This post lists the key insights from this article, by the head of publications at Toptal, Steph Smith.
Greatness is not instantaneous. Greatness is earned.
Moreover, being “great” is not about being better than someone else. It is about being dependable and disciplined, and ultimately it is earned.
With that in mind, let’s dive into what truly makes someone “great’.
It’s Hard to be Consistent
“Until you work as hard as those you admire, don’t explain away their success as luck.” – James Clear, Atomic Habits
To be clear, consistency isn’t necessarily the easiest way to success, but one that can be achieved with a higher level of certainty, rather than hoping for a lottery win or someone to “discover” you. Continuous effort is a more thoughtful approach that leads to greatness when the following statements are true:
- Inputs are consistent over time
- Intentional inputs lead to expected outputs
“No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich” – Outliers
There is a famous saying from Napolean Hill which says, “If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way”. I would actually argue the quote should be, “If you cannot do great things, do small things a great number of times”.
The described trajectory is what we perceive on the left. Predictable, linear, and a direct reflection of effort put in.
Rarely does success in anything look like that. Life is a series of tiny nodes that tend to look more like the right hand side. There two key elements worth calling out in the more realistic graph on the right:
- Compounding is always present. The earlier steps in any process will be more strenuous, yet it’s difficult to imagine the potential compounding that comes later on.
- With the ups, there are always downs. This seems obvious, but we often forget this when we are in periods of down. We quit at these local minimums (the highlighted sections in red above), because we cannot see the next peak right around the corner.
“The only way to become excellent is to be endlessly fascinated by doing the same thing over and over. You have to fall in love with boredom.” – Atomic Habits, James Clear
On your journey to greatness, you need to fall in love with the process which includes many local minima and maxima. Staying consistent and pushing through both of these continuously is what will truly differentiate you from those that are simply “good” and isolate you as one of the few that are “great’.
Inputs → Outputs
The second important aspect of achieving greatness is acting with intention. Your actions and results will not always reflect your intentions, but as you move towards “greatness”, you should have a better idea of what inputs actually deliver output.
The best things in life often aren’t miracles, but well-thought out approaches that are sustainable. The same thing is true with businesses, marriages, and just about anything with repeatable elements. If you invest time into solving for what leads to success continuously, you will reap those benefits for years to come. So even in the least quantifiable situations, reflect back on what could’ve made a previous loss a future win.
On top of consistency, greatness comes from asking the right questions and iterating to learn what inputs drive favourable outputs, and ideally why. “Greatness” comes from an identified or researched process that when followed, has some degree of certainty in the outcome.
“Moving fast and breaking things” is not a strategy, unless you are clearly defining a process of learning so that in the future, you can “move fast and break less of the same things”.
A Habit of Progression
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein
Understand that in order to achieve the things you want in life, you’ll need to establish a habit of progression. You literally need to become good at being decent.
If you’re struggling to identify the right path, create more nodes of optimization. For example: if you’re making changes every year, you only have maybe 80 in your entire life to make. Instead, try testing things intentionally every month or even every week. Pilot a lot and then double down when you have found your path towards “good”.
You may ask, “what makes good, good?”. Ask yourself the question: “If I were to continue this every day for the next year, would I be in a better place?” If the answer is yes, you have a path towards “good”.
Once you have found your inputs, then you’re in a good place to turn those inputs into the right habits through deliberate practice. Ie: you’ll be in a place to shift from good to great.
This process of shifting between iteration and consistency is all part of developing a habit of progression. Once you make this habit your north star, you are no longer dependent on that “one big break” or that one company to “finally give you a chance”.
And finally, if you’re reading this advice and think, “I’ve heard this before”, then ask yourself whether you’ve truly acted on this advice. When is the last time you truly iterated and tried new things? When is the last time you found something good and then truly stuck to it for years?
Two Steps Out
While you’re moving towards “greatness”, keep in mind that it will likely happen slowly and that’s okay.
In the grand scheme of things, I think it’s because you can only ever see two steps out. What do I mean by that?
Say that in life there are 100 tiers of happiness. Of course, life is more complicated and dynamic than this view, but bear with me for a minute. Let’s say that you’re on “Tier 57”. You may be able to see Tier 58 and 59, but I think it’s nearly impossible to fully empathize or even comprehend level 21 and similarly 89, unless of course you’ve been there before. Even if you have, it becomes a distant memory that’s difficult to fully internalize. Remember, the Hedonic treadmill is almost always at play.
Why is this important? Everyone wishes to elevate their life and in association, their happiness. For us to reach these top tiers, we cannot hope for this to just happen. We must expose ourselves to various inputs that may lead to better outputs, and train ourselves to recognize what’s working.
And that’s exactly the point of continuous improvement. Since I believe that we can only ever see “two levels out”, we can’t discover these new inputs without slow, but repeatable change. We must explore 58 and then 59 and then all of a sudden, 61 will appear as this new array of opportunity we had never considered before.
“It is easy to get bogged down trying to find the optimal plan for change: the fastest way to lose weight, the best program to build muscle, the perfect idea for a side hustle. We are so focused on figuring out the best approach that we never get around to taking action” – James Clear, Atomic Habits
How Do You Become Great?
Remember, there is no “magic moment” when you become great, so if you are looking for your path towards greatness, stop looking for “greatness” and consider that your most probable path there is just to focus on what’s good.
In being consistent over time, you become the outlier.
Remember: great is just good, but repeatable.
If you’re interested in learning more about habit building and long-term progression, I would recommend the following books: