How To Be Great

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When I was a little boy—around six or so—I used some markers to draw a picture of a skyscraper-lined city street with cars rushing past (posted to the right).  I showed it to my parents, who I vividly recall gushed with praise and awe as only parents do.  I don’t remember her exact words, but my mother left me with the impression that I’d created something far better than I should have been able at my age.

Today I’m not so sure she was right, but that small bit of praise echoed in my mind back then like a thunderclap.  Here was something, I thought, I could do well.  So I began drawing more, and gradually, as the quality of my drawings improved, my ambition to improve them even more grew with it.  I began drawing constantly.  I started buying art books, favoring the Old Masters like Rembrandt and Velazquez.  I took a few painting classes, graduating quickly from acrylics to oils.  I painted a portrait of my mother, dragons, heroes, landscapes, and flowers next to champagne bottles.  With each successive painting I improved—yet I was never quite able to live up to my dream of painting with the skill of the Old Masters, a dream that I admitted only to myself had at some point embedded itself in my heart.


My father could draw, too, but by the time he showed me the drawings he’d done as a child, he’d stopped drawing entirely.  Drawing simply never became important enough to him to spend the time developing his ability to do it, so his ability to do it froze.

In his new book, The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk argues that “few of us know our true limits, that the vast majority of us have not even come close to tapping what scientists call our ‘unactualized potential.'”  This is true, among other reasons, because research is beginning to show that “genes are constantly activated and deactivated by environmental stimuli, nutrition, hormones, nerve impulses and other genes.”  This essentially means, as Annie Murphy Paul wrote her in New York Times review of Shenk’s book, that “there can be no guaranteed genetic windfalls, or fixed genetic limits, bestowed at the moment of conception.  Instead there is a continually unfolding interaction between our heredity and our world, a process that may be in some measure under our control.”  Paul goes on to discuss the second body of literature that Shenk cites in his book, which portrays exceptional ability not as “a rare and mysterious gift bequeathed to a lucky few” but rather as “the product of highly concentrated effort.”  Nature vs. nurture may no longer be the right paradigm when evidence exists that environmental factors can actually turn genes on and off and practice can produce abilities that at first seem beyond our power to achieve.


Tenacity, then, seems to be the key ingredient to developing exceptional abilities and achieving great things.  If we were to list the steps necessary to achieve greatness in any field of endeavor, then, they might look something like this:

  1. Desire greatness in your area of interest more than anything.  Which almost certainly means setting aside or minimizing some areas of your life that other people don’t.  Do you want to become an Olympian or just feel good about your performance in a pick-up game of basketball?  If the former, you may have to make some tough decisions.  There’s truly no right or wrong answer.  Just what’s right or wrong for you.
  2. Practice the skills necessary to become great (that is, develop craftsmanship).  Learn your craft however you can.  Find a mentor.  Master the rules so you can break them in creative and interesting ways rather than out of ignorance.  Copy the great works of others (in whatever way that makes sense in your particular field) until your own style naturally emerges.
  3. Repeat.

Repeat is the key.  Repeat is what sets the great apart from the good.  Retain enough of a sense of dissatisfaction with your work to stay motivated to continuously improve, but not so much that you can’t feel a measure of pride and satisfaction in a job well done when you do it.  If you practice again and again and again, learn from your failures and don’t let them stop you from trying to get better each and every time, in a slow, step-wise fashion you will develop the ability to accomplish things that take your breath away.

Certainly, you may not care to be great at something, and that’s perfectly all right.  But if you do, know that you’re far more capable of greatness than you believe.  You only have to make more of an effort than you ever believed you could.  Which is what I did with painting, from about the age of 9 to 19.

And then, in the summer after my freshman year in college, I painted this:


Next weekThe Value Of A Good Reputation

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  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alex Lickerman. Alex Lickerman said: How To Be Great: When I was a little boy—around six or so—I used some markers to draw a picture of a skyscraper-li… […]

  • Isn’t it funny how a little encouragement can spur us so?

    A watercolor I made in the second grade of cars on a city street still hangs on a wall in my parents’ house. I chuckle about it today, but I kept drawing.

