A Profile of Greatness
Is security a utopian goal or is it another word for rut?
Where would the world be if all men sought security and had not taken risks or gambled with their lives on the chance that, if they won, life would be different and richer?
We shall let the reader answer this question for himself:
Who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived, or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?
Hunter S. Thompson
What kinds of people choose a life of exploration, challenge & discovery?
Those who dare to dream. Who dare to challenge the boundaries of space, time, ignorance and science. Explorers of Land, Ideas, Sky and Art
Journey through history, travel through all the glorious ages of civilisation and time. Discover the explorers who literally expanded our world; thinkers and philosophers who altered our perspectives; scientists who solved the mysteries of the universe; artists, composers and writers who interpreted life in fresh new ways; inventors who created the machinery of progress; political and military leaders who re-defined government and nations; and religious leaders who sought to awaken us to ultimate Truth.
Your journey has just begun. All that you learn of histories greatest can now become the foundation for your own growth, for they are the models who will guide you forward. A profile of greatness you can use for your own personal growth and the fulfilment of your highest aspirations.
Role models play an essential part in human learning. To be able to learn from the experiences of others, whether they exist in the present or the past, is a key to our own development and expansion. Those who are able to tap quickly into the knowledge of others, and who can acquire their skills, attitudes and behaviours, have a critical advantage in life.
Through observation, reading, and study they can actually become like those they value and admire. Researchers in many fields of human learning and development have studied and written volumes on the importance of role models in learning and behaviour. One of them, a semanticist named Alfred Korzybski, called this unique ability to learn from others “time-binding.” The knowledge gained by others binds us all together, for if one moves forward, so do we all. This ability to observe, inquire, learn and discover from others ultimately leads to self-efficacy – the unshakable belief in one’s own ability.
This self-efficacy or faith, in turn, leads to perseverance, and the persistence to overcome obstacles and opposition. But it all starts with the awareness that others have done it; that it’s possible; that time and time again, human beings have risen above their limitations to achieve what seemed almost impossible. Many of the world’s great people took the time to study and gain inspiration from the greats who preceded them. Alexander the Great carried Homer’s book “The Iliad” with him wherever he went. Martin Luther King studied the life of Gandhi. Gandhi himself, corresponded with and took many of his ideas from Tolstoy. Almost every great writer made a study of Shakespeare. Plato took from Socrates and Aristotle took from Plato. Einstein learned from Newton and Newton learned from Galileo.
It goes on and on, in a never-ending transferral of knowledge and inspiration from one generation to the next, from one age to the following. This long continuum, in which humanity bequeaths to humanity all it has learned and understood, is a continuum in which we are all free to join. No great person was great alone – and just as they acquired their greatness from this open library of history, so too can you.
“The superior man stakes his life on following his will.”
I Ching: Book of Changes
We can draw certain conclusions about the characteristics and qualities that enable people to achieve great deeds. After an intensive study of these biographies, Inteliquest* has distilled the ten characteristics that unveil the secret of greatness. They are characteristics all these people shared, and together they provide a profile – a composite picture of the great achiever. Most importantly, they are characteristics that can be learned. They include attitudes and behaviours that can be developed with awareness and practice.
The 1st characteristic of the achieving person is FOCUS. Achievers had a remarkable ability to keep their focus pin-pointed on their work and to resist the distractions that so often derail the plans of non-achievers. It’s this quality – this single-mindedness – that gave so many of the great people their eccentricities. They were so completely absorbed in their work or ideas, they would simply forget to behave in normal or socially acceptable ways. It’s this absorption that led the ancient scientist Archimedes to run naked through the streets, yelling “Eureka,” when he realised the solution to determining the gold content of the king’s crown.
To protect their ability to concentrate, achievers went to great lengths, Emily Dickinson being one of the most extreme examples, literally confined herself to her house for fifteen years and severely restricted her contacts with other people, so she could pursue her work, reserve her energies, and shield herself from both physical and emotional interruptions. The important point is that great achievers kept their goal at the front of their minds and never allowed themselves to forget it. Often they believed they had no choice, for they felt possessed by their own ideas and questions. It was enough to stay focused, to give the work priority, and create the conditions that best supported their creativity.
