Beyond success: the anatomy of greatness

Consider the gap represented by these comparisons:

HP vs. Apple
James Milner vs. Eric Cantona
Avatar vs. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Wladimir Klitschko vs. Muhammad Ali

In each case, you have two things that are both incredibly successful, and yet the latter examples possess a quality that the former – even if they’re more successful on paper – simply don’t.

For a long time, I’ve grappled with that precisely this quality is, as it’s something I try to push my clients towards. Is it style? Cultural relevance? Idiosyncrasy? Yes, it’s all those things, but alone they are insufficient. What we are really talking about here is something broader:


That’s the best word I can think of.  But what exactly is greatness?

It’s one of those slippery concepts which, like pornography, we struggle to define but know when we see it. We know that certain athletes, certain movies, certain military heroes, and of course certain companies are great simply by intuition.

But intuition isn’t very useful if we are chasing greatness ourselves.

For that we need a definition that’s more concrete, more black and white. A yardstick to measure ourselves by if we want to cross that divide.

One thing’s for sure, “greatness” isn’t simply an extreme version of “success”. It doesn’t mean “very very successful”. In fact, success probably isn’t even a necessary part of greatness.

When Mel Gibson’s William Wallace is being hung drawn and quartered at the end of Braveheart, the movie makes it pretty clear we’re witnessing “greatness” – but it’s not exactly what most of us would call “success”. There is such thing as glorious defeat, as well as inglorious victory.

No, greatness is its own separate metric. Perfectly compatible with success, probably correlated in fact – but not the same.

I would argue that in all fields – from a great boxer to a great underwear brand – there is one commonality that applies, and that is this:

Going where others are afraid to follow.

All tales of heroism, all aspirational extremes, they all share this characteristic. Somebody goes out there and does something which their peers simply aren’t prepared to do. As observers, we know that if we were in their shoes, we probably wouldn’t do it either. And this fills us with admiration. Longing even. Longing to be associated with a courage that we deep down know we lack.

I can remember being blown away by the story of Philippe Petit, the high-wire artist who shocked the world by walking his tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in 1974.

What was amazing about his story wasn’t the feat itself. I mean it was impressive, sure. Perhaps sufficient for greatness alone. But that wasn’t the half of it. What propelled him into the stratosphere in my eyes was the fact that his walk was completely unauthorised.

To accomplish it, he and his co-conspirators had to plot in secret; sneaking into the buildings after dark like thieves, and setting up the wire while the city slept below them. In order cast it between the towers, they were forced to shoot a fishing line over the void using a bow and arrow. This line was then tied to a thicker line, then a rope, then a thicker rope, and finally the steel wire – which had to be dragged across by hand. At last, as day broke and New Yorkers set about their morning commute, Petit was able to walk. As helicopters hovered beside him and cops waited at either end of the wire to make their arrest, he paused, lay down, and absorbed the moment.

Amongst all this, who gives a damn that the guy is a proficient tightrope walker? His success at his craft means nothing in comparison to his flair and guts. It means nothing in comparison to his greatness.

Defined this way, it’s little wonder that this quality is so rare. It is, by its very nature, something aberrant.

Equally this definition makes it completely reasonable to reject greatness. To not want it. If success can be achieved without it, why would you jeopardise that in pursuit of something so nebulous and egotistical as glory? Sure, greatness can come with certain material rewards – but on balance they’re probably not worth the risk.

However, if such rationality doesn’t sway you, and you still hold ambitions of reaching this higher threshold, then you know what you have to do. Get clear on those things you will do that your peers will not. The things that put you in danger.

Despite the rhetoric to the contrary, the internet age has ushered in an era of extreme homogeneity and conformity. We are all swimming in the same cultural soup, with fewer and fewer operating at the margins.  Risk-taking and visionary acts are more difficult now than they ever have been before. And thus acts of greatness are an endangered species.

It’s hard to imagine someone doing what Petit did today, in 2020. It’s hard to imagine someone even thinking of it. The 70s in particular, for some reason, were a wild time, with as much greatness crammed into the average year as we’ve experienced in the past decade.

But perhaps if we understand the ingredients of such achievements, we can bring them a little bit closer.

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