    My drawing actually never went anywhere, but I certainly spent many pleasant hours at it.

    What did go somewhere was my interest in programming computers. I taught myself at age 14, long enough ago that this was kind of a remarkable achievement. But I didn’t know that, at least until I wrote a program that could draw any regular polygon on the screen and my geometry teacher caught wind of it. He praised me heavily, had me demonstrate the program to the class, and asked me to write other programs to demonstrate other geometric concepts. He suggested I should pursue this in college; that I could make my living doing it. The idea had never occurred to me; I didn’t know at that young age that such a career existed. But I did pursue it, and today, more than 25 years later, I manage a team of software testers in a software company.

  • That painting is really amazing. You prove your point.

    Saashi: Thank you.


  • Excellent article, amazing painting….you made your point. LOL!

  • First of all, I LOVE your writing and look forward to your essays every week. Thank you! Being in art education, I really value the story you tell of your early drawing and how it was cherished by your parents. I try to teach my future teachers that encouragement is so important in art and that “talent” has very little to do with it. When someone looks at my art work and responds with “oh you are so talented,” I bristle. My work is the result of years of study, practice and hard work. Creating art doesn’t happen magically as so many non-artists imagine. My watercolor painting didn’t take me 1 hour to complete—how about 25 years and then some? I will share your story with my future educators. Once again, I so appreciate everything you share with all of us!

    Marian: Thanks so much.


  • Looks like an “Old Master’s” to me. 🙂

    Re your #3, Alex: It’s said that expert-level performance is achieved after 10,000 hours of (presumably mindful) practice/performance/doing. If true, and if that’s what it takes to achieve garden-variety expertise, then “greatness,” I assume, requires significantly more time. Sobering. Unless #1 is in place.

    But if that burning desire is not present—whether the original catalyst for such desire is external or internal—I doubt that it (the desire) can be generated by will alone. Parenthetically, I’ll add that I do believe that fame and fortune can be achieved by will alone, but I assume that’s not what you’re talking about.

    And if it’s true that desire cannot be achieved by will alone, then, under your formula, greatness cannot be achieved (which is true for most of us whose Mom didn’t praise us sufficiently or who didn’t experience some other paradigm-shifting, mega-desire-creating catalyst). So, for the most-of-us, subsequent failure to successfully implement “the formula for greatness” (whose ever formula it might be) tends to lead to frustration and—dare I say it—unhappiness.

    All which suggests that formulas for “How to Be Great” are not likely to lead to “Happiness in this World.”

    You do include a suitable disclaimer to the effect that: “Certainly, you may not care to be great at something, and that’s perfectly all right. But if you do, know that you’re far more capable of greatness than you believe.” But this seems like “a throwaway” appended to what appears otherwise to be a restatement of the usual and customary American notion to the effect that because we can be great, we should try to be great. How Buddhist is that? So I’m a bit confused by a post like this coming from you.

    As you know from other comments I’ve made, I’m a fan, so please consider this a gentle nudge to further explain the nexus between your formula and true happiness for those who, like me, may be a little slow on the uptake or who excel at creating faulty premises. Or perhaps I’ve inferred something you never intended to imply?? Certainly possible. In either case, if you’d care to comment further, that would be most welcome.


    P.S. It bears noting too, I think, that the dividing line between desire and obsession can lie on a slippery slope. And when desire morphs into obsession, can true happiness be achieved? And, finally, in the pursuit of greatness, I wonder whether that might not be an impediment in “How [one might] Achieve Balance.”

    Glenn: Thanks for your comment and the nudge to clarify. First, if readers were left with the impression I think one needs to aim at greatness to be happy, I didn’t communicate my intention in writing the post clearly enough. I do think one needs to continuously aim to create value for oneself and others to be happy and that continually striving to improve in whatever arena one participates can be a source of great satisfaction (and also of great frustration). But even if one doesn’t achieve or even want to achieve “greatness,” happiness is still certainly within one’s grasp. Obviously happiness isn’t only achievable by the most accomplished among us, but I do think it’s hard to be happy if you aren’t striving to live up to your own potential. And that really does take desire and work (though not necessarily as much as the 10,000 hours of practice Malcolm Gladwell popularized. As far as I know, there’s no real good data to back up that assertion or that it holds true in every endeavor). So please understand I didn’t intend to discourage anyone by implying if they don’t desire greatness in some area they’re barring themselves from becoming happy.

