“A man’s true greatness lies in the consciousness of an honest purpose in life, founded on a just estimate of himself and everything else, on frequent self-examination, and a steady obedience to the rule which he knows to be right . . .” (Marcus Aurelius).
WRITING ABOUT GREATNESS IS NOT EASY. Greatness of things like power, authority, and influence are what most people think of, so we are suspicious (and rightly so) of anyone who would deliberately set out to become great in these ways. So to suggest that greatness is anything that one should aspire to seems to be recommending nothing more than selfish ambition. But let’s dig a little deeper.
First, what if we thought of greatness simply as excellence? Wouldn’t that be an honorable thing to aspire to? Shouldn’t I, for example, aim to be a great father rather than a mediocre one? Certainly I should. In terms of good, better, and best, none of us should be content to do anything less than the best work we’re capable of.
But second, genuine greatness has more to do with our character than with our accomplishments. Thinking of it this way, the great are those who are steadfast in adhering to virtuous principles. They may not have achieved anything the world would consider great, but they have what we call “integrity” or “character.” Can anyone deny that this kind of greatness matters and that every one of us ought to be pursuing it?
Henry Ward Beecher once wrote, “Greatness lies, not in being strong, but in the right use of strength,” and that insight is pertinent here. Most people think of greatness as power of one kind or another (social, political, financial, etc.), but true greatness consists in the right use of whatever power we have, whether it is much or little.
To sum up, then, perhaps we should distinguish between “bigness” and “greatness,” as Richard Shelly does in the quotation below. Bigness would indeed be a self-centered, ambitious thing to go after. But greatness — true greatness — is a worthy goal. It means faithfully doing our duty, in the service of others, to the very best of our ability.
“A desire for bigness has hurt many folks. Putting oneself in the limelight at the expense of others is a wrong idea of greatness. The secret of greatness, rather than bigness, is to acclimate oneself to one’s place of service and be true to one’s own convictions. A life of this kind of service will forever remain the measure of one’s true greatness” (Richard W. Shelly Jr.).