We experience events as positive or negative based on the perspective we take.
Helen Keller cried because she had no shoes, until she met a man who had no feet. This is quite a shift in point of view considering she'd lost her hearing and sight after an illness at 19 months old. Imagine what she would have thought meeting Paul Alexander: the man in the iron lung. He's lived most of his life since 1952 in a metal tube that allows him to breath, after polio robbed him of that simple privilege as a young child. The life Helen made for herself, absent of the faculties most of take for granted, was what most of would understand to be truly great. Watch the video below and you'll likely conclude that of his life as well: he managed to become a practicing lawyer, among numerous other achievements.
You have been gifted–and sometimes cursed–with the ability to assign meaning to the otherwise meaningless events occuring at some random time and place in the universe (your life). Some of these to you are profound, others quotidian. The experence of joy, pleasure and fulfillment–and their absence–is a product of the many points of reference you have set. These reference points put the events in a workable or less workable context. Many of these were put into your head by someone else, probably when you were little and barely conscious and probably outside of your awareness and certainly without your permission. These programs are a matter of feet and shoes.
One man's ceiling in another man's floor: perspective can shift in an instant.
When Jim Collins published his second “great” masterwork, he unwittingly unleashed a sometimes unworkable meme on a generation of unsuspecting leaders. In his book, “Good to Great”, he and his team studied a number of companies that had managed a massive boost in performance over a fifteen year period, compared to other reference companies in that space that didn't. It seemed like a reasonable concept to refer to the higher performing organizations as the great ones. The best anyone else could do is to achieve something that was "merely good", or "sadly marginal. “Good is the enemy of great” became the call to action for anyone seacrhing for something exceptional.
Great is not necessarily better than good. Good is not a milestone on the path to greatness. It is an aspiration that is beautiful and justified all on its own. “Good” is a term from moral philosophy that applies to ethics and aesthetics: what is righteous and what is beautiful. To say that I am living a good life or building a good business is not an aspirational compromise from the path of something great: it is the commitment to build something with high value and to act in accordance with what I say is most important to me. “Great” is still a viable project, so long as we understand that it is possible to do something great that is not entirely good.
In many cases great isn't that good at all.
So what is the stuff of “greatness” and how does the illusion work that it is somehow better than good. The drive to do something good is to do my best and become the best I can be. “Best” is the asymptotic pinnacle of what is ethical and aesthetic: a truly beautiful and righteous life and business–a game we can play but never win. We will practically never live up to our full potential. What we can have though is transcendent moments of greatness, where from the ether and flow we manage to get over ourselves and rise to the challenge, overcoming even for a brief instance our petty and debilitating humanity.
The “hero’s quest” mythology, popularized by Joseph Campbell, gives us a window into the crucial distinction between that which is good and that which is great. While the stuff of goodness is made up of developing a fine character, greatness lies in the willingness to embark on challenging ventures that demand at face value more than we have to give. It is the adventure itself that triggers an evolution in our skills and strength. In picking a worthy challenge, we must become worthy to overcome it.
The price of greatness is to confront what is terrible in the world and in ourselves. To engage such an enterprise is to embrace the perhaps long process of suffering and struggle with little in the way of a guarantee for success. The archetype for such a venture is Ernest Shackleton and the quest for the South Pole. (All great ventures are a quest for some Holy grail.) Shackleton failed in the quest. Pack ice destroyed his ship and he and his men had to eat their dogs to survive. They only made it home after he and a small crew travelled hundreds of kilometres to a remote whaling station. Every man lived. Which is great.*
The reward then for pulling off something great is paradoxically something good: we had a chance to do something ethical and beautiful; the path of greatness, the overcoming of something terrible, is a strategy to create something good.
Greatness is sometimes the enemy of good.
The despotic and tyrannical pursuit of greatness-at-all-costs is a pathway to aesthetic and ethical bankruptcy. It can blind us to all the wonderful things we have right now and it can create a feeling of deep existential sadness and disappointment that a good life is somehow really not that good. So by all means, take your hero’s journey–face your demons, launch bold ventures, pursue significant achievements, make your mark on the world–just don’t become an asshole along the way. Remeber the lesson of Helen and Paul: that which is good is a worthy venture in and of itself.
Changing perspective is a super power we all share; it just takes some practice.