Our culture often confuses greatness with “greater than”

Morrie Schwartz, the subject of the book Tuesdays with Morrie, asked an important question when a group of college students began to chant, “We’re number one!” Morrie simply asked, “What’s wrong with second place?” He went on to state, “…the culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves…you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it.”

Defining greatness is a challenge and our culture has some interesting and disturbing takes on it. We admire or despise those who go beyond us in some area or another. But the oddity of it all is that we tend to elevate and perhaps even worship those things that people really have no control over. I think of intelligence and athletic ability, both of which are characteristics a person is born with. George Carlin used to do a bit where he questioned ethnic pride and stated that it was just “a f*cking genetic accident.”

Columbia University did a survey in which they reported that 85 percent of American parents thought it was important to tell their children that they are smart. Ironically, in child centered play therapy the therapist would never do this, nor would he or she praise the work done. If a child came up and showed the therapist a drawing, the therapist would not say, “good job” or “it’s beautiful.” Instead the response would be “it looks like you got it just the way you wanted to.” The therapist would comment on the process and the work that was put into the project. The idea is to foster an appreciation for what really matters, the hard work or creating something the way that you want to, rather than making attempts to garner approval or praise. We can be woefully praise addicted. The article entitled “The Inverse Power of Praise” that came out in the New York Times some years ago pointed out a phenomenon. There was an increasing trend of children with high IQ’s that were not performing well. Part of the issue was that they were praised for their intelligence not their efforts. So if a task were hard, they considered it evidence that they were not smart and would either avoid the tasks or quit early. The title of “smart” and the praise and self-esteem that went with it, needed to be protected at the expense of actually doing something.

Hard work and perseverance are certainly praise worthy, but our language often betrays this notion. We talk about how intelligent or talented an individual is but we rarely comment on what the individual does with that talent. We talk about an athlete’s ability because he is better than everyone else, but it is not often that we praise him for his efforts. Often an athlete works hard for his achievements but it is rarely (not never) the focus.

We tend to elevate greatness as the ability to rise above everyone else and be successful, but this is probably not the best understanding. I’m not suggesting achievement doesn’t matter, but achievement can often come down to genetics and luck. Ultimately what makes someone great is who they are, the character by which they do things. We can admire the qualities of a person’s character and acknowledge greatness even if that greatness can only be seen by a few. As it stands, only a few can be great, since the common definition is really “greater than,” but the truth is that we can all be great. Steinbeck’s East of Eden seems to pose this question in a very different manner. I believe his answer is that we all can, but we all don’t. I think we may need to challenge what we admire and what we think is great. No matter the degree of my awe for a particular basketball player, I will never be able to make myself two feet taller, but maybe I can become more persistent, more bold, more giving, etc…. These qualities seem to me more consistent with what should be considered great.


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