The 2nd characteristic of great achievers is PREPAREDNESS. They made sure they were ready for the tasks ahead of them. This included obtaining the knowledge and training that was necessary, developing the connections, and acquiring the materials and resources they would need. A good example of this is the explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who had decided when just a child that he wanted to sail the seas like explorers before him. First, he educated himself. He learned geography, astronomy, navigation and the other skills that would be required. If the knowledge wasn’t where he was, he travelled to find it. He journeyed to the cities that had the libraries and experts he needed. Then he devoted himself to finding a patron who would finance his voyage. And of course, he spent months gathering an able crew, collecting supplies, and supervising the loading of his ships. This pattern, of readying oneself for the moment of discovery or creativity was repeated with writers who read and researched before they wrote their own great works; with composers who studied the masters who’d preceded them; with inventors and scientists who read volumes on the work already done in their field and then spent an equal amount of energy trying to accumulate materials and capital; and with military leaders who intensively studied strategies and equipment and familiarised themselves with their territory and their troops. No detail is too small for the achiever’s attention. They each went out and actively sought and found what would be needed to achieve their goal.
The 3rd characteristic that emerges from these biographies is CONVICTION. Every single person believed fully in what they had to contribute. They were confident in their own skills and ideas; they had faith in the value of what they had to offer. This is what enabled them to endure the criticism, the opposition, and even the persecution their ideas triggered. More than one composer, including Wagner and Debussy, was booed, hissed, or ridiculed at their early concerts. But they kept composing and kept composing in the same style. Galileo held to his beliefs about the sun being the centre of the universe, even when he was condemned by his church, put on trial, and placed under house arrest. Martin Luther King continued with his work for civil rights through his house was bombed several times and he himself was attacked. One could say they were brave and courageous people, and of course, they were. But that bravery was a direct effect of their conviction. The courage came from the absolute conviction that what they believed in was right, honourable, and of benefit to humanity.
The 4th characteristic of these giants of history is their PERSEVERANCE. To listen to their life stories is to listen to an almost unbelievable litany of physical suffering, emotional pain, mental torment, and material and financial adversity. Yet they endured through it all. They had an immense capacity for hard work and labour; their physical stamina was awesome; and their ability to persist in their efforts, in spite of hardship, loss and opposition makes them not only heroes but in some cases martyrs. When Vincent van Gogh couldn’t even afford brushes, he painted without them. Louis Pasteur worked steadily on his vaccines through the months his three daughters died. Michelangelo painted away on the Sistine Chapel with excruciating backaches and paint dripping in his eyes – skipping meals and sleep, not even taking the time to change his clothes so that when he finally removed his socks, his skin peeled off with them. Beethoven composed music although totally deaf. Alexander the Great stormed back into battle even with a deep wound in his side. And dozens of these great people worked on through poverty and destitution, living in cramped unheated rooms, eating little more than bread, subsisting on what was given to them. This ability to persevere and persist through circumstances that would dishearten most people was a result of their deep conviction in the value of their work and in the single-mindedness or focus on their goal and dream. Nothing else mattered, all obstacles were insignificant, when compared with the goal.
The 5th characteristic of great people is their CREATIVITY. To be creative is to be flexible and imaginative. It’s an ability to work around problems, to find fresh solutions, to experiment with new approaches, and devise original plans. People skilled at modifying their ideas when they had to. Perhaps this is best exemplified by the inventors, who were constantly experimenting with new materials and exploring techniques that seemed completely unlikely and even ridiculous – until they worked. Without remorse, they gave up what wasn’t working, and began looking around for what would work. This creativity often meant a willingness to use other peoples ideas and adapt them to their own needs. Henry Ford did this with both the automobile itself and the assembly line – ideas that had been explored before him, but which he borrowed and perfected. Surprisingly enough, creativity was especially marked in the careers of great military leaders. Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon were all known for their innovative battle strategies. They pioneered techniques that had never been used before in warfare. This willingness to borrow what works from the past, and combine it with what is new and still unproven, is the essence of creativity.
Characteristic 6th is CURIOSITY. A burning desire to learn and know the truth. This desire might be confined to their own special field, or it might extend into all areas of life, and even to spiritual absolute truths, but the thirst for learning is unquenchable. Always asking questions and seeking answers. They would seek out books and publications, confer with experts, travel hundreds of miles to meet a certain scholar and spend long, late nights reading, studying or experimenting. Never were they happy with half-answers or part truths. Like a dog with a bone, they gnawed away until the full answer was before them. One of the most endearing examples of this driving curiosity was the monk Gregor Mendel who spent years cultivating and cross-pollinating his garden peas, keeping copious notes, haunting libraries, and writing to noted botanists, all so he could unravel the mystery of genetics, which had nagged at him since he was a young man. It was Alexander Fleming’s curiosity about an accidental mould that developed in his petri dish, which led to the discovery of penicillin. And Benjamin Franklin’s curiosity about lightning led to an experiment with a kite that is now a part of history.
This curiosity stayed with them their entire lives, even after their goal had been reached and their fame had been made. Interestingly enough, for many of these people learning was not at all the same thing as education. Some were highly educated – some were barely literate. Many, including the greatest geniuses like Einstein and Edison, were complete failures in school. Their thoughts were ahead of the curriculum of their time; their minds were structured differently than those of their teachers.
The 7th characteristic of great achievers is their RESILIENCE. They had a remarkable ability to bounce back after mistakes and failures, regroup, and try again. In fact, most of them didn’t accept failure as a reality to them it didn’t exist. What did exist were learning experiences.
Every so-called failure was an opportunity to improve. Every step was a step forward, no matter how it appeared on the surface. This was most evident with the inventors, who expected and accepted errors as part of the creative process. It was Thomas Edison who said, after 50,000 failed experiments on his new battery: “Results? Why I have gotten a lot of results. I know 50,000 things that won’t work.”
The resilience of these men and women doesn’t mean they weren’t sometimes depressed by obstacles or setbacks. Often they would slow down a bit and reassess themselves. But always they were back again, usually with renewed vigour. No defeat was final. Achievers experienced many defeats and setbacks and made many mistakes before they reached their goals. If they hadn’t had resilience, not one of these names would be known to us today.
The 8th characteristic RISK TAKING is one of the most valuable lessons we can learn from these giants of history. If there is anything that threatens the potential of modern society, it’s the complacency and the dependence on security and comfort. This was not the case with the great men and women of the past. They were more than willing to venture into the fields of the unknown and to gamble their reputations, their careers, their health, their wealth, and even their safety, in pursuit of their goal. Not only were they willing to take risks, but they thrived on it. They were true pioneers who dared to break with convention, to defy common thought and belief, to shatter the paradigms to which their societies were rigidly attached. Often this meant they were in conflict with powerful institutions and individuals who had the means to destroy them. But they dared public censure, risked ridicule from their professional peers, and in many cases faced exile, imprisonment, and even death.
Although they would have preferred not to make these sacrifices, the threat of them didn’t deter them. Martin Luther and John Calvin knew exactly what the risks were when they challenged the authority of the Catholic Church. Socrates knew the dangers of offering truths that differed with those of the Athenian government. Dante suffered banishment because of his writings and political views. Both Copernicus and Galileo were well aware of how the theory of sun centred universe would be received in a world that worshipped the earth as the centre. Charles Darwin fully expected the outrage that greeted his theory of evolution. Both Columbus and Magellan sailed into unknown waters as prepared to find new lands as they were to sail into oblivion. All of them were willing to exchange security for knowledge, discovery, and understanding.
The 9th characteristic of great achievers is INDEPENDENCE. They all had a reliance on self, a detachment from the opinions and ways of the world, that enabled them to pursue their inner calling. Shakespeare’s famous quote “To Thine Own Self Be True” was never more fully realised than in the lives of these great men and women who followed their own hearts first, and the expectations of others last. Public opinion and acceptance by their community did not regulate their lives nor affect their behaviour and ideas. They were free thinkers, non-conformists who cared little about whether they fit in with society, and more about whether society fit them.
