Greatness in the Modern Paradigm

“No man is truly great who is great only in his lifetime. The test of greatness is the page of history.”
-William Hazlitt

In the early 19th century, Hazlitt and other social commenters viewed ‘greatness’ as an effortful feat extending far beyond one’s lifespan. Greatness was doing something meaningful without ever seeing its effect.

Fast forward to the present day. Within seconds of takeoff, the space shuttle Endeavour launched itself from Kennedy Space Center to its trending position on Twitter. With the help of news platforms and online sharing, knowledge and valuable resources are at everyone’s fingertips. Modern technology lets us connect in ways not possible 200, or even 20 years ago. With the onset of internet, cell phones, and blogging came new opportunities–what may have previously been a once-in-a-lifetime chance meeting has been made an everyday reality. Those passionately proclaiming their life’s message can now be heard by those beyond their neighborhood. And, if the message is worth hearing, it will trickle down through networks of relevance with ever-increasing rapidity.

Can it still be said that greatness cannot recognized during one’s lifetime?

Those labeled ‘great’ are seen as leaders in their field, and individuals who have achieved some level of importance or distinction. The great are notably good at what they do and are well-known by those who care about the work being done. During the Second World War, the name Enrico Fermi was recognized by nearly every chemist, but few outside the field. Today–thanks to history books–he’s know as the developer of the first nuclear reactor and a leader in the Manhattan Project.

With the current transformational shifts in idea-sharing, should the term ‘greatness’ be redefined? How does the modern understanding compare to the concepts of 70 and 200 years ago? Is it possible that modern greatness can be recognized sooner?

The growing use of social media and online platforms is still young, so only the passing of time can provide answers to those questions. However, based on my own experience, I believe that Hazlitt’s perspective is quickly losing relevance. Greatness is not only found in the pages of history, but in the notes of our everyday lives.

With all of our social connections–each of which has been meticulously hand-chosen based on shared interests and potential gains–we recognize ourselves and our values, we see them mirrored back and magnified. We cannot only see greatness instantaneously in every new post, tweet, and presentation; we can also bolster and promote others whom we personally identify as ‘great’ and, in doing so, we can become a part of that excellence.

When someone proclaims that “You don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to.”* or “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.”** and we connect with these messages, we become a part of something bigger than ourselves–some overarching humanist mission to save mankind, nestled cozily inside our own favorite little niche.

When these influential individuals also happen to be active on social media networks, you can feel as if you are a part of their important campaign. You can feel as if–even in the tiniest way–you, too, are making a difference. Over the course of my time blogging, I’ve unwittingly backed up countless individuals and causes, which I mention simply because I have personally gained something and hope to pass those benefits along. That article, that song, that senseless yet insidious thought that so affected me, when set out on the public table, could spark a discussion and inspire individual change in others.

As the vehicle for idea transference, might you and I be participating in some facet of greatness? Were you once the link connecting an idea to he who brought the concept to life? Might a statement made in passing have inspired someone to keep on dreaming–could your simple statement have ultimately changed the course of history? What if your impossible “What if…?” were made real? What if your impassioned confusion and strive towards ‘something worth believing in’ paid off in the end–not in the history books, but now.

Businesses no longer take decades to gain footing and mission statements no longer rest beneath piles of dusty old documents. The modern world is a feverish breeding ground for infectious greatness, and that excellence is accessible to everyone. A perfect example of this is Scott Harrison’s charity: water. In just six years, the concept of a charity with full transparency and accountability was transformed from a crazy idea into one of the leading non-profits. In donating, we’re not only helping those in the third world access clean water, making ourselves eligible for a tax deduction, and helping the organizer reach their goals; in donating, we’re joining countless others in an important mission and becoming part of something bigger than ourselves, we are joining in on that ‘shared greatness’.

Never underestimate the influence of the human spirit and never underestimate the potential for greatness that lies within each of us. The modern paradigm of greatness has little to do with historical significance and world-wide recognition. Rather, greatness is defined by the combined efforts of individuals–each working to change their small portion of the world. Amassing those small, individual efforts and tracking their ripples is where future historians will uncover the GREATNESS of our generation. And we live in a time where it is easier than ever to be a part of that dense and deeply rooted modern greatness.

Want to be a part of the shared greatness? Consider contributing to my charity: water birthday campaign. 

*quote by Chris Guillebeau

**quote by Brené Brown