In response to yesterday's "Tokugawa’s Generals, and Being a Great Follower," I wrote that greatness is something you define for yourself. I asked, what's your definition of greatness, then? We can think about it. The reader clarified -
I wrote down a list of great men and realized what I meant by greatness. Glory, recognition by other human beings. From conquerors, to musical virtuosos, the great men are those that are supported by the wave of existing people. Great men are those who did something that is today recognized as valuable. Great men are those that are known by "everyone". That is how I think fame should be seen. That is how I am seeing it as of now.
Something that jumps to the eyes is that it requires other people. If you are great then at least someone must be not great. I guess being successful in life is different from being great. If living a successful life is minimally having 2 kids with more opportunities than you had and a strong family then once achieved, your are successful. Greatness I think could be seen as recognized success. Perhaps self-recognized success can make you see yourself as great...
If everyone is successful and recognize that their success and others are great, then everyone is great, hence no one is great. (or otherwise said, to my belief, the word "great" loses value as "awe-some" did) Well that is how I see it. Everyone is successful in something, not all are The Great. Where were the risk-taking warriors? As I now understand, they were fearful. Then again I suppose they had to stop someday throne or no throne. Having acquired the belief that to rebel is a bad ROI.
So do you think that achieving greatness by being a follower is possible? if so how? (following the definition I gave)
Interesting, interesting response here...
"I wrote down a list of great men and realized what I meant by greatness."
But let's the criteria you wrote down, I'm going to add numbers to them:
1. Glory, recognition by other human beings.
2. From conquerors, to musical virtuosos, the great men are those that are supported by the wave of existing people.
3. Great men are those who did something that is today recognized as valuable.
4. Great men are those that are known by "everyone".
First, I think all four of what you listed - glory and recognition by other people, support by a wave of existing people today, enduring recognize that what you did is valuable, and being known by everyone - this sounds to me like you're looking for lasting renown - that's what I'd call it.
Certainly, it's achievable. The first thing that occurs to me is a point from Paul Graham's essay "How to Make Wealth" -
Few technologies have one clear inventor. So as a rule, if you know the "inventor" of something (the telephone, the assembly line, the airplane, the light bulb, the transistor) it is because their company made money from it, and the company's PR people worked hard to spread the story. If you don't know who invented something (the automobile, the television, the computer, the jet engine, the laser), it's because other companies made all the money.
I think that quote contains most of the answer for you - stories spread when there's ongoing value to spreading them. Eventually they can reach the state of mythology and spread themselves, but note - there's been a lot of excellent generals, musicians, leaders, inventors, and innovators in history who aren't remembered.
It's a function of a few things. If your side loses or doesn't endure, you're much less likely to be remembered, regardless of your contributions. Who was Shibata Katsuie's top officer after Nobunaga's death, when he was fighting Hideyoshi? A number of Hideyoshi's officers are well-known... but Katsuie's?
Well, he lost.
So, losing is a bad idea, generally speaking. Of course, we already knew that.
But that's not just in war - that's in anything. An enduring artistic movement will, generally speaking, have more artists remembered as great than a fleeting tradition. This isn't just about the success of the movement itself, but also its popularity after it's not practiced as much. Which brings us to a second generally good piece of advice - choose your allegiances carefully.
I think there's quite a few people in the world who would dislike your ambition for fame and renown. They'd say, "Who is this jerk that wants to be known as 'great'?"
But, y'know, I think a lot of people think something like that at some part of their lives. "The Denial of Death," the Pulitzer Prize winning nonfiction, goes on to say that we're all striving against death in some way or other. Looking to be remembered for greatness would be one such way. Lots of people think about this at various parts of their lives, but most people don't say. It invites criticism and hostility. So, I appreciate your honesty.
But what really encourages me is your third point - "Great men are those who did something that is today recognized as valuable."
I sometimes wonder about this. Deng Xiaoping was one of the greatest statesmen of the last 100 years, but Mao is still on all the Chinese money. Will the record be set straight about who really built China?
Rather than sing Deng's praises, I'll just quote Brad DeLong:
"And in 1978 China had its first piece of great good luck in a long, long time--perhaps the first time some important chance broke right for China since the end of the Song Dynasty. China acquired as its paramount ruler one of the most devious and effective politicians of this or indeed any age, a man who was quite possibly the greatest human hero of the twentieth century: Deng Xiaoping. Deng sought to maintain the Communist Party oligarchy's control over China's politics while also seeking a better life for China's people, and he is guided by two principles: (i) be pragmatic ("what matters is not whether the cat is red or white, what matters is whether the cat catches mice), and (ii) be cautious ("cross the river by feeling for the stones at the bottom of the ford with your feet")"
...but Mao's still on all the currency and has all the statues of him up...
To answer your question then -
Yes, it is certainly possible for someone who is a "follower" as you say to achieve lasting renown. It would be easier if your side or movement or affiliation wins and endures for a long period of time. Choose your side wisely, and fight hard.
Then, look to participate in great works and contribute immense amounts of value, such that it will be remembered when reflected on. You might consider reading about Lorenzo Medici for some ideas on how to participate in building lasting value beyond the limits of your own talent - by facilitating other people to make beautiful and permanent great works, that will probably help with your renown.
But the final, probably most important point - what value is there for others in sharing your story?
As Paul Graham talks about - when you know who an inventor is, it's usually because his company marketed him and benefited from his story.
So I suppose I'm answering my own question about Mao - Mao's on the Chinese money not because he's the greatest leader in modern China (not by a longshot), but because his story offers kind of a mythology about it. Mao established most of that mythology himself through his methods, and now it benefits people to carry on with it and harness it. Mao's exact principles are pretty much dead in China - but his image has continual value, so it lives on.
Whereas currently, lionizing Deng Xiaoping has less value for the leadership. He has a mixed record of popularity - while economists and educated people generally regard him as one of the most brilliant Chinese leaders in a very long time, his modernizations were incredibly unpopular with a number of people.
So to answer your question - certainly, it's possible to achieve what you're looking to achieve. It'll be more likely if your side wins and endures. You will need to undertake some great works, and contribute a lot. But I think the final piece of the puzzle is figuring out how your story spreading will benefit others. If there's value to people in spreading your story, it will be spread. If there's no value in spreading your story, it won't be spread.
You have your lifetime to do your works and establish momentum, but also think on what use your name and story can be after your death. As with anything, incentives matter - if people gain by spreading your story, it becomes likely to spread. If no gain, unlikely.
Final thought - if you are going to be serving under someone else's command, or following someone who blazes the trails first - pick someone who is known for elevating and celebrating the people around them. I can't codify it exactly, but clearly some leaders elevated people around them, and their whole circle of associates gets known well. Other leaders absorb all of the renown of their cause, and their colleagues and officers and friends are forgotten. If you want renown for yourself, look for a leader who glorifies the people around him. I think that's generally a good practice for leaders to do anyways, but sometimes they don't do it... perhaps out of vanity? Or perhaps their personality is too overwhelming, thus muting the people around them?
1. Be on the winning side.
2. Have your side endure.
3. Thus, pick your side carefully and then do what it takes to make your side win and endure.
4. Do great works, contribute a lot.
5. What value is there to others in spreading your story? (If you can't answer this, the other ones alone won't contribute to renown - this is necessary for stories to spread)
6. Generally associate and serve people who credit those that they work with, and glorify and lionize and celebrate their friends and colleagues and associates.
Good questions, good discussing - cheers.
I went back and reread the blog and realized that you were focusing on contemporary greatness not what future generations would think so I think my comments are somewhat irrelevant. My apologies.
Well I know I’m in the minority on this one. But I think the world ends when I die and consequently my actions are not concerned with or greatly shaped by future remembrances. I’m selfishly into immediate gratification or at least some type of praise/recognition during this lifetime. Karma and reincarnation are a little too vague and light on scientific proof. to influence me in a meaningful way.
Another good post. And I agree with a lot of it. However, it doesn't take ethics into consideration. Be on the winning side... Castro has been on the winning side for many years, but I would never join him; I'd rather die unknown. There's another, more obvious example, but mentioning him here would only increase his recognition.
Another point: great doesn't always mean good, in general. Alexander the Great was a great man (as per his title!), but did his war-like ways make him good? That one's debatable.
You may want to do a follow up on how being great doesn't always mean good. You just gotta win...
A few days ago, I wrote an open letter to a good friend of mine - "I Think Greatness is Something You Are, Not Something You Do" - I said to him, I'm not a great man, just a normal man working on great things. Greatness is something you do, not something you are.
To give you some background, my friend Brendon is just one of the most amazingly good people in the world. He takes care of everyone around him, his mind, body, and spirit are sharp. He's a black belt, an excellent programmer, a philosopher, a Shodan in Go (actually, even stronger than that - he's a Shodan under the Asian rankings, so probably even higher in America), a hard worker, extremely loyal, a clear and free thinker, widely read and knowledgeable, and again - an amazingly good guy. I've learned a lot from him (notably, he taught me how to play Go, sysadmin Linux, understand basketball at a very high level, improve at martial arts, improve my fitness, and other good stuff - we'd usually go drink green tea and play Go at Samurai Restaurant in Boston, go fight in the park, talk philosophy out at nightclubs, do stuff like that).
He wrote back to me about greatness and humility. I think this is a really beautiful piece, so I asked him if I could gently edit it and put it up. He graciously agreed. It's long, but go ahead and just start it and give it whatever time you have - there's a lot of amazing insight in here.
A Quick Favor Request - if you learn from this or it helps you, please send Brendon a quick email to email@example.com - he was actually a little gun-shy about having such a personal piece put up with such raw power in it. He only agreed when I told him how many people it could help - so please, drop him a short line to say thanks if this teaches you as much as it did me.
Without further ado...
Back when I was gambling professionally, it seemed like everyone had an opinion on which casino was rigged. I never really thought that, but I also didn't really think that I was winning as much as I was supposed to. To test this, I recorded every single session I played for over a year. Guess what? I was within a fraction of one percent from where I was supposed to be statistically. I learned that not only were the casinos not rigged, I wasn't very good at mentally aggregating lots of independent events.
I think that in real life, we all have a natural inability or unwillingness to accept that we generally receive what we deserve. Before I get into this, though, I'll say that it definitely isn't true all of the time. I offer the idea here just a useful tool and framework, not to pass judgement. For example, I know people who have lost close family members, people who have been raped, and people who have been affected by other horrible things. I don't think that they deserve those things or earned them in some way. I think they're an unfortunate side effect of the chaos and variance of life, which is otherwise a good thing.
When I was around twenty, I knew for a fact that I would become rich by the age of twenty-five. Twenty five was really old and I knew that I was special, so it made perfect sense to me that I'd be rich by then. I put in a moderate amount of effort, and made moderate progress towards my goal, but didn't really even close. When I turned twenty five, I was at least a little bit surprised that I wasn't a millionaire yet.
I'm still not a millionaire, but I'm not surprised about it anymore. I've seen people work harder than me and work smarter than me and become rich. I've seen the dedication it takes, and I've seen how that compares to what I have typically put in.