I want to be great. I really do. Like Beethoven-great.
The older I get, the more I realize that’s not up to me. Great is about more than talent. It is about what happens to your work when you’re done, the time in which you live, who sees it, what it means to them.
I think some people are so determined to be great that they do anything they can to get there. They’re ruthless in their pursuit of greatness, even if it means squashing people in their way or giving up what’s important to them like family. The sad irony is that they may pay that price or exact that cost, and yet in the end any greatness they achieve will still be beyond their control.
So I’m rethinking great. It seems to me that every artist, performer or creator achieves a spectrum of results in their life’s work ranging from their worst to their best. For most people, their best is good and their worst is bad.
For others like Beethoven, the spectrum of their work is on a higher plane. Beethoven’s worst (“Wellington’s Victory”) is still competent. His best (“Missa Solemnis”) is unbelievable. What does that mean for me?
Beethoven didn’t bother trying to be “great.” He worked hard on being “good.” He made sure his “good” was better than anyone else’s good.
He knew he couldn’t control which of his works turned out to be his best, and which his worst. He brought himself fully to bear when called to compose and at some point would let each piece go. By dint of his ferocious work ethic, he was able to ensure that his worst would be better than some people’s best.
The lesson is that greatness is never the target. Competence is the target. Reliability, accountability, a process that reflects a solid, workable product, is the goal, and we raise the bar on that as we grow, getting better instead of greater.
Does that mean it’s not okay to want to be great? Of course it’s okay! Who wouldn’t want to be great?
But that’s not really up to me. I have much more important things to worry about. If I focus on whether or not I’m great, I’m probably not thinking nearly enough about the things which are important.
Adam Cole is a writer and music educator. His blogs can be read monthly at www.mymusicfriend.net.