    Can desire be generated by will alone? I don’t think so, either. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find something you desire to do well—or even wonderfully well. I think people are naturally drawn to achieve and create meaning but that psychological injury, lack of encouragement or, as you so eloquently put it, “creating faulty premises” often interfere.

    Your point about the fine line between desire and obsessiveness is crucial. It perfectly describes the Buddhist state of Hunger in which desire takes over one’s life and blocks out all other concerns. A very unhappy state, indeed. You must have been reading my mind because I was planning to write about obsession two weeks from now.


  • A fine piece, Alex. Learning and the love to learn is becoming more important to me as time and I travel along. Applying the steps can help in any endeavor, such as learning about a new product or development here at work. In essence—will to make yourself better.

    If you don’t mind me asking, who is the subject in the painting?

    John: Not at all. His name was Oscar Isberian. He started Isberian Oriental Rugs. The painting was commissioned by his two grandsons who’d just taken over the business. He was 90 years old when I painted him. The original is still hanging (as far as I know) in their first store in Evanston, Illinois.


  • Thanks for the clarification, Alex. That was a helpful addendum for me. Hope it “rounded-out” the issue for others as well.

  • As a teacher, I try never to forget how powerful some quiet words of very specific encouragement are to children. You do remember those words of praise your whole life. I recall how much they meant to me when I was in school. I know we in the education field don’t know what we don’t know about children and their potential. I work with high-ability children but I can never tell how a student will turn out. I do have Sandra Kaplan’s words, “Tenacity is more important than intelligence or ability” posted on the wall in my classroom.

  • Hi Alex,

    I’m trying to figure out where to start.

    I’ll start here—YES!

    I was just having a conversation over dinner last night and all the friends were talking about the importance instilling in children the feeling that they can accomplish anything. None of us have children—in was more in praise of our parents.

    Removing the insecurity from attempts at new things makes for fearless adults. I’ve always thought the underlying tone in that encouragement is *I will love you no matter what*. Yay for your parents! And wow on the portrait—they are the most difficult thing to paint.

    How to find your personal greatness has been on my mind lately as I try to wrap my arms around new knowledge and this evolution seem to find myself in.

    A couple of weeks ago I wrote this: How To Change The World. Thought I’d share.
    Take Care,

    Jill: Thanks for sharing your post. Really nice. I especially like the quote from Ayn Rand.


  • Hi Alex:

    Great post. I actually read the NYT article on Shenk’s book and posted the following excerpt on my facebook:

    Whatever you wish to do well, you must do over and over again, in a manner involving “repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level,” which results in “frequent failures.” This is known as “deliberate practice,” and over time it can actually produce changes in the brain, making new heights of achievement possible.

    It is interesting to contemplate achieving greatness this way because in retrospect I can look back at achievements and see that this is usually the path that I took to have success.

    It does bring one thought to my mind though. Now that their is a method or formula to becoming great at something—how many somethings are there that no one has worked hard to accomplish so perhaps if some individuals started to apply some true effort the accomplishments could be huge?

    Thanks again,


  • What a spectacular painting, Alex. No photograph could have captured your subject better. I agree with your advice, especially to master the rules so you can break them in creative ways rather than out of ignorance. And, there’s no substitute for practice—in the arts, in the sciences, in any undertaking whether it be a vocation or an avocation. Following your advice, I “repeat”: there’s no substitute for practice.

    Thanks for sharing the painting.

    Toni: Thanks. Glad you liked it.


  • Damn! You’re good! When you told me you did a little painting in school I was picturing like, you know, goofy flowers or something. Wow!

    Thanks as always for the post. Loved it.

    Have a great week!

    Julia: 😉


  • I especially like your point 3—Repeat. It is so often overlooked, and as you say it is the key.

    On the other hand I think tenacity might be the wrong word, as it might make people stick to what they shouldn’t stick to.

