Edit: Thank you to the 80k people who have read this piece. It looks like many people are struggling with the concept of "greatness". Let's continue to support one another on the journey there.
Over the years, we’ve all encountered our fair share of successes and failures. As I’ve acquired more of both under my name, I’ve started to contemplate which experiences were truly “great” and why.
Interestingly enough, I realized that it was not the sporadic highs that were exceptional, but instead the long hauls; the sequences of events that seemed minimal at each juncture, but compounded into major gains. This led me to think further about what greatness truly means. I’ve come to learn that it’s not about overnight successes or flashes of excellence, but periods of repeatable habits.
Perhaps “great’, is just “good”, but repeatable.
Before stepping into the bulk of this article, I want to clarify two things:
- Greatness is not instantaneous
- Greatness is earned
The first step in becoming great is recognizing that you’re likely not already great. In fact, it comes from recognizing that there is no such thing as greatness at a specific instance in time. Greatness is instead a reflection of a period of effort, since greatness in a single instance can be reduced to luck.
Moreover, being “great” is not about being better than someone else. It is about being dependable and disciplined, and ultimately it is earned.
Many people, in theory, want to be “great”. In fact, each month 1000 people search “how to be great”, 260 people search “how to become perfect”, and 2400 people search “how to be the best”, looking for discrete answers on how to get from 0 to 1. Yet, many people in life realistically do not want to put in the effort over a sustained period of time to actually get to 1. They are looking for the “secrets to success” that in many ways, do not exist. You know what brings success? Hard work brings success.
So before proceeding forward in this article, I implore each of you to consider that if greatness truly is a reflection of non-instantaneous, earned effort, ask yourself if that’s the life you’d like to live. Ask yourself whether you’d like to spend your days, weeks, months, and years in a constant uphill battle.
If you ultimately find that you don’t want to do that, that’s fine! It doesn’t make you less of a person. At least you’ve broken from the holding pattern of thinking you want to do X but not understanding why you haven’t gotten there yet. And if that’s the case, go enjoy your Netflix and chill completely guilt-free.
With that in mind, let’s dive into what truly makes someone “great’.
It’s Hard to be Consistent
There’s a false impression that success or notoriety comes with being flashy. This notion comes from the media focusing on outliers, whether it be events or personalities which diverge from the norm. Not only can this encourage people to aim for notoriety just for the sake of it (think Elizabeth Holmes), but it makes the rest of us believe that correlation (of those outliers) is causation; in other words, success of those individuals is due to their offbeat ways. But here’s another storyline: the most sure and therefore the best way to “success” is through consistency.
“Until you work as hard as those you admire, don’t explain away their success as luck.” - James Clear, Atomic Habits
To be clear, consistency isn’t necessarily the easiest way to success, but one that can be achieved with a higher level of certainty, rather than hoping for a lottery win or someone to “discover” you. Continuous effort is a more thoughtful approach that leads to greatness when the following statements are true:
- Inputs are consistent over time
- Intentional inputs lead to expected outputs
“No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich” - Outliers
There is a famous saying from Napolean Hill which says, “If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way”. I would actually argue the quote should be, “If you cannot do great things, do small things a great number of times”.
If you don’t have the opportunity to “do great things”, focus on consistently achieving small wins. These small things in fact do not need to be done in a great way, but a good way, repeatably. In fact, I would advise not to focus on perfection, as it is often the enemy of the successful.
There’s glimmer and hoopla around unpredictability, but in reality, it’s much more difficult and therefore impressive, to be predictably good. For example:
- It’s easy to wake up whenever you “feel like it”.
- It’s hard to stick to a routine of getting up at 6AM.
- It’s easy to pivot from side project to side project, focusing on the new shiny object of the month.
- It’s hard to stick with a side project for years, many of which may not be profitable for a long while.
- It’s easy to give up on someone when you hit a roadblock or the next potential partner becomes available.
- It’s hard to be faithful and invest in a relationship for decades.
We normally set out in life with good intentions. We intend to set a morning routine or work on a business until it's profitable or to “love someone forever”. We imagine that as we invest in something, we will naturally continue to move in the right direction. If anything, things will get easier, right?
The described trajectory is what we perceive on the left. Predictable, linear, and a direct reflection of effort put in.
Rarely does success in anything look like that. Life is a series of tiny nodes that tend to look more like the right hand side. There two key elements worth calling out in the more realistic graph on the right:
- Compounding is always present. The earlier steps in any process will be more strenuous, yet it’s difficult to imagine the potential compounding that comes later on.
