I am a sports fan. Even before all of the games got canceled, it was hard to turn on ESPN without hearing “experts” debate who is the greatest. The greatest college football team of all time? The best World Series? Who is better, Jordan or LeBron? What about this guy? Things change fast in the NFL. Lamar Jackson was the greatest quarterback in the NFL last year…until Patrick Mahomes did this. Tom Brady was the “GOAT” until he lost a few games and then maybe Peyton Manning wasn’t so bad. Why are we so obsessed with who is the greatest?
In boxing, Muhammed Ali was the greatest of all time before he was the world champion. He was the greatest before he was even Muhammad Ali. By claiming to be the greatest, Cassius Clay motivated himself to beat Sonny Liston. All of the “experts” (they had them back then, too) were predicting Liston would win. But Clay knew that he needed to convince himself he was the greatest by doing the work to prove it. After he had proven to himself he was the greatest, he made his claim to anyone and everyone. Then he proceeded to back it up. There was no need for a debate. There was even a movie about it.
I remember seeing “The Greatest” when I was ten years old and was convinced. I didn’t see many of Ali’s fights. I was too young to care when the “Rumble in the Jungle” and “The Thrilla in Manilla” took place. Boxing was very popular in the ’70s even though most of us couldn’t see the big fights live because they were on closed circuit pay per view. We couldn’t even see the highlights. We saw still pictures on the local news and the commentary in the newspaper the day after the fight. Weeks later, we finally could see the replay on Wide World of Sports. We didn’t need to see the fights. Muhammed Ali was the greatest. He made me want to be the greatest, too, in whatever I chose to do. He inspired me to work hard.
We all started wanting to be the greatest. Maybe this is when the debate of who is the greatest of all time in everything began. Not long afterward, ESPN and sports talk radio came along. All of a sudden, there is a lot of airtime to fill with hot takes. We moved on to other things when we ran out of sports—bands, movies, Jeopardy contestants, etc. We are obsessed about who is the greatest at everything, now and all-time.
Striving to be the greatest is a lousy strategy. Most of us won’t be the GOAT in anything. Obsessing about being the greatest can lead us down a path of perfectionism, workaholism, and burnout. Maybe we are only good at some things. What about OK? Is it not OK to just be OK sometimes? Or even just not bad? Falling short of being the greatest then means failure, and we grow fearful of it, won’t admit it, and can’t learn anything from it.
This is why it is better to be great than being the greatest.
Greatness takes more than accomplishment. When you have time, watch this video of Ali, Tyson, and Sugar Ray Leonard on the Arsenio Hall Show in 1990. It’s fascinating for several reasons. It shows how being the greatest was just a step on Ali’s path to greatness. As Ali admits, in-his-prime Tyson probably beats in-his-prime Ali. Ali says if Tyson could land a punch he would be knocked out. Tyson credits Ali’s greatness to his character. I agree. Ali’s influence is what made him great. He made an impression on Leonard and Tyson. He became an inspiration to the entire world by how he lived his life and what he stood for. Ali had become more than the greatest boxer, he had become one of the most significant Americans in history.
Do we even know what it means to be great? Maybe that’s the problem. It is easier to understand what it means to be the greatest than to be great. We can point to statistics or other evidence. Perhaps we don’t know what great means because it is so overused. As I write this, my computer tells me to use a synonym for it. Great has become the new awesome. We are getting tired of great.
Last fall, I stumbled upon a useful definition. I was in the Self Help section at Half Price Books and noticed they had several copies of The 8th Habit by Stephen Covey. I thought there were only seven habits! Somehow I had missed out on the sequel. I bought the book and read it. Dr. Covey wrote that the world had evolved to where a new habit was needed to allow us to go beyond effectiveness to greatness, where we seek fulfillment, passionate execution, and significant contribution. To “find your voice and inspire others to find theirs” is how he defines greatness. Like Mike Tyson felt about Ali, Dr. Covey believes your character determines your greatness.
Ali once visited Tyson’s reform school, and it inspired him. Ali’s sense of conscience, vision, passion, and discipline made him a model for a lot of us back then. We thought we admired him for being the World Champion and the greatest boxer of all time. Over time, we understood that it was his presence and his values that were the source of his influence. Ali’s greatness came from outside of the ring.
By learning this definition, “To Be Great” is now my “why it matters.” I am no Ali, but I am motivated to be an influence to whoever I can. Greatness is tied to effort and not accomplishments. I say “great” all the time to describe my goals and wishes for others. When I am confident in what I am doing, connected to a mission, and learning, I am proactive and play to my strengths. I’m being great by doing the best I can. When I fail, fall into the trap of trying to be the greatest, or become disappointed about just being OK, my weaknesses show up and my influence fades away. Helping others find their voice has always been a passion of mine, but it requires me to model the right behavior without trying too hard or worrying that I am going to fail. Then I can’t help anyone.
Do you know what word describes your motivations, your “why it matters”? Can you describe your strengths and weaknesses? What are your interests? How do you feel you can best contribute? Answering these basic questions of self-awareness can make a big difference in your career. I’d love to help you out.
Rember that “the greatest” is just an opinion, a hot take, influenced by bias. You can work your whole career seeking to break records. Then someone else eclipses it a year after you retire. Greatness leaves evidence behind. Michael and LeBron are both great. I believe all can be great if we choose to make a contribution however we can.