sure enjoy your company on the journey.

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