top of page

Greatness? What's that ?


By McBain


Clockwise From Left: Me, Sally, Ali, Coltrane, Height, Mayweather, The Clash.

 PIC; Clockwise from left; Me, Sally, Ali, Coltrane, Height, Mayweather, The Clash.

Man I feel great!

This morning I have just came back from a great run around the great hills with my great dog Sally. It was the first really frosty morning of the winter and the surrounding scenery had that icey wonderland magic going on. What’s great about that is that Sally doesn’t get muddy because the ground is solid with frost and underfoot conditions are perfect. I’m now back having just enjoyed a hot shower and some clean clothes which always feels great. I made the family breakfast which I served Julie and my daughter in bed. Julie had a great night last night (maybe a little too great) as her slight hangover suggests. The boys ate with me and we chatted about where we should take our new drone for its maiden flight today. I had eggs for breakfast and, since it's cheat day, a hot croissant with butter and Jam. It tasted great!

They’re all now upstairs playing on their devices and enjoying the usual slow start Saturday. I’m now tapping away at this piece, sipping away on a coffee and listening to great music on Fip Radio. I was introduced to this station by a colleague of mine. It is a French station which plays such beautiful and obscure music, a lot of Jazz, reggae, groove, soul and punk. This morning has served me greats like The Clash, Jon Coltrane and some things I never knew of like a French artist called Camille and a beautiful instrumental by Yann Tiersen. Perhaps those who frequently listen to Camille or Tiersen will call them great just like I have referred to the Clash and Coltrane. I suppose time and trial has ratified Joe Strummer and his merry men to me, it certainly has ratified the undoubtably great John Coltrane. 

I have been thinking a lot about this thing called greatness, you’ll notice I used it a lot in the opening few lines. Where does greatness come from?

I feel great today as a result of my circumstances. My wife thinks I’m great because I brought her a sausage and egg sandwich in bed, but then again, I woke her up with it so I’m maybe not as great as I think she thinks.  Either way, that doesn’t make me great in terms of legend or historical significance. 

That is a different kind of great, that is the kind of great that I have been thinking about.

I keep hearing how great anyone doing anything is these days and it got me thinking how such a label comes around and why it is so coveted. I have a lot of questions about it so I decided to write this blog in a sort of self Q&A where I attempt to answer the questions I have about the somewhat mythological label of greatness.

What does it mean to be great? 

Simplistically, I suppose it means being exceptional in your chosen field. However, just like in the old adage of learning to walk before you can crawl, you have to at least be good, before you can be great. In fact you have to be brilliant. But even before you can be good you have to be competent, before that, mediocre and at some point you will be terrible. So I think greatness is not in the end result of brilliance but in the rise from zero to hero observed in any arena.

Is it the same in all arenas?

Well, there are so many arenas.  In something objective like sport, it is perhaps more easy to establish who is great. The winner is the best, the loser is not and those who win frequently at the highest level of competition are considered great. This is the case with Ronaldo and Messi in football the Williams Sisters in tennis and Haile Gebrselassie in long distance running and so on and so forth. 

However when it comes to something more subjective like the art or politics or in some cases the sciences it is not about victory. Awards for great performance in film or music could be regarded as imissible in terms of greatness value as they are chosen by the judgement of other humans.  Valid science is only validated by peer review so again it falls upon the judgement of another human. What I see as great art or a great hypothesis in science may not be seen in the same way as the next person so the greatness question would be endlessly debated. An artist, scientist, philosopher or political figure would become great as a result of groundbreaking work, their impact on the population and consistent high quality output over a period of time.

Is it always the case that victory or success equals greatness in sport?

Interestingly, the sports which do not equate glory to greatness are those that have a human judge as part of the decision on victory and defeat. All combat sports, and gymnastics have judges so the greatness is as hotly debated as the scores from the judges.

Take boxing; Muhammed Ali is called ‘The Greatest’ not because he won every time but because he won when it mattered most and in addition to his ring craft, he redefined the public image of boxing. He brought drama, poetry and theatre to what was essentially socially accepted violence. The big fights like the ‘The rumble in the Jungle’ or ‘The Thrilla in Manilla’, captured the imaginations of the world and as victor, cemented Ali as his title of 'The Greatest'. However, Ali’s record was not perfect. He had 61 fights, with 57 wins and 5 defeats. Other boxers have came in is wake with better records, Floyd Mayweather for example has a perfect 50-0 record, undefeated and unblemished, never been down, never really been hurt and barely even been touched in that time. Does that make him ‘The Greatest-est’? Most would say absolutely not but if you break boxing down to it’s two most basic components of ‘hit’ and ‘don’t get hit’ many would argue the case for Mayweather. Floyd was never known as a knockout puncher, he certainly hit, and in the realms of ‘don’t get hit’, no one, absolutely no one, did that better than Floyd Mayweather. 

