More than 11,000 athletes are competing at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, showcasing their superior skills in nearly 40 different sports. We asked Rachel Rodgers, associate professor in the Department of Applied Psychology, to define the concept of greatness and explain how everyday people might tap into their own greatness.
What is your definition of greatness? Does it change depending on the discipline, whether it’s sports, art, music, math, or just about anything else?
Western individualist cultures place value on individual greatness. But other cultures, particularly collectivist ones, place little value or even shy away from the idea of one’s own greatness. In addition, Western cultures place value on “productions” as a source of greatness, while Eastern cultures sometimes place more emphasis on relational aspects such as being authentic and genuine and capable of inspiring others. Therefore, greatness is very much a cultural construction—somewhat like standards of beauty and attractiveness, which is the focus of our research on the APPEAR team. Similar to beauty norms, the definition of greatness varies across time periods and cultures.
Philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that talent was innate and could not be taught. Others, particularly those in the field of cognitive psychology, have suggested that a decade of intense work and apprenticeship is required to become an expert. And Thomas Edison, the inventor, famously remarked that “Genius is 1 percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration.” In your view, is greatness learned, innate, or a combination of both?
Leo Tolstoy in his work War and Peace spends some time describing how history plays an important role in the determination of greatness. He introduces the idea of how “greatness” is seen in those who conform to current conceptions of greatness as well as actions that seem to come from motives that are socially valued. Thus, in his example, Napoleon is held to be great by history for actions that Tolstoy argues were due to circumstances, e.g., the cold Russian winter and generals acting without, or contrary to, orders. In Tolstoy’s words “To a lackey no man can be great, for a lackey has his own conception of greatness.”
What can everyday people do to tap into their own greatness, regardless of their wealth or fame or skill set?
Greatness, synonymous with “distinction” or “illustriousness,” denotes a comparison with others that sets someone apart. Thus, the very definition of greatness suggests that it is a quality that society confers only on a few. As mentioned, it is also a judgment of the outcome rather than the process. Instead, focusing on the process, the experience, can be very rewarding.
Again, I would draw a parallel with striving to achieve social standards of beauty, which is often the result of comparisons with others and rarely helpful. Instead, focusing on non-appearance aspects of the body, its functionality, and positive sensorial experiences, and being accepting, can be more fulfilling in the long term.