    I would say that you have a Choice, and after making a choice, if you want your choice, you should stick to it. A related discussion which might interest you about whether one can choose to become a genius:

  • I added your blog to my blog role as I am sure my readers will appreciate your uplifting words. We are an American Family living in Paris France. I am an artist and a Mother. Your words are so true. My son is a bilingual actor, an artist, and a student in a French junior High. He has made three films and been on stage in a sold out theater here in Paris because he feels supported and encouraged.

    Debra: Thanks so much for your comment (and for adding my blog to your blog roll).


  • Great article and very timely for me to read. As my personal life has taken an trainwreck nose-dive, I am finally realizing just how clipped/tied back my wings have been. I have always felt that I wasn’t harnessing the gifts God gave me in the way I wanted to…due to circumstances and opportunities…all environmental! Though I am in the middle of a big mess here, I have this splinter of light resonating and pushing me forward to put those steps you mention in place. I have found the mentor whom I believe can help guide me. He is someone I had wanted to connect with for 4 years now, but never got the nerve to do it. But, serendipity opened up that opportunity and I have met with him once already. As much as I want to be on a different path, using my skills in a more fulfilling way, I know it will take time and patience AND practice.

    I’m hopeful………..and healing at the same time. It’s a very weird head space.

    Dana: Best of luck (and practiced skill) to you!


  • Magnificent portrait! And, as far as most of us are concerned, I could not agree more with your statement that “Tenacity, then, seems to be the key ingredient to developing exceptional abilities and achieving great things.” But what of those who excel without apparent effort—e.g. those who pass every exam with honors but who (apparently) have not spent much time studying? This is not to say that they do not aspire to great achievements, but they don’t seem to have to make as much effort as the rest of us in getting there.

    I’d be very interested to read your thoughts on this.


    Delia: Some people clearly do have more natural intelligence and/or skill in some areas than others. But even Einstein had to spend years developing his theories of relativity. Despite his natural athletic ability, Michael Jordan struggled on his high school basketball team. Passing exams without having to study too hard is a worthy accomplishment, but if you define something as “great” if it represents something of immense value that hasn’t existed before, that almost always takes work even for those who start with great gifts.


  • Your post highlights how the words and enthusiasm given by parents and other influential people in a child’s life can make an enormous imprint. It is important for us (as adults now) to realize when talking to children that what we say or encourage can have far reaching effects. A nice painting by the way. 🙂

  • Great post and great painting that really illustrates your point.

    I’ve struggled for as long as I can remember with feeling intellectually inferior to others. For most of my life, I believed that smarts are genetic and seeing people (like my sister) who spent so little time studying and excel only hammered it home.

    Within the last 5 years, I’ve started to study intelligence and, from what I read, intelligence can be learned by working at your goals and persevering. I read Carol Dweck’s very good book called Mindset that says the view you adopt for yourself, either your smarts are fixed and not very changeable through life, or, paradoxically, that what you are born with for smarts are only the start of your abilities and that, with work, practice and perseverance, the average person can too do well. So adopt the mindset you are always working at getting smarter and there is always more to learn is definitely the way to go. In short, be adaptable.

    The other book I read was a writer from Fortune magazine, Geoff Colvin. Book is called Talent is Overrated and he feels the same, that great performers in their field work exceptionally hard, have passion for their subject and push the bounds of their abilities continually to get better and better. Also, it is OK to fail as long as you are able to learn from it.

    One thing I’ve learned from reading up on Einstein is reading broadly on a variety of subjects is advisable. Really smart people can form parallels and connections between seemingly dissimilar things.

    Interesting debate and the book The Genius in All of Us seems like an excellent read.

    Through educating myself on intelligence, I’ve been able to somewhat conquer the feeling that I am not as smart as others. I, though, find myself studying accomplished people and trying to learn their habits and tricks for doing so well. People like my brother-in-law a doctor still fascinate me as I never did achieve consistently high marks where he brags about getting 9’s all through university.

  • “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration!”—Thomas Alva Edison

  • […] 4. Happiness in this world   How to be great […]