The Fallacy of Inevitable Greatness
This was originally published in my free weekly newsletter, How It Actually Works.
I like to remind myself that most historical Great People start off as nobodies:
The list could go on and on but the point is that most were unrecognized while growing up.
Today these names are practically brands.
They feel heavier, laden with significance & importance.
This feeling is so strong it becomes a kind of inevitable gravitas: as if these people were fundamentally different from us, so much that they couldn’t help but become great.
But this is wrong. And personally limiting.
To see the great and powerful as inevitable successes is to think you can’t become one of them.
To do great work you have to get passed this idea that destiny is fixed and the world unchangeable.
When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That's a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again.
The key is recognizing that when you’re changing some big or small part of the world, it won’t feel like you’re doing anything particularly important.
- There’s no MOMENT OF GREATNESS. When Rosa Parks sat on the back of a bus it wasn’t a huge headline… the news barely got tossed in at the back of the New York Times.
- The few exceptions to this (e.g. having an IPO, winning the Super Bowl) prove the rule: having an IPO might grab you a moment in history, but it’s the 10+ years of prior work that got you there in the first place.
- It’s important to enjoy doing your work for its own sake, because you will never get external validation in the moment. All these people were great at what they did because they believed their thing was worth doing for its own sake.
Their First Time
As a reminder that even the Greats are human, I found the 1st time a bunch of these types of people were mentioned in the New York Times.
When their names were first printed nobody knew where they would end up, not even the people themselves.
They weren’t mentioned as huge headlines, either; usually they’re in the middle of the paper, maybe mentioned with a single quote.
Sometimes they’re just 1 person in a list (like you’ll see with Abraham Lincoln.)
(I show the whole page 1st and then a zoom in on the section with their name).
Mahatma Gandhi (age 52) Aug 28, 1921
Abraham Lincoln (age 43) June 22, 1852
Margaret Thatcher (age 45) June 21, 1970
Warren Buffett (age 35) March 4, 1965
Harriet Tubman (age 40) Jan 25, 1862
Rosa Parks (age 42) Dec 6, 1955
Florence Nightingale (age 35) June 28, 1855
Steve Jobs (age 22) Aug 26, 1977
The next time you read a biography try to remember that no one’s narrative is inevitable.
If you liked this essay....
Then consider signing up for my newsletter, How It Actually Works.
It contains the best material I find anywhere – this means books, articles, podcasts, research, videos, Twitter threads... the most interesting stuff that will give you something to say.
1,000s of Silicon Valley executives, investors, and leaders read it every week.