“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
This line was written as hyperbole to puff-up the already large ego of a character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Its pompous grandeur and false depth were laid as a trap to make a fool out of a very arrogant man. It worked (watch the play). What was Malvolio’s failure? Why was he so taken in by these words?
He was blind to the greatness in others.
I must admit—albeit sheepishly—I have often aspired to greatness (I even read that Jim Collins book). I don’t mean popularity or approval. Those things are not indicative of greatness. Greatness is not about how many people know your name. This is why I love shows like The West Wing and Newsroom. They unfold events that demand greatness of the characters (who fail—a lot). In turn, this demands greatness of the audience. It’s inspiring. It’s…relieving.
Now, I will tell you a secret, something I suspect Shakespeare knew when he sarcastically scribbled the above lines: greatness is not a birth right or an achievement or a force of nature. Greatness is a generosity.
Unless we believe that others are great, we cannot be great. Unless we choose to see others as equally capable of all the greatness we hope to achieve, we are merely going to be Malvolios, or worse (and possibly more pitiable), the same CEOs whose business decisions lead to economic havoc or the politicians who can’t create laws supporting average Americans while their own income is wildly disproportionate to the average. We will be the nagging mother or critical boyfriend. We will be the micro-managing boss or the choir lady who corrects everyone else but never sings on key. Treating people with contempt is the best way to hinder your own greatness.
If any of us strive for greatness—in our careers, with our families, in our communities, in our faith—we must believe that the people we meet, interact with, and read about have the same potential for greatness as the fire that burns in our own imaginations.
This does not mean that everyone is, in fact, great. Some are in outright rebellion to greatness. Some are merely pretending. They have learned the right songs to sing and the right beers to order in pubs. They have just enough hipster in them to make them interesting without being condescending. They have just enough nerd in them to make them intellectual without making them socially awkward. They have just enough art to make you think you could write poetry to them forever. And of course, there is greatness in them; they’ve just turned it off with so many shoulds and constructs of cool.
Maybe my determination to see greatness in others is foolish optimism. Maybe even the term “great” inevitably leads us into the same trap Malvolio falls prey to. Maybe this is just a sentimental ideal, a remnant of the archaic Platonic philosophy. Maybe the amount of evil in the world is too much, or maybe the system is just broken.