Greatness is not a level of talent.
I’ll repeat that: greatness is not a level of talent.
Sure, there are people who clearly seem to defy that statement: Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lebron James, Michael Phelps, Warren Buffet. But the reality, what we’ve seen of these people is what was exposed to the world after the work was put in.
We didn’t revere Michael Phelps when he was training as a young teenager. We didn’t know about his 12-hour days.
No one in their right mind can deny the importance of natural talent—I do believe that that is one ingredient to the highest heights of greatness. But I’m not convinced that sheer talent is the cornerstone.
I believe it starts with ability, that greatness ought to flow from natural bent. In short, I certainly believe that you should play to your strengths. No amount of dedication will turn me into an NBA player.
So if natural bent is the starting place, the true structure of greatness is built on commitment. Commitment to a vision, commitment to failing, to learning from that failure, growing from that failure, and then trying again. And again. And yet again.
Greatness is not about raw talent. There are freakishly talented people who never fulfilled their potential for greatness. And there are those with far less natural ability who far exceeded what anyone believed them to be capable of.
How did they do that? I see 3 main ingredients.
Commitment to Learning
I never seem to shut up about taking action, and that’s because there is no substitute. That can look a number of different ways, and one of the primary ways you can take action is to actively seek knowledge. Those who are great are what the Buddhists would call an empty cup. They drop their pre-conceived notions and humbly pursue understanding with the belief that they don’t know what they don’t know.
Those who accomplish great things are devoted to learning, to acquiring new knowledge or new skill, and to improving on what they already know and do.
Response to Failure
I recently ran across a sentiment that, in an instant, changed my mindset about failure. Someone had written that they seek out failure. They don’t fail on purpose, mind you, but they seek out tasks or opportunities that present the very real possibility of failure.
It is in those moments, when you’re doing something in which you know you may crash and burn, that you have the greatest potential for growth. Do you fear failure, doubt yourself, shrink back from the discomfort, and eventually quit in order to avoid the blow to your ego? Or do you embrace failure as a badge of honor, as a signal that you are taking on new things, expanding your reach and ability, and growing purposefully into who you want to become?
Persistence Over Time
This is the secret sauce. Seth Godin, the king of internet bloggers and gurus, blogged in anonymity for 9 years before gaining significant traction. When I was younger I loved the Goo Goo Dolls. They were touring little, smokey rock clubs for a full decade before Iris thrust them into the pop culture spotlight.
I began thinking of music as my future career around age 15. I finally signed a record deal at age 24. In fact, it was a full year between the time our label agreed to sign us, and the time the deal was actually worked out and signed.
No matter how good you are, no matter how much raw talent you have, no matter how much you learn and how great your attitude it, there is simply no substitute for persistence.
Do. Not. Quit.
I believe that, more often than not, those who finally break through are simply those who had the wherewithal to stick it out. They believe in themselves deeply enough, and for long enough, that they finally hit the tipping point.
They ultimately refused to abandon themselves or their vision. They continued to do the thankless work, the unglamorous work, the unrecognized work, the hard and tiring work that seemed to go unnoticed for so long.
If you want to be break through and accomplish a significant goal, there’s one key ingredient that trumps all others: DON’T. GIVE. UP.