June 27, 2011

Defining Greatness

“I’m great.”  That’s a standard response whenever you ask someone, “How are you today?”  It’s kind of funny that we throw around the word “great” so easily.  Of course, in this context, it’s an acceptable response.  No one actually means “I’m the best in my field.”  It would be cool to assume that’s what the person meant, though.  Be like, “Really?  You’re great?  What’s so great about you?  Jeez.  All I was doing was inquiring about how life is treating you and then you get all cocky on me?”  Most likely, he’d rapidly walk away, in a great hurry.

So, we use “great” a lot.  It is a universal concept. Though maybe it does say something about the hemispheres’ value systems that the Great Soul in the East (Mahatma Gandhi) is a man who led India to freedom and The Great One (Wayne Gretzky) in the West is a hockey player.

But seriously, folks. “Greatness” is a concept most would not casually use.  Although I’m myself somebody who throws around the term “great” a lot.  What can I say? I emote.  Whatever song just came on the radio is THE GREATEST SONG EVER.  Whichever movie scene captures the moment I’m experiencing is summarily quoted, followed by “ahhh… that’s the GREATEST MOVIE OF ALL TIME.”  Any day that I’m living contains THE GREATEST MOMENT OF OUR LIVES, people!   Hey, I live now to the fullest.

But let’s face it – it’s annoying.  I mean, if everything is great, then nothing is, right?  (When people used to stop by my desk in the office and ask whether it was a good time to interrupt, I was known to reply, “It’s never a good time so it’s always a good time,” meaning “it’s as good a time as any” and also meaning, “I’m a pain in the ass.”)  If I’m going to be so capricious about what constitutes greatness, then what’s the difference between something that’s great and something that maybe even sucks?

Maybe it’s annoying to rate and rank stuff, too, but I find it’s a way to tie seemingly disparate things together.  So, if I’m always calling things “great,” it seems appropriate to define what greatness truly is.  I could cop out and use the old phrase, “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.”  However, that’s been used to describe everything from talent to pornography.

Like virtually everything else, there’s an art and a science to it.  There’s much to be said about simply knowing that you’re in the presence of greatness whether you’re listening to the Beatles or watching Richard Pryor.  In the hopes of avoiding sounding like J. Evans Pritchard in Dead Poets Society (whom you may recall Robin Williams’ character skewering for trying to define the greatness of a poem by plotting along axes the importance of the poem’s objective along with the effectiveness to the extent to which the poem achieves such objective), I will herewith define what I see as the nine elements of greatness.  After all, to define something means to analyze it, so let’s break it down, using the Beatles, often considered the greatest musical act in history.  I’ve also thrown in some sports allusions and metaphors to illustrate these points.

As an editor’s note, I wrote most of this without any research.  When I did go online, I found that Google yielded surprisingly little on the topic.  Even Dictionary.com wasn’t much help.  It defined “great” but not “greatness.”  Weird.

But then I did post this question on Quora and got some responses.  Here’s the question:

What are the elements of greatness?

  • I’m not referring to “great” as in “honorable,” as we would describe Gandhi or Lincoln.  I’m thinking of “greatest” as in “best,” more in the context of The Beatles or Michael Jordan.
  • Greatness as a concept consists of several traits.  There is no other word for it, just like there’s no other word for “leadership.”  It’s comprised of several things.  So, what are they?
  • Think of it this way:  I want a set of principles to help me define who, for example, is the greatest musical act or the greatest basketball player.  It’s difficult to compare across genres and eras, hence the reason why I want some guidelines for comparing, say, Elvis Presley vs. Jay-Z or Larry Bird vs. Kobe Bryant.
  • Without answering the question myself (as I’ve already written 3 pages on it), here are some examples of what I’m looking for:  range, versatility, innovation, etc.
  • I looked through as many answers on Quora as I could that related to “great.”  I don’t believe this one has been answered.
  • Finally, could you please direct me to any research that’s available online?  The only ones I found helpful are http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=fleming/080124&sportCat=nfl and http://blogs.hbr.org/mayo/2007/07/defining_greatness_1.html.  I didn’t think any others were good.  Thanks for your help!  You’re the greatest.  Ha.

