I’d like to start off our new column with a simple question: Why is the world obsessed with greatness? Why do we idolize superheroes? The reason is actually quite simple. We’re drawn towards greatness because we know that we’re destined for greatness. We identify with the hero of the story because we know that we are capable, and destined, to become the hero of our own story.
And yet, how many people do you know who are truly great? Most of us are convinced that we’re simply “okay.” We may have role models we look up to, whom we consider to be truly great. But when we look in the mirror, do we see greatness? Do we expect greatness from ourselves? If we are all truly capable of achieving greatness, why do so few strive for it, and even fewer achieve it?
When I was younger, I became obsessed with this question. I was fascinated by what drives and motivates people to do what they do. In addition to formally studying the subject, I began asking every successful person I met to explain how they became who they became. Is there is a secret? What do great people do that is so different from everyone else? In addition to research and experience, I spent my life interviewing the greatest minds of our generation. At Shaalvim and Yeshiva University, I sat down with the rebbeim and tried to understand their journey towards becoming a true talmid chacham. While studying at Harvard and UChicago, I would interview my professors and colleagues to find out what drove them and what helped them succeed. More recently, when I was preparing to launch my first company and write my first book, I sat down with the very best in the industry to find out what worked and what didn’t. Surprisingly enough, the formula for greatness is actually quite simple.
The Five-Step Formula for Greatness
1 – The Initial Idea
Every great journey begins with a great idea. This idea begins as a spark, a flash of inspiration. At this point, the idea remains ethereal, undefined, and still somewhat elusive. While you may know that you have accessed a life-changing idea, you still can’t fully grasp what it is; it’s there, but you can’t put your finger on it. Only after this initial stage of inspiration does the idea begin to develop into a more concrete and expressed construct within your mind: The flash turns into a vision, a dream. At this stage, while the idea is tangible, it is still general and not fully defined.
Next, you need to take the general idea, this amazing dream, and create a practical, detailed, and realistic plan to bring it to fruition; you need to turn the dream into a reality. The general idea is therefore broken down, analyzed, and processed. Now, you can actually picture the idea in your head, as the abstract dream becomes expressed in detail. The simple idea increases in sophistication and complexity; general thought begins weaving and intertwining in unique and creative, detailed pathways. You begin to realize that it’s going to take a lot more work than you thought; you’re going to need a lot more resources than you could have ever imagined. But still, it’s worth it.
2 – Taking Action: Concretizing the Plan into Something Real
The vision and plan are the easy part. Now, you need to actually do it. This is where we get to begin living our dream, where the concrete plan within our mind becomes expressed outwards into the world. But to do this, we need to find the energy and willpower to take the dream that resides within us and make it a reality. Sometimes, the hardest part is simply getting started (Kol has’chalos kashos). We want to wait until that “perfect time” when everything will be just right. But we also know that it will never be the “perfect time” to do a great thing. We need to decide to make it the perfect time, harness our willpower, and get started.
3 – Inspiration: Working Through the Initial Stages of Growth
The initial stages of growth are tremendously exciting and easy, and for good reason. Going from nothing to something is inspiring. Imagine you start learning an instrument: After a few sessions, you can go from “not being able to play at all” to “I can actually play something.” It might not sound great, or even good, but these initial stages of growth propel us forward and inspire us to commit to our initial dream, to keep hold of our vision. The same is true when we take on a new learning goal, begin a new relationship, create a company, or start any new stage of life. It may be difficult, but the joy of progress usually overcomes the pain of the struggle. We embrace the sacrifice that our dream will cost.
4 – Hitting a Wall: Losing Our Inspiration
But just as we were beginning to enjoy the growth process, we find ourselves hitting a brick wall and losing that initial inspiration. This is partially because the initial stage of growth was filled with exponential progress; you went from zero to 60 in no time at all! But once you start to steady out and begin a slower and more gradual ascent, it’s significantly harder to see the growth. You continue putting in the same amount of effort, but you’re not seeing the same results. At this point, you want nothing more than to give up and call it quits.
5 – Pushing Through: Earning Your Greatness
Once the inspiration fades, we need to find the internal strength and willpower to continue pushing forward. The inspiration might not be there, but we need to remember our original dream; we need to remember why we started this in the first place. As the saying goes, “He who has a ‘why’ can overcome any ‘how.’”
The deeper meaning behind this process is elucidated by the Arizal, the Ramchal, the Vilna Gaon, and many other Jewish thinkers. The first stage of inspiration is a gift, a spiritual high. It’s there to help you experience the goal, the destination. It’s a taste of what you can and hopefully will ultimately accomplish; but it’s not real, it’s given as a gift, and is therefore an illusion. It serves only as a guiding force; it cannot compare to the genuine accomplishment of building something yourself. It is therefore taken away to allow for the second and more important stage: building it yourself, undergoing the work required to attain this growth in actuality, to work for the perfection that you were shown. A gift isn’t real; something chosen and earned is. We’re in this world to choose, to assert our free will, and to create ourselves. Now that we have tasted the first stage, we know what we’re meant to choose, what we’re meant to build. The third stage is the recreation of the first stage. While it appears to be the same, it’s fundamentally different. It’s real, it’s earned, it’s yours. The first stage was a gift, an illusion; the third is the product born of the effort and time you invested.
