Dead Ends On The Road To Greatness

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In our previous article, we continued discussing our underlying question of “why don’t people become great?”. We explained why many never even begin the journey, either because of fear, lack of self-confidence, or a desire to be accepted by others. However, even among those who overcome these obstacles and begin their journey towards greatness, many never reach their destination for the following reasons:


I. We Began Our Journey, But Never Reached Our Full Potential

Some of us do overcome the obstacles that prevent us from starting the journey towards greatness, and we embark on an awe-inspiring journey of personal growth self-development, heading towards our greatness. We begin making progress, heading towards our dreams and becoming the person we know we’re destined to be. But somewhere along the way, many of us fall short and fail to reach our full potential. We might be a leader or a relatively successful and important person, but before we have even touched the surface of what we’re capable of, we become satisfied with the progress we’ve already made and spend the rest of our lives in the comfort of our past achievements. Instead of pushing further, we shift our car into neutral and spend the rest of our lives on cruise.

Why do we do this? Why do we cut ourselves short, especially once we’ve already made so much progress on our journey to greatness?

There are two main reasons why people often get stuck in this mode. The first is the “good enough “ problem. This is when a person is driven less by a desire to achieve their greatness, and more by a need to be seen as great in other people’s eyes. All they want is that when people look at them, they say, “Wow, look at them. Look at all that they’ve achieved. What an amazing person.” Essentially, such a person doesn’t want to achieve greatness. They want to achieve enough so that other people think they are great. For such a person, their underlying motivation is public perception, social acceptance, and honor (kavod). Actually achieving what they are capable of doesn’t matter and is therefore unnecessary. Who they actually are and what they believe holds little importance either. The only thing that matters is what people think of them.

However, this sets up a growth model that is dependent on other people, despite the fact that true growth is internal. In essence, such a person will always compare themselves to others. Why? Because there’s no need to actually become great. The only important thing is that they are better than those around them, the greatest in the room. If when looking around, they can say, “I’m better than all of these people,” then they feel that they are great. There’s no need to push themselves or achieve their true potential; everything is relative to their surroundings.

Why would someone live like this? It’s simple: they believe that if other people love them and if other people think that they’re great, then they’ll also love themselves, they’ll also think that they’re great. They’ve mixed the order up. They’re under the illusion that we mirror other people’s perception of us, but while other people’s view of us can affect us, the only way to gain self-worth and an empowering self-image is to build it from within. Instead of becoming a mirror, trying to reflects everything outside ourselves, we need to become projectors: We need to build something majestic and beautiful within ourselves, and then express that out into the world.

When Michael Jordan was interviewed, he asked them “How do you think I became who I became? Who do you think I competed against? If I competed against others, I’d never have become who I am; I’d have settled once I was the best. But I competed against myself! The person I knew I was meant to become! I wanted to become better than I was and become the best me. Everyone else made the mistake of competing against “me”, and not against themselves, so they all fell short, and felt like they weren’t great.

On the flip side, this idea not only ensures that we reach our ultimate greatness, but it also eliminates any potential for jealousy. If each of us is completely unique, it makes no sense to compare ourselves to anyone else. As Einstein famously said, “If you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it’s foolish.” We cannot compare ourselves to someone else, because we are all completely different. If we genuinely understood this, we would never be jealous. Once we realize that everything in our life is exactly what we need to fulfill our unique potential, we’ll stop looking around at what other people have and start utilizing what we have. To take it a step further, we can actually begin to be happy for other people’s success, as we will realize that we aren’t competing with each other. We’re all on the same team; we’re all part of the cosmic symphony of life. Our ear would never be jealous of our hand, since they’re both part of the same body; so too, if we realized that we’re all part of the same “body,” we would never be jealous of anyone else.


We Made Tremendous Progress, But Gave Up When it Got Tough

Only a select few have made it to this point. They’ve overcome their fears, the temptation to be normal, and even the compelling voice inside that tells them to look around and stop striving because they’re already better than everyone else around them. At this point, we’re talking about someone who is genuinely striving for greatness and has made incredible progress on their journey towards their ultimate self.