To be clear then, we are not talking about greatness as it refers to integrity.  Besides, many have wondered whether great men can even be good men. Although it appears that’s what actor Will Smith is striving for (and this was the one very good link I received as a reply):

So, here goes my definition:

  1. Range – The first three factors provide some sort of dimension.  Think of them as a cube.  Great entities, be they people or teams or concepts, display versatility.  They seem to be able to do a wide range of things.  So, call this “width.”  The Beatles are possibly the only musicians to reinvent themselves twice, starting in oldies, moving to psychedelia, and then ending up in classic rock.
  2. Volume – If Range is “width,” then Volume is “depth.”  The greats are prolific.  They have a body of work.   The Beatles released, whether through LPs or EPs, the equivalent of 15 albums.
  3. Longevity – Finally, they span eras.  They’re not a flash in the pan.  They have staying power.  This would be the one the Beatles don’t really own, staying together a mere 7 ½ years.  But in their case, this only serves to accentuate what a feat their productivity was.  And what they lack in longevity as a cohesive rock ‘n roll band, they more than make up for influence.  In certain endeavors, the game only gets harder as more enter the field.  This is especially true in sports.  The level of competition simply increases every year, as athletes get stronger and faster.  That’s why it would be prudent to take into account not only championships (the ultimate metric), but also the number of finals a team/person made.  For example, in tennis, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi came along at the same time.  So did Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.  Did they deprive each other of titles or push each other to be better?  A bit of both, most likely, but this factors in the element of timing.  Similarly, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls pushed each other.  To the tragic end, but pushed nonetheless.  In my opinion, what keeps Tupac and Biggie from being the greatest is longevity.  I recall one night in college at Case Western Reserve University.  About ten guys and girls were sitting in my room around 3 am, opening up to each other about our insecurities and failures.  My friend, Brian, was one of the nicest guys around – not a shred of arrogance.   He told us that he had wanted to go to Harvard and he did well on his SATs.  But he could have had a much higher score.  However, during the analogies section of the Verbal portion of the test, he was writing his answers on a scrap piece of paper.  Time was running out as he was transferring his answers over to the actual test.  As he got to the last one, he realized he was one off and therefore got just about all of those answers incorrect.  As he told us that he could’ve had a better score had he not made that error, everybody sighed and felt such empathy for Brian.  I exclaimed, “Well… that’s part of it, dude!”  Everyone was so pissed off at me for ruining the moment.  But it IS part of it, dude.  And it’s same with Tupac and Biggie.  Staying alive and in the game is part of it, dude.
  4. Influence – Accordingly, they may not necessarily be around for too long, but their influence is felt and talked about for years to come.  Their peers, whether predecessors who praise them, or contemporaries and successors who speak about how they “wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for them,” respect their efforts.  Clearly, the Beatles evince this trait.
  5. Skill – Skill refers to what extent they have mastered their craft.  How good are they?  This is something that is more difficult to measure.  It’s something one almost has to see or, better yet, feel.  None of the Beatles is routinely cited for his instrumental ability, but Paul McCartney and John Lennon are still considered two of the best singers and songwriters in history.  It also helps to have people, whether the public or peers, say things like “nobody’s doing what they’re doing.”  They’re distinctive.  They’re unique.  They have a sound or a look/tone/feel about them.  In standup comedy, some comics pursue a tougher path.  They’re not just doing relationship or dick jokes or using a lot of devices.  They’re drawing laughs that are harder to get.  In tennis, I’m reminded of Monica Seles.  She was blowing Steffi Graf off the court until she unfortunately got stabbed by a supposed Graf fan.  Her level of skill was simply higher than Graf’s.  But she’s not greater because she wasn’t around long enough.
  6. Critical Success – Critics usually will find those with the best skill.  It’s often referred to as “industry cred.”  But not always.  Led Zeppelin was panned by music critics and did not attain its legendary status until later.  Office Space did modestly well at the box office but became a cult classic to the point that it is now considered one of the funniest comedies around.  Of course, the Beatles met with instantly positive reviews.