- With the ups, there are always downs. This seems obvious, but we often forget this when we are in periods of down. We quit at these local minimums (the highlighted sections in red above), because we cannot see the next peak right around the corner.
The local minima are especially psychologically taxing due to something called the Hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation. Essentially, as someone achieves new successes in various aspects of their lives, their baseline shifts to reflect that new level and therefore, their expectations and desires are re-established as well. There is no net gain in happiness and thus, it becomes even more difficult to stay “level-headed” during these down moments.
That is exactly why a specific search for success can be problematic and instead of looking for unsustainable shortcuts in life, it’s much more effective (and healthy) to aim for continuous habits that bring you success as a byproduct, not as the end goal.
“The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over and over. You have to fall in love with boredom.” - Atomic Habits, James Clear
On your journey to greatness, you need to fall in love with the process which includes many local minima and maxima. Staying consistent and pushing through both of these continuously is what will truly differentiate you from those that are simply “good” and isolate you as one of the few that are “great’.
Inputs → Outputs
The second important aspect of achieving greatness is acting with intention. Your actions and results will not always reflect your intentions, but as you move towards “greatness”, you should have a better idea of what inputs actually deliver output. You’ll still make mistakes﹣as we all do﹣but you’ll have a better grasp on what is more likely to work out. For example, your success rate may be 30%, versus someone flying blind with a 5% success rate.
Let’s look at a simple example:
Imagine company X has two sales people. Salesperson A happens to land a $1M deal in his first week. However, he struggles to land anything substantial for the next 6 months. Meanwhile, salesperson B manages to develop a process over the first month, bringing in only $100k which he’s able to scale up and double month over month.
After six months, this will be the revenue generated by each party.
You’re probably thinking… "So what? That’s just a classic example of compounding."
Yes! That’s exactly the point. The best things in life often aren’t miracles, but well-thought out approaches that are sustainable. The same thing is true with businesses, marriages, and just about anything with repeatable elements. If you invest time into solving for what leads to success continuously, you will reap those benefits for years to come. So even in the least quantifiable situations, reflect back on what could’ve made a previous loss a future win.
Consider the best companies over time. None of them emerged overnight, nor was there a single inflection point that determined the success or notoriety of these companies. The line of separation between the “great” companies of all time and the “not so great”, is their ability to stand the test of time.
Would you rather be Juicero that raised $100M and went bankrupt within a year of its Series C, or Zoom, which took almost 8 years to take on more funding than $30M and is now one of the most profitable and highly sought after “unicorns” in the valley?
On top of consistency, greatness comes from asking the right questions and iterating to learn what inputs drive favourable outputs, and ideally why. “Greatness” comes from an identified or researched process that when followed, has some degree of certainty in the outcome.
“Moving fast and breaking things” is not a strategy, unless you are clearly defining a process of learning so that in the future, you can “move fast and break less of the same things”.
A Habit of Progression
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” - Albert Einstein
Understand that in order to achieve the things you want in life, you’ll need to establish a habit of progression. You literally need to become good at being decent.
There is one thing to clarify: this habit of progression must come with the right inputs. Being consistent with something leading you in the wrong direction, will unsurprisingly lead you in the wrong direction. So if this is the way you are constantly moving (excluding short periods of local minima), pivot until you determine what the right inputs are. I recently stumbled upon a concept of zero acceleration, but non-zero velocity, which encapsulates this idea well.
Before you find the path that you want to double down on, this habit of progression takes the form of iteration. I see many people who are stuck in this stage and feel like they’re moving nowhere. Perhaps they go take a degree for a year and find that wasn’t right. Maybe they go and work for a company for two more and realize that wasn’t right either.
If you’re struggling to identify the right path, create more nodes of optimization. For example: if you’re making changes every year, you only have maybe 80 in your entire life to make. Instead, try testing things intentionally every month or even every week. Pilot a lot and then double down when you have found your path towards “good”.
You may ask, “what makes good, good?”. Ask yourself the question: “If I were to continue this every day for the next year, would I be in a better place?” If the answer is yes, you have a path towards “good”.
Once you have found your inputs, then you’re in a good place to turn those inputs into the right habits through deliberate practice. Ie: you’ll be in a place to shift from good to great.
This process of shifting between iteration and consistency is all part of developing a habit of progression. Once you make this habit your north star, you are no longer dependent on that “one big break” or that one company to “finally give you a chance”.
And finally, if you’re reading this advice and think, “I’ve heard this before”, then ask yourself whether you’ve truly acted on this advice. When is the last time you truly iterated and tried new things? When is the last time you found something good and then truly stuck to it for years?
Two Steps Out
While you’re moving towards “greatness”, keep in mind that it will likely happen slowly and that’s okay.
When I think about the growth trajectory of my life and similarly, anyone that I’ve been close with, changes have always happened slowly. Whether it was a close family member falling into deep mental illness or friends building businesses to near-unicorn valuations, nothing ever happened overnight. Even more notably, no one would have ever expected those outcomes years prior.
In the grand scheme of things, I think it’s because you can only ever see two steps out. What do I mean by that?
Say that in life there are 100 tiers of happiness. Of course, life is more complicated and dynamic than this view, but bear with me for a minute. Let’s say that you’re on “Tier 57”. You may be able to see Tier 58 and 59, but I think it’s nearly impossible to fully empathize or even comprehend level 21 and similarly 89, unless of course you’ve been there before. Even if you have, it becomes a distant memory that’s difficult to fully internalize. Remember, the Hedonic treadmill is almost always at play.
Why is this important? Everyone wishes to elevate their life and in association, their happiness. For us to reach these top tiers, we cannot hope for this to just happen. We must expose ourselves to various inputs that may lead to better outputs, and train ourselves to recognize what’s working.
And that’s exactly the point of continuous improvement. Since I believe that we can only ever see “two levels out”, we can’t discover these new inputs without slow, but repeatable change. We must explore 58 and then 59 and then all of a sudden, 61 will appear as this new array of opportunity we had never considered before.
As a more tangible example, when I started working in an office, I simply couldn’t fully visualize remote work. I knew it existed, but I couldn’t truly imagine this new way of living. And even once I started working remotely, it took years of iteration and pivoting to expand into the lifestyle that I now call my own. And of course, there’s probably many more tiers to explore that I simply haven’t visualized yet.
“To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.” - Henri Bergson
That’s precisely why it’s good to continuously surround yourself with new environments and people, and to focus on slow, but steady compounding. I think this tweet from Michael Nielson captures what I’m trying to communicate.
Try to remind yourself as you’re iterating, that there are new levels that you can’t even conceptualize right now. Regardless of how far along you are, know that these new levels of success will appear as you work towards the next one or two. And soon enough, you’ll be 10 levels ahead of what you could have ever imagined.
“I have seen impractical and improbable things accomplished. All it took to achieve improbable things was an optimistic attitude and a refusal to give up.” - The Woman Who Smashed Codes
James Clear, from Atomic Habits, mentions a study in which students in Jerrey Uelsmann’s University of Florida photography class were divided into two groups. The first group would be the “quantity” group, while the second would be the “quality” group. The former would be judged solely on the number of photographs they submitted, while the latter would be graded on the excellence of a single image.
The interesting outcome of the experiment was that the best photos were produced not by the quality group, but by the quantity group. Why? While the quality group spent their time speculating what perfection may have been, the quantity group took action in testing what was truly great.
“It is easy to get bogged down trying to find the optimal plan for change: the fastest way to lose weight, the best program to build muscle, the perfect idea for a side hustle. We are so focused on figuring out the best approach that we never get around to taking action” - James Clear, Atomic Habits
In other words, the “search” for greatness is often misguided, perhaps because what we imagine to be great, is in fact not that great at all. Instead of speculating what may make you great, get out there and start doing. Do not look for perfection or even greatness, but instead signs of “good” and start making tangible progress.
How Do You Become Great?
So if you’re still asking the question, “How do I become great in life?”, I would ask you to reframe the question as “How do I become good in life” or even “How do I become decent” and focus on developing those habits to repeat over time. Transform these habits to be your baseline.
Remember, there is no “magic moment” when you become great, so if you are looking for your path towards greatness, stop looking for “greatness” and consider that your most probable path there is just to focus on what’s good.
If you have an understanding of what inputs equal favourable outputs then continue moving in that direction. As you move past the local minima and maxima, you’ll soon be beating out the 50% that quit at X time, the 75% that quit at Y time, and the 90% that quit at Z time. Soon enough, you’ll be the great one that was once just “good” among the rest, but stuck with it and learned something along the way.
In being consistent over time, you become the outlier.
Remember: great is just good, but repeatable.
This article was originally inspired by me trying to more deeply understand what “made people great’, but ended up being a dive into some of the psychology I’ve been experiencing more recently. Over the last few months, I think I’ve been on one of my local minimums in terms of direct “success”, but in writing this I feel motivated to keep pushing to my next local maximum, with the understanding that there will be many more of both moving forward.
If you’re interested in learning more about habit building and long-term progression, I would recommend the following books:
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