Success comes from being good at doing what others do. Greatness comes from doing what others can’t or won’t do.
When it comes to career or business, almost everyone sets out trying to find success, but few set out searching for greatness. That’s understandable because the GPS directions most are given to achieve success lead along a route established by others and ends with the message, “You have reached your destination.” The inference is that success is the ultimate purpose and there is no need to go further. That’s fine for most, because even with an established path to follow, there are no guarantees of success, so achieving it is something to take pride in and even rest upon.
But for a daring few, faithfully following the path set by others is simply not enough. They have a yearning to go beyond what others define as success and aspire to find greatness. The problem is there are few road maps to greatness. That’s because success is generally defined as being better at doing what others do, while greatness is achieved only by doing what others have never even thought of, or more charitably, can’t or won’t do. It should also be noted that while few men and women will ever really achieve business greatness, there is an inherent reward for even trying, because by reaching for greatness, success becomes easier.
The Trodden Path to Success
If an individual has even a small degree of talent and a willingness to work hard, there are few valid excuses for not achieving some modicum of success in business. To assist in this effort there are thousands of “success books” promising to provide step-by-step instructions to achieve success. There are scores of business schools that charge thousands of dollars in tuition for the promise of teaching an individual how to be successful in business. Scads of seminars populated by the most successful in any field pledge to exchange the latest secrets of success for eight hours of your time and 2500 of your dollars. If that’s not enough for you, multitudes of “consultants” will happily darken your doorstep, all too willing – for a large fee – to tell you what your business needs to be done to be successful. Although they come in many guises, a consistent theme permeates these purveyors of the “success formula”: Just do what others are doing or have done to be successful, then you will be successful as well.
With all this help, how can you fail? The truth is you can’t. If you take all this information, distill it and adopt what fits you and then consistently and consciously apply it, you will learn to do what others do and be successful; at least to a point. But one thing this deep reservoir of success tips will never teach you is how to be great. That is something you will have to learn for yourself.
Learning to Look for Greatness
Being open to greatness means being open to being different. That may be difficult because being different is the antithesis of what is taught in business to be successful. The message is don’t be different, just be better at doing what others are doing. That’s why the concept of “peer-group comparison” is so prevalent in the business world. The theory is that by studying what others are doing you can see what you have to do better to be successful.
That’s a misleading concept if there ever was one. Nothing is more limiting to the concept of greatness than succumbing to peer-group pressure that allows success to be defined by the mediocrity of the lowest common denominator, rather than the highest measure of achievement as a benchmark for performance. The mentality of greatness is not defined by learning what others are doing and trying to do it better, but by finding what others are not doing and doing that.
Some reach a level defined as success and go no further, most often because of a fear of losing what they have to an uncharted future. Striving for greatness calls for having the courage to look past the certainty and security of the way things have been done in the past to achieve success and to accept the ambiguity of doing what others fear to do. Greatness comes from having and then acting on an intuitive, deeply passionate desire to do what it takes to make the future better than the present, even if it means going against the established rules of success. Greatness seekers are a value not only for themselves, but for those they impact and lead because they are instinctively dissatisfied and challenge what most see as the only way, because it has always been that way. Greatness comes from making things better for everyone.
Examples of Craving Greatness
I apologize for using my career as an example here, but remember that for this piece “greatness” is defined as the desire to do more than what is accepted as enough, not to self-proclaim having achieved the same.
My career started as an insurance agent selling individual policies. Certainly my desire was to be successful. To that end I read all the books, followed all the advice received and did my best to learn and do what others had done to be successful. And it seemed to payoff, because over time I moved from agent, to agency manager, to corporate officer and ultimately to president and CEO of an insurance company.
My friends, family and others saw me as successful and I had every right – under the traditional rules of success – to feel successful. I could have stopped there and be feted with the accomplishments of a successful career. But for some reason, it didn’t seem to be enough. From my perspective the old ways of doing things in the corporate world and the insurance industry – the very things that allowed me to be successful – were no longer the right things to do. It was this intimate knowledge of the insurance industry – going from agent to CEO – that allowed me to recognize that only through change and a willingness to do things differently, would success be preserved and the opportunity for a better future be created. And that is an important point: Most often those who rest on success in an effort to preserve it, lose it.
The need and potential value to be gained from recognizing changes and being willing to do what others would not do, gave me the courage to leave the success of the past behind and seek “greatness.” What followed was the creation of a new life insurance company – LifeUSA. One that in every way did things that others said could not be done and accomplished what others said was impossible. In many ways LifeUSA changed the life insurance industry and set new standards for how things should be done. Along the way I learned the true definition of “greatness” in business is giving others the opportunity to be more successful than they ever imagined. None of this would have happened if I had accepted and been satisfied with how others defined success.
Greatness is Still Waiting
This past week I met with four younger guys (at my age, everyone is now younger) who are partners in a marketing company selling products in a very large, competitive industry. Their main competition comes from other marketing companies selling the same type of products. All of the guys are smart, impressive, hardworking and exhibited an obvious desire for success. By the accepted definition of success, their company is successful. It is good – maybe even a little bit better – at doing what other marketing companies do.
What struck me almost immediately was their dissatisfaction with the success they have achieved to date. They exhibited a burning desire to do more and were frustrated as to why it has not been happening. With their industry in decline and competitive marketing companies willing to do anything to survive, they have been struggling for years to find a way to distinguish their efforts and accomplishments from those of others.
They didn’t understand it, but what they had been searching for was a way to go from success to greatness. The problems and frustrations they had been encountering was because their thinking and actions have been hemmed in by the traditional belief that success is defined by being better at doing what others are doing.
As bright guys it did not take much coaxing for them to comprehend why they were so exasperated by their inability to break out from the pack of the competition. Like the illumination of a lightning bolt in a dark sky, they saw a brief, but brilliant flash, that showed them what needed to be done to be great. They quickly understood that simply trying to be better at doing what others are doing is not the path to greatness.
It became clear to them that up to this point they had been asking the wrong questions and going in the wrong direction. They grasped an understanding that achieving greatness would not come from constantly trying to be better at what others are doing, but by finding out what needs to be done that is not being done by others and then finding a way to do it.
There are no assurances this group will achieve greatness, but they are already ahead of the game to greatness, because they are not satisfied with success as defined by others. They have achieved success as others define it, but now yearn for more. In the end this is the only path to greatness.