Revise Your Goals and Begin Again
At this point, we begin a life of cycling through these five stages again and again. As we continue striving for our greatness, we reassess our original goals and we question our original definition of greatness. We then adjust, develop, or upgrade our vision, goals, destination, plan, tools, etc. We then go through another stage of inspiration, albeit usually more quickly, because we aren’t starting from scratch this time. We’ll then hit that same wall and lose our inspiration and have to search deep within ourselves for the willpower to keep pushing forward.
You might ask: If the original goal will ultimately be revised or replaced, what then is the point of it? In essence, while the initial goal is necessary, its importance lies only in how it allows you to journey towards your greatness. Every goal is only temporary, for whenever we accomplish it, we will almost immediately create a new one. There are even times when we realize that our goal was not even possible or appropriate to begin with, but it still helped us progress in the right direction. The greatest joy does not come from arriving at our goals, but from the journey itself, the striving itself, the process of progress, and the continued elevation of our existential self.
The Ramban quotes the claims of the fools who challenge the worth of pursuing truth. After all, if we will never reach absolute truth, as it transcends our limited minds, what then is the point in pursuing wisdom? Better not to journey at all. The Ramban responds with a profound insight. The goal is not to reach absolute truth, as this is impossible. The goal is to endlessly strive along the winding path towards truth, getting ever closer, even if the ultimate endpoint remains elusive. Every single step we take is progress, and this is the goal of life: an endless journey, but one in which we enjoy every single stage of growth and evolution. The journey itself is infinitely important.
It’s Not Magic
This is the process of growth, the process of achieving greatness. It’s really as simple as this. The principles are clear and will always stay the same. When you see people are great, this is the path they have taken, and the path they are currently on. It’s not magic. It’s simply the process of listening to the dreams that Hashem gives us, acting on the inspiration, and the willpower, desire, and inner drive to push past all the obstacles along the way (and grow from them).
And the best part? Anyone can do it. Not everyone can become the greatest spiritual giant or world-class athlete, but we can maximize our unique potential and become the greatest version of ourselves, becoming all that we were created to be.
Become the Hero of Your Story
So think about it: What if you lived your life as if you were the main character – the hero – of an epic story. In every novel and every epic, there’s a simple person who appears to be no one special. Then, his life falls apart; he experiences tragedy, challenge, hardship. And most of us are living our lives at this stage of the story. Our lives are hard; we’re all going through challenges. And if you’re not going through one, then you probably just came from one and are heading right towards another one. Life is tough.
But what if this is the part of the story where you realized that you’re destined for greatness, where you realized that you’re chosen, you’re capable of the extraordinary, just like the hero of every great epic story. What if you realized that every single challenge you were given was given to you by Hashem so that you could achieve your ultimate purpose in life. Instead of being broken by your pain, think about how you can use your pain and your challenges to fuel your journey.
Starting from this moment, live your life as if you’re always being filmed and you’re creating a documentary called “My Journey to Greatness.” What would the hero of your story do right now? What would your daily schedule look like? Start analyzing yourself, your behavior, your friends, and all the areas of your life. Start living your life as if everything that you do matters. Every word you say, every conversation you have, every action you do, every book you read; everything matters.
If you’re going to succeed and achieve your greatness, you’re going to have to seek out the right tools, the right teachers, and the right training. It will require unflinching commitment and unquestionable resolve. You’ll need to overcome struggle after struggle. It’s not going to be easy. But you already know that. If it were easy, everyone would do it. But you can do it, and you will do it, because you must do it. Not only is it possible, it’s necessary.
And who’s your main antagonist? Who’s the person who’s holding you back, the person who’s trying to destroy your journey to greatness? You know who it is. All you need to do is look in the mirror. It’s you. It’s the story you’re telling yourself. It’s your limited beliefs. It’s your fears, your insecurities. Your journey to greatness is the journey of overcoming your own limitations and becoming limitless, infinite, your ultimate self. There is nothing you can’t do. Just remember: It’s possible. It’s possible to live your dreams, to achieve the extraordinary, to become the ultimate version of yourself. So never give up.
Just think about what your life would be like if you started viewing yourself as the main character of your story. And while you’re thinking about it, go find a pen; it’s time to write the next chapter.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is an author, educator, speaker, and coach who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah, psychology, and leadership. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, the transformative online self-development course. Rabbi Reichman received Semikha from RIETS, a master’s degree in Jewish Education from Azrieli, and a master’s degree in Jewish Thought from Revel. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago and has also spent a year studying at Harvard as an Ivy Plus Exchange Scholar. To find more inspirational content from Rabbi Reichman, to contact him, or to learn more about Self-Mastery Academy, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.