But sometimes, even the greatest among us give up. As we previously discussed, the journey of growth always includes a stage where we lose momentum, where we lose our initial inspiration and find ourselves hitting a brick wall. The first stage of growth is filled with exponential progress; we go from zero to sixty in no time at all and it’s exciting to witness so much improvement in such a small period of time. But once we begin to plateau and our growth becomes more gradual, it’s much harder to see the progress and growth. We may be putting in the same exact amount of effort, but we are not seeing the same results that we’ve become accustomed to. This leads us to feel tired and frustrated, and we start losing sight of why we started in the first place. And when we lose sight of our inner “why,” the underlying reason and purpose that drove us to begin this journey towards greatness, we are no longer able to find meaning in the pain or purpose in the journey. We stop enjoying the process, we stop wanting to show up each day. And when we lose our inner drive, it’s only a matter of time before we feel ready to throw in the towel and call it quits.

But we can’t let this happen! We were ready to go all in, we were ready to devote ourselves towards our mission, towards our dream, towards the ultimate life imaginable. We just weren’t ready for this brick wall; we weren’t ready for the journey to require so much of ourselves. We convince ourselves that “this wasn’t what I signed up for!” It’s here that true greatness is born, because only those who make it past this point can ever achieve something extraordinary.

Picture a magnificent human sculpture. Initially, there’s only a large slab of stone and the vision of the artist. The early stages of creating this masterpiece are relatively easy and enjoyable: the artist begins cutting away large slabs of stone. The progress is clear, and with every slab that hits the floor the artist sees how much closer he is to reaching his destination. But then comes the next stage, where the artist needs to precisely carve out all the features of the human face. Each minute detail can take hours, perhaps even days. It’s very easy to consider all of this time devoted to such minor details a waste of time. It’s nearly impossible to tell the difference from one hour to the next. It’s easy to throw in the towel and quit. But it’s this precision that creates something extraordinary. Learning how to see the small improvements helps us continue growing past the initial stages of the journey.


We Achieved Something Great, But Not Our Ultimate Greatness

This last category is for those who overcame their fears and strove for greatness, and even when they hit obstacles and lost their inspiration, they were able to find a way to peer deep within themselves and muster up the strength and courage to keep pushing forward, despite every temptation to give up. They never gave up, they never lost sight of their vision, and their spent our life focused and driven, heading passionately towards their true greatness.

And great they became. These individuals achieved the extraordinary and contributed their incredible talents and skills to the world around them. But somewhere along the line, they stopped. At some point, they became satisfied with their past accomplishments and stopped pushing forward. They decided that they’re “great enough”; they’ve learned enough, accomplished enough, and contributed enough. Great enough became enough.

Why? Why would they stop? Why wouldn’t they keep pushing to see what else they are capable of? Why would anyone want to spend the rest of their life stagnant, crystalized in their current state of greatness?

Perhaps it’s because such a person is already in the public eye and is playing on a grander scale. The initial process was a private, contained journey. The failures were seen, but only by those in his or her private circle. But now, to continue striving for greatness would mean walking into the unknown again, as a public figure, with the spotlight shining directly on their every move. Can someone continue striving–while genuinely risking failure–in such a situation? It’s possible, but so much more difficult. As a result, those who have already achieved a relatively high level of success will continue “doing what they know best,” never reengaging the dreams, ambitions, and passions of their youth. They not only enjoy being great at what they do, we have little desire to go back to stage one of the growth process, to fail in the public eye, or to go through another difficult journey towards an even higher level of greatness.

But while many of us might never experience, or even understand such a challenge, one thing is certain: while this person achieved something great, they did not achieve greatness. Because, as human beings, we are never done, we are never finished; there is always more for us to learn, create, and become. We are created b’tzelem Elokim, and as such, we have infinite potential.

We all traverse through the journey of life, trying to fulfill our own personal purpose. Every step of our journey is of ultimate importance. But more important still is the necessity to be a journeyer, to continuously grow through life. We are here to achieve greatness, and living without a higher “why” is not truly living. We are the unique creation of Hashem that has been placed in the world with the mission of becoming great. We need to find our unique mission, embrace the struggle, and head towards our unique greatness while enjoying every step of the process.

 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 that is based on the principles of high-performance psychology and Torah. After obtaining his Bachelors degree from Yeshiva University, he studied at RIETS, received a Masters degree in Jewish Education (Azrieli), and a Masters degree in Jewish Thought (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, completing graduate coursework there as part of his PhD. To find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Rabbi Reichman, or to learn more about Self-Mastery Academy, visit his website: