I asked each of my children when they were younger, “What makes a great person?”. While none of them gave me great insights into their psyche, I did get an impression of what a great person isn’t—a bully. They preferred people who didn’t hit them or do mean things to them. Surprise.
My mother-in-law, Karen, had to write a paper in college on this topic, and it got me to thinking, too. What does make a great person? One hundred years from now, if all we have to look back on are the likes of US Weekly or TMZ, we might think it has much to do with a person’s claim to fame, Hollywood romance or their stylish red carpet attire. Of course, Hollywood’s greatness gauge is probably not the same as an average person’s, either. In our modern media, we may run across a great philanthropist or scientist who discovers the cure for a horrible disease. Truly these people are noble, and maybe even “great”. Yet, when I think about it, I’ve known a lot of great people who will never be remembered in a magazine or newspaper article, yet their lives have impacted mine with undeniable, unique greatness. Using my kids’ method of deductive reasoning to determine greatness, great people are not necessarily famous or well-known to others outside their circle of family and friends. So since I know a little about what greatness isn’t, I decided to give this matter of what greatness actually is some thought, and I’ve come to these conclusions:
Great is a generic and overused adjective. Sounds cynical, doesn’t it? But we have to put this out there straight away. Apparently I was a “great friend” in junior high and high school. My son brought up some of my yearbooks and reminded me of this fact. Many of these same people also thought I was “sweet” and even “2 good 2 be 4 gotten”. Imagine that, I was a legend of greatness in my own time and didn’t even know it. I also didn’t actually remember a lot of those who held this opinion of me in junior high. If a great person doesn’t remember those who thought she was great, does the greatness cease to exist? Hmmmm….
Greatness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. To the struggling entrepreneur, a successful, self-made businessperson could be the role model for greatness. Likewise, to the woman in the throes of raising young children, the woman who raised seemingly happy children into responsible and respected adults may be her hero. People who fit the description of how we wish our future selves to be are “great” on an individual level, without question. After all, who wants to aspire to mediocrity?
Greatness comes from within. In my limited experience, those I’ve thought of as great have similar character traits. These people are a mixture of men and women, thin and not-so-thin, tall and short, high school drop-outs and holders of multiple educational degrees, businesspeople and homemakers. Amongst their traits in common? Generous, patient, compassionate, self-sacrificing, have empathy for others, kind-hearted, energetic, willing to learn from, as well as teach others, and truthful. There are more, but these seem to re-surface time and time again in people I believe to be great. Almost any person can demonstrate one or more of these characteristics to some degree. But great people are consistently great, and usually in more than one area. Think “good” person, times 50,000. Incidentally, the greatest also tend to be humble about it.
Those who surround themselves with greatness can’t help but to absorb it themselves. No, I’m not talking about those who ride others’ coattails to make a name for themselves. But greatness can be contagious! Think of that one person (you may be lucky enough to have more than one) who brings out the best in you, the one who makes you try harder and not give up. How do you feel when you spend some time with that person? Energized and ready to do more to make the world a better place? A truly great person wants you to be great, too. This is also something to keep in mind when that little green-eyed monster rears its ugly head when your best friend gets that promotion or loses that last twenty pounds!
Greatness makes a difference. A person doesn’t have to organize a world-wide rally for peace and ending hunger to make a difference. The person in rush hour traffic who lets you get over into the left-turn lane that you missed because you were distracted won’t be getting a shiny metal, but they could make the difference between whether or not you get to your daughter’s kindergarten graduation ceremony in time to see her get her diploma. Small differences matter, too.
Clearly, greatness is hard to define, and can also be confused with other noteworthy attributes. Yet it still can serve as a benchmark for behavior. Does a particular activity serve a greater good? While that question may be answered more easily with what behaviors are not great, taking the time to define for oneself what it means to be great can make a good person an asset, maybe even a great asset, to this world.