Still, Ali IS considered the Greatest and what makes Ali the greatest, in my humble opinion, is the fact that his spirit transcended his sport. His blockbuster charisma and sharpness of wit made him more than a prizefighter. He was gold on screen, handsome, funny and intelligent but more importantly he had integrity. He put his position as American sports idol and citizen on the line to uphold his spiritual and political stance on Vietnam at the same time as he regularly put his body on the line to confirm his fighting legacy against some of the fiercest men walking the earth; Floyd Patterson, Ken Norton, Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston and of course George Foreman. There are times in life where the moment eats the man or the man eats the moment and only the full stomach is remembered. Ali ate each moment where lesser men would have been swallowed whole and devoured, even if that opponent was the might of the US government.

How much does the role of adversity play in achieving greatness?


A great woman called Dorothy Height once said that;

 ‘Greatness is not measured by what a man or woman accomplishes but by the opposition he or she has conquered to achieve their goals.’

Dorothy herself is considered great for this exact sentence. Dorothy was an evolutionary leader for the civil rights movement, specifically speaking up for African-American women during a lifespan where both women and African-Americans were socially oppressed. She was exactly who she spoke up for, a Female, an African American from a poor background embodying everything that was required to go against the odds for justice for all people. Along the way she collected distinguished honours such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Presidential Citizens Award and is a member of the American National women’s Hall of fame. Her skill was public speaking and using that skill, she was able to speak to millions ears on behalf of millions of mouths. 

Both Dorothy Height and Muhammed Ali overcame the odds in two very different fields of expertise to reach the masses with their skills and their message and to me, have more than earned the title of ‘great’.

Who dictates the terms and establishes the criteria for an individual to be considered great at anything? 

Historically it would have been the scribes and scholars of the day and age who would have documented the ‘great’ deeds of rulers, warriors or leaders of some kind. Usually these would have been heavily propagandised before the masses knew what propaganda was. These scholars would use religions and stories of ‘gods’ to ratify the subjects they wrote about and strike fear into the simple peasants they wished to bring to heel. So while it is the job of the story teller to regale the myths of a man or woman’s greatness, it is the malleable minds of the masses who must be swayed into agreeing on the greatness being preached. 

It’s easy to see why a 350BC fortified city of peasants living in fear of a militant ruler would go along with the scribes and agree that their ruler was great, they’d be killed for treason if they thought otherwise. We feel safer in the group so we go along with the general consensus to be accepted and fit in. In many way’s the ‘group think’ mentality has never left us, just see the viewing figures for reality TV or how many followers the Kardashians have on social media.

What about today? Who decides who is great today?

It’s an interesting time to be great because the whole world is a judge the whole world is a scribe. We tap away at Twitter and Facebook attaching the hashtag #GOAT anything from fighters to cake makers all the while facilitating in the growth of ‘pseudo greatness'. The title of great is handed to anyone and anything in order to raise profile and dupe the masses into purchasing their brands or following their practice. It is a marketing and self promoting title rather than an acknowledgement of ones deeds. Or perhaps it’s just people getting carried away with their adoration for a person.

True greatness to me should never, ever be bestowed by the individual and it shouldn’t be labelled by the representatives and supporters of the individual, it should instead be attributed to the individual by undeniable breadth of acheivement. Wether those achievements are the physical trophies and titles of the individuals endeavours (Ali’s titles, Heights awards), the many people they inspired, the social changes made as a result of their efforts, the dignity they have, authenticity of their work and their characters, and the respect they show their fellow humans. We cannot quantify this, we cannot gauge it with money for it transcends everything we can physically see or touch. 

The age of reality TV, You Tubers, Instagram Influencers and cultural commentators whose main purpose is to get ‘clicks’, ‘follows’, ‘likes’ and ‘subs’ has gave birth to a phenomena where people of little substance suddenly have ‘influence’.  They are somehow validated in having opinion on delicate and complex subjects because the number on their YouTube channel dictates that they are worthy of an audience, worthy of platform and worthy of status. I often wonder what worries me more; the fact these individuals have influence or the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are influenced?

The pursuit of likes, clicks and followers has now become more important for say, aspiring musicians, than the pursuit of high quality songs and musical compositions. Many songwriters are spending more time making silly Facebook posts for likes than they are honing their craft of writing the songs. I feel like this will only ever exhaust their mental strength.

How so?

Well creatives, (artists, musicians etc) create from the subconscious, good ones do anyway. That means their work comes from a deep and often well hidden part of their psyche. For example, take my field of interest, songwriters.  The songwriters creation is an expression of that deeply hidden psyche and when someone does not accept that expression, they do not accept the truest reflection of the person. If a person criticises the song they criticise the deepest part of that humans psyche by proxy. The songwriter can handle this rejection by A) Separating themselves from their music, an impossible thing to do of you are truly invested in your work. Or B) they could be so conscious and aware that the song is indeed an expression of their deepest thoughts and embrace that as the very reason to write. The songs purpose is then to deal with the thought rather than to please an audience and thus the writer becomes indifferent to any criticism. Cynical by-standers would call this self indulgent, that is why they are cynical, that is why they are by-standers.