This quality shines most brightly in the field of philosophy, where the great thinkers were charged with shattering outdated thought forms and introducing new perspectives. Their very task was to think independently and to free themselves, and others, from patterns that were comfortable but no longer workable. But independence was a characteristic of other achievers too, in every field and discipline. Emily Dickinson, aware she was considered eccentric and even insane, confined herself in a room to write poetry that surged from her heart like the waves of an ocean. She also refused to change the style of that poetry, though it had been criticised by the only mentor she had. Independence was reflected not just in the work of these great people, but in their lifestyles.
They were determined to create environments and associate with people who supported or inspired them, even if these arrangements were subject to public criticism. Van Gogh and Monet established homes in the country where they felt their work would best be served. Mark Twain wore white because he felt it cleansed him. Beethoven pounded away on four pianos without legs laid upon the floor, even though his neighbours complained and whispered about how crazy he was. Did he care? No. None of them cared. They could become discouraged when their work wasn’t appreciated; they could be distressed over their lack of recognition, but they never changed their work or style to attain public acceptance. And the opinions of others regarding their behaviour, personality and lifestyles, couldn’t have been more irrelevant. They were people who were deeply connected with their inner selves and detached from the expectations and standards of their times.
This sense of independence, this reliance and trust on their own inner voice, was related to and born from our 10th and final characteristic: a SENSE OF HIGHER PURPOSE. To the great people of history, their work or goal was linked with something greater than the product itself. They felt united with some transcendental ideal or force, which they could often define. It might be God. It might be a service to humanity. It might be Truth or Beauty. Whatever term one uses, they often felt, in their words, “called,” or “divinely used” or an “instrument in the hands of the Maker,” or propelled by “a force they could not control.”
This was the case with Abraham Lincoln, who stated many times that his role during the Civil War and in uniting America, was one in which he felt only like a vehicle for God’s work. The philosopher Rousseau had a strong mystical experience in which his first work was “given” to him. And Mahatma Gandhi never separated his political work from his obedience to the will of God. This sense of purpose was not always directly spiritual agnostics, atheists and lovers of God shared it alike.
In many cases, people simply felt called to serve humanity. In other cases it was the vision of a utopia, or a united empire or nation, that was the higher purpose. Because of this higher sense of purpose, many of the giants of history were in reality, modest people. They didn’t feel great they felt humble. They recognised a force that was far more powerful and from which they derived their own strength and genius. Some of course, like Napoleon, felt inflated by this sense of destiny. But all felt they HAD NO CHOICE. What they did they were compelled to do.
It is this last characteristic, this sense of a higher purpose, that led to all the other characteristics of achievers it’s what gave them their focus, conviction, strength, and independence.
This then is the Profile of Greatness that emerges from a study of the achievers who have affected the course of human history for over four thousand years: They were FOCUSED on their goal. They PREPARED themselves for their tasks. They had CONVICTION in their abilities and gifts. They PERSEVERED through all obstacles and opposition. They were CREATIVE in finding answers and solutions. They were CURIOUS and sought understanding and truth. They were RESILIENT and used their mistakes and failures as learning experiences. They were RISK TAKERS who willingly charted the unknown at a cost to their own security and comfort. They were INDEPENDENT and freed themselves from the demands and expectations of society. And they had a sense of HIGHER PURPOSE that guided and motivated them to accomplish the greatest deeds possible.
These are qualities that have always existed in human beings. Although we tend to think of modern civilisation as being more advanced, the intellects, talents, and courage of people who lived thousands of years before us are as great or greater than our own. By being reminded of this, we are given hope and pride in the human race. The profiles of greatness radiate with the splendour of the human spirit. And glories of the past promise glories of the future.
Discoverer’s Web: Links and Information on Voyages of Discovery
Intelequest* A Profile of Greatness: The 10 Characteristics of the Achieving Personality