  7. Commercial Success – This one is the easiest to measure.  Indeed, in each attribute of greatness, one can define metrics.  But this provides the basis for a claim.  The number of records an entity owns would help make a strong case for being at the top of the pile.  In each field, it would vary.  In music, it’s the number of albums sold, the number of #1 Billboard hits, Top Ten hits, Top 40 hits, time spent on the Billboard 100 and 200 lists, etc.  The Beatles own the records for most albums sold (600 – 1,000 million) and most Number Ones (20).  And it’s that first one that is of paramount importance.  Number Ones are ephemeral.  For example, when John and Paul decided to release “Penny Lane/Strawberry Field Forever” as a record with no defined Side A and Side B, they engaged in a bit of friendly competition.  Whichever song went to #1 would determine which one was Side A.  Paul’s “Penny” hit #1 while John’s “Strawberry” was edged out by Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me.”  Really?  “Strawberry” is now considered one of the greatest songs ever and by many fans (including this one) to be the Beatles’ best song.  Very few people even remember the Humperdinck song.  Besides, his name is ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK.  Ha.  The number of records sold is the ultimate yardstick, as it’s far more timeless.  The reason I wouldn’t use overall sales, or highest gross, is because of inflation.  People are still buying the Beatles’ stuff today, which is why they’ve sold far more than anyone else, somewhere between 600 million and 1 billion records.  Them’s McDonald’s numbers, son.  So, there’s the difference between “timeless” and “timely.”  Billboard Number Ones capture the zeitgeist.  They’re timely.  “Records sold” more fully encapsulates “timeless.”  Think of it this way:  There’s a difference between “enjoyment” and “appreciation.”  I love Elvis Presley but, aside from “Jailhouse Rock,” I can’t really rock out to Elvis.  But I can still crank up the Beatles’ “Drive My Car.”  His sound is more dated.  The Beatles’ is more timeless.  I listen to Elvis and think, “I can see how people used to be into this.”  It’s analogous to Richard Pryor.  He was so ahead of his time that 10th generation comics like Mike Epps do similar material 30 years later.  When I listen to Pryor and think, “this ain’t that new,” I have to constantly remind myself that Pryor was the one using a machete through the forest, forging a new path.  So, I can appreciate Elvis.  I can enjoy the Beatles.
  8. Innovation – It pays to be early.  A lot of rock ‘n roll legends came along at or near the dawn of the era, i.e., 1955.  But the creativity the Beatles displayed, from being the first act to use fading as the end of a song (vs. a definitive ending) to the first to use feedback (“I Feel Fine”) as a sound, they were game-changers.
  9. Transcendence – Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the great aim for something larger than mere success.  They seem to be connected to some sort of ideal that is bigger than they are.  They don’t necessarily set out to be great or change the world; it’s as if they dedicate themselves to excellence and then greatness chooses them… and they do change the world.  And only but a select few transcend their fields.  They become larger than the generic term for what they are.  For a time, Muhammad Ali was bigger than boxing.  Michael Jordan was bigger than basketball.  And the Beatles were bigger than rock music.  Maybe not music as a concept, but certainly rock music.  And we’re not talking about antics and stunts like the ones of Kanye West.  They weren’t grabbing microphones out of young country starlets’ hands or telling the nation that the President doesn’t like black people.  (Although they were telling the press they were bigger than Jesus and did tell Charles Manson to kill white people and blame it on black people to start a race war.  Hmmm…  OK, so the latter is what Manson claimed.  But with the first one… OK, I guess creating buzz is always in an entity’s self-interest.  All publicity is good publicity, right?  Yikes.)  In any case, the greats seem to continue to float in the zeitgeist.  They remain the topic of conversation.  They’re on magazine covers to this day.  They’re still touted, sometimes even globally, as “the best.”  Their peers fade away but their relevance is undeniable.  Take a look at any number of Rolling Stone covers.  The Beatles are still appearing on, if not topping, its lists.  Their impact on pop culture surpasses any other musical acts’.  Perhaps to put too fine a point on it, comedian Hasan Minhaj summed it up like this as we were discussing the greatest hip-hop artist ever.  This, by the way, is a different discussion from “greatest rapper ever,” with this as a narrower definition of one’s specific MC skills on the mic.  Complete this list:  The Beatles, U2, Madonna, and ___.  Tupac Shakur?  No way.  He and Biggie Smalls may be the greatest rappers ever, but you’d never place them on that list.  They’re still wholly contained within the realm of hip-hop.  You have but two choices:  Jay-Z and Eminem.

