“What do you want to be when you grow up?” The answer to this question was always an easy one. The response lived on the tip of my tongue, ready to spring into action at the slightest rise in inflection. “A writer,” I would say, beaming. To myself, I would add “great” because I knew I was destined for greatness. Even if the rest of the world didn’t.
As I grew, I learned that greatness was not simply liking something a whole, whole lot. It was hard work, perseverance, and a constant desire to improve. My interests also expanded, shifting from fiction writer to journalist to marketer. I began to see all the ways my creativity was useful, how it could potentially lead me to the greatness I aspired to as a kid.
So I started a mission, to be the best at what I do. I learned as much as I could, practiced my skills whenever I had the chance, and aligned myself with people and organizations I believed could unlock my greatness. Soon I fell into a trap of my own making. I found myself drowning in rules and to-do lists, agonizing over the smallest decisions. I spent hours rewriting copy, days designing graphics, and weeks building entire business models that never saw the light of day. It wasn’t ready. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t perfect.
Because that’s what being the best is, what being great is, right? Perfecting your skills and knowledge to such fine point precision you write greatness into existence. If you don’t completely know what you’re doing or haven’t figured out every possible outcome, how exactly can you be great? Fallibility, imperfection,uncertainty-these are traits of the mediocre, right?
It took a long time, years in fact before I realized how wrong I was. There is a difference between perfection and greatness. Perfection, for all its hype, is merely a series of processes that align just as they should. It is the most predictable roadmap in the history of roadmaps (of everything, really), and rarely, if ever, reflects how life actually works. It is the instruction manual that can never give you insight on how to be great.
Greatness, on the other hand, is what happens when perfection is on vacation. Greatness is what you stumble upon in the dark, tripping over inspiration. It is that feeling that you get in the pit of your stomach that you cannot explain but know it is leading you somewhere important.
The difference between perfection and greatness is that greatness actually does something. Greatness makes an impact, disrupts the status quo and forces everyone it comes in contact with to question themselves and the world around them. Greatness cannot be taught or learned. It is something to be discovered, experienced. It exists within you even if you do not know it yet. The only way to know if you can be great is to try. The difference between perfection and greatness is that perfection is impossible, while greatness is within reach.
Although I still would not consider myself “great,” I take comfort in knowing that greatness is a journey. And even if I never fulfill those childhood dreams, I know at least it will be a hell of a ride.