Defining Personal Greatness

Some people become distinctly uncomfortable when the concept of greatness is mentioned. There are many reasons for this. The primary reason for the discomfort is due to either the perceived lack of capacity to achieve greatness, or the fear that one might have the capacity, and therefore that greatness will be expected. Yet much of this discomfort is due to our common understandings of greatness. After years of research we realized that to continue our study there needed to be a more complete definition of the concept of greatness that went beyond the common, elusive understandings.

Part of our ordinary misunderstanding of greatness either explicitly or implicitly implies that if the individual is great, they are famous. Yet, if we are serious students of personal greatness we know that our current society vaults individuals to fame who have no talent, knowledge or success. Actually in some cases it is exactly the opposite. So fame is no indicator of greatness. Another common misunderstanding of greatness in our society is success. Having millions of dollars from some successful venture brings with it not only the requisite fame, but simultaneously the patina of greatness. Interviews of “instant” success stories regale us with the ten most important things we can learn from the latest media star, only to see the star fade and another “Saint Elmo’s Fire” illuminate the airwaves. Many great individuals toil away realizing that success might be elusive and often occurs after they are dead. A final component we erringly equate with greatness is a place in history. History books are rife with tales of daring and success that we examine throughout the ages. However, history books themselves are biased. The overabundance of white men of European ancestry adorning the pages of history books is itself inherently prejudiced. Women, minorities, and entire continents have been excluded as though they had no place in the growth of civilization. Just remember, history is written by the winner. So that leaves us with the task of defining greatness in a way that overrides the misperceptions of fame, success and history, and acknowledges the success of individuals striving in their personal circumstance.

The definition that we propose is that personal greatness is the optimal use of the positive psychological resources and capabilities of an individual.

Allow us briefly to clarify this definition. Providing a goal that institutions can study and individuals strive for, means that it is beyond the average and norm, and requires effort to achieve. That is why we define greatness using the word optimal. Within this context optimal means the highest level possible given the realities of the individual’s circumstance. For example, judging the greatness of a four-year old will be comparatively different than that of an adult because of their varying capacities. However within this understanding the four-year old could be said to be achieving psychological greatness because he or she was using his or her psychological means to an optimal extent. Thus the definition bypasses the limits of age, IQ, etc.

Use connotes some sort of outward manifestation. Researchers have identified that the adage “practice makes perfect” contains wisdom and in using one’s abilities, over time, an individual can develop toward greatness. There is also a theory that individuals will manifest their greatness by how they affect the society around them. Some researchers see this societal benefit as an essential characteristic. Though there conceivably might be individuals who optimize their psychological capacities and not manifest them, we believe they would be in the minority. Therefore the concept of optimal use implies that the individual be connected in some social relationships and the use of their capacities would affect others. Our use of positive psychological is specifically to focus on the use of positive, healthy psychological methods that encourage an individual to move toward wholeness. Greatness stems from the positive or healthy psychological dimensions of an individual. This is not to imply that individuals cannot overcome negative events, poor societal upbringing, psychological or physical limitations, and so forth, but that they access positive psychological means to move them onward to greatness.

Resources means the psychological, sociological, physical, and environmental realities inherited and/or experienced by an individual that are the foundation upon which they develop as an individual. For example, though some individuals are blessed from birth with genetic gifts, which tend to manifest themselves more profoundly in athletic pursuits, others are not so blessed. The acknowledgment of resources recognizes the effect that genetics, personality, environment, etc. can play in the movement toward greatness.

Finally capabilities means the developmental desire and determination of the individual. How far are they willing to go to grow and develop their skills and talents? How much self-reflection will they undertake to know their strengths and weaknesses? How much grit and determination do they have to aspire to their goals? Individuals can broaden and strengthen certain aspects of their behavior, thought processes, etc. These capabilities develop as the person becomes aware of them, strengthens them, practices them, and uses them to benefit the person’s life. It is in the interplay of the resources of an individual along with their capabilities, that greatness is formed. One final clarification is necessary to complete the understanding of greatness. When asked to define heaven, Catherine of Siena, a 14th century mystic, said “all the way to heaven is heaven.” We find ourselves facing the same conclusion as we attempt to define greatness. It is both an end and a path. “All the way to greatness is greatness.” The definition we provided transcends time constraints.

Greatness, in our definition, can be the moment, the process, and the end-goal. As long as an individual is making optimal use of their positive psychological resources and capabilities in any given moment, they will experience greatness. Developing their resources and capabilities, thereby expanding their capacities and moving forward on a journey to optimal psychological capacity, is greatness. And, of course, when an individual has reached a point in their life when they optimally use, on a consistent basis, their positive psychological resources and capabilities, they experience greatness. So greatness is not simply an end-goal but an optimal state.

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