Personally, I didn’t assign a weighting to the elements above, but for the most part, they’re in order of how they occurred to me.  Now, to evaluate greatness in any number of fields, one would only have to define the metrics, brainstorm on some of the first entities that come to mind, and run ‘em through the process.  And if a particular person or group or team didn’t come to mind, they’re not part of the conversation.  That does not necessarily mean that they can’t be the penultimate of their field, but… it probably does.

Hopefully, you liked this post.  I of course thought it was GREAT.  And if you thought it sucked, well, Jerry Seinfeld would tell you that’s pretty much the same thing as “great.”


5 Comments  Add Your Own
  • Greatest Comedies | FunnyIndian.com: Indian Comedian / Desi Comedian Rajiv Satyal said:

    [...] among Greatest, Best, Funniest, and Favorite.  The reason I wrote a long blog post about Defining Greatness was for discussions such at this one, as well as answering who the greatest rappers and actors [...]

  • Rajiv said:

    Starpulse did a quick take on defining greatness:


  • Song of the Decade | FunnyIndian.com: Indian Comedian / Desi Comedian Rajiv Satyal said:

    [...] When it came to picking one for this last decade, I drew a blank until I recalled that I myself had said a long time ago that it was probably “Hey Ya!” by Outkast.  And lo and behold, a Google search directed me to a post on a site called Starpulse.  I actually liked its definition of greatness enough to comment on my own blog post about Defining Greatness. [...]

  • Right Down Through The Wire, Even Through The Fire | FunnyIndian.com: Indian Comedian / Desi Comedian Rajiv Satyal said:

    [...] a lot of fuss over the differences between Best and Favorite, even going as far as attempting to define greatness.  In short, Best refers to an objective, step-back-and-try-to-evaluate-without-passion POV, [...]

  • Rajiv Satyal said:

    Just listened to President Obama on Bill Simmons’ podcast:


    Though he’s talking about Best instead of Greatest, here are the factors he lists from the below transcript:

    - Talent
    - Will to Win
    - Longevity
    - Rising to the Occasion
    - Grace
    - Charisma

    BS: So who — because we’re running out of time — quickly, who do you think is the best basketball player ever?

    Obama: You got to go with Jordan. That’s —

    BS: Is that a Chicago pick? Or an NBA —

    Obama: No, no, no, that’s an NBA pick. You’ve never had a combination of talent and fierce will to win and longevity and rising to the occasion. I haven’t seen it. You’ve got guys who are comparable in terms of talent. I mean, I think LeBron is as talented as Michael is. I think you’ve got guys like Bird who had that — Bird or Magic who had that same will to win. But combining that package, and then just always being there at the moment, very rarely not — hitting that shot like Utah right at the end, right?

    BS: It makes me mad when people compare whoever to Jordan. It’s like, let’s see somebody win the six titles and own the league like Jordan did.

    Obama: And the grace with which he played. I mean, there was a charisma to him on the court that you could not not watch him when he was on the court. Unbelievable.

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