So back to the question of why focusing on likes and followers rather than your craft would affect your mental health; The answer is there, validation is misplaced by the creative person and has to be re-calibrated to come from the self rather than the crowd. If you post a silly picture of your guitar and a notebook telling everyone you are writing, when you are really setting, picturing and filtering the perfect facebook pic for likes, then, after all that effort only a small amount of people acknowledge the picture, in the songwriters head, no one is validating them as a songwriter. Does that make them a terrible songwriter without a hope of ever creating anything of substance? No. Does it make them a procrastinating, indisciplined ‘like’ addict? Yes. I should know, I've done this myself before. However, many people cannot make that distinction.

How much does success have to do with greatness?

I think success is something with many different meanings to many different people. Probably to most people its things like wealth, fame and status. However, talentless reality stars and online influencers are becoming extremely wealthy, extremely famous and have status within the arenas they function but there is no greatness there.  None of these achievements equate to greatness just because huge amounts of people accept the lie that greatness and fortune are inextricably linked.  A reality star, whose only contribution to the people that follow them is the selling of products from botox to bras, can become a billionaire while a dedicated, talented and often brilliant sports star, musician, actress, scientist or scholar gets by on often meagre earnings.  That simple truth does nothing but confirm to me that greatness cannot be boiled down to a quantifiable sum of money earned or social status reached because greatness, as I have said, transcends money and status. In my opinion, greatness will never rise from the hollow world of X-Factor, Kardashians or any of the other non entity shows on the many non entity channels of mainstream entertainment, no matter how much money they make or how many zombified citizens are locked on their every move.

But where in the history of human beings does this need to be seen as great come from anyway and why does it matter?

The more I think about it, the more I believe that no one whom history considers as truly great has ever gone out with the intention of being so. Usually their efforts are engaged for the need for survival or improvement of life for themselves or their people.  Take Alexander ‘The Great’; We’d never be able to know his actual motivations for conquering vast regions of Persia but many scholars believe it was revenge for the Persian attacks on Greece a century earlier. By conquering and ruling Persia and beyond it would mitigate the likelihood of invasion and attacks from foes in the conquered region. So you could site either revenge or security as a cause for conquer. The title of ‘Great’ was no doubt given to him by a heavily subjugated faculty of scholars and record keepers keen to please their ruler. It also sets the bar for rulers that follow, the scholars and advisers of kings and rulers are keen to uphold their own position and that of the state they serve. What better way to get any successor to a throne interested in conquer and expansion of the empire than to label their predecessors exploits as ‘Great’? To be ‘greater’ the new ruler must expand further and have more conquests. You could see why any egocentric leader would perpetuate war, colonisation and enslavement if it meant they were remembered in the history books.

Going back to Ali and Height. Someone like Dorothy Height never set out on the path of greatness, she saw an unfairness and decided to speak up and set out to improve the social status of women and African Americans. Muhammed Ali took up boxing because some bullies stole his bike and he wanted to ‘Whup em!’. As he developed and it was clear he had talent, he then saw it as a way to make a decent living. So both Height and Ali focused on their present circumstances and wanted to improve those circumstances, it was the souls they reached in doing so that ratified them as great.

Nowadays people are starting off their journey in a chosen field with the goal of being great. They are looking at the ratification of people more than the quality of their craft in the moment. Too much is about the end result and not enough care is being taken to enjoy the journey. Numbers on their social media posts and pages are becoming more sought after than the originality and quality of their endevours. That is why the vast majority of mainstream music, film and television is so mediocre. That is why journalism and science articles are aiming for click bait headlines over depth of fact. That is why sports many stars fail to live up to their potential after one great performance. Instead of knuckling down and training for the next event, they surf the wave of ‘social media greatness hysteria’ that now comes with that performance.

So how does one become great?

Well in order to attain the perception of greatness in a particular field of sport, art or science, start by getting good, as good as those who already do your ‘thing’ at least. That will take a long time, a lot longer than taking a selfie and posting it on facebook. Once you are good, then endeavour to be original. Do something no one has ever seen or done before. That would mean they are doing something that is likely to change the landscape of their chosen arena and constantly challenges what is perceived as the ‘limit’ of human potential. But not just doing that once or twice but doing it consistently over time.

But my advice…Forget all about the word. 

Don’t try and be great for the eyes and ears of many people you will never meet or know, be great to yourself, the ones you love and then if there is any energy left over, try and make a difference in your wider circle. 

It all starts INSIDE you. 

Be great to yourself first; do that exercise, eat that croissant on cheat day, listen to that music, work on your craft, strive to make yourself good.

Then when you have cracked that, be great to your loved ones; Make your wife or husband breakfast in bed, go fly that drone with your kids, strive to make them feel better.

Then you can focus on the wider community. Write those songs, do that charity thing, write that blog and with each step you take, strive to make them see better is possible.

That is true greatness, it needs not the approval of the world, only the approval of yourself and those who love you.

Finally, do I consider myself great…?


Single Post: Blog_Single_Post_Widget
bottom of page