How to Avoid Greatness
Want An Ordinary Life? Here’s How.
If you clicked on this article because you’re okay giving up on your dreams for what’s ordinary and predictable there’s not much need to read any further, just carry on; it’s your choice and you’re the only person who has to live with it.
Still here? Good. This is about being anything but ordinary.
Our greatest fear is uncertainty. We will do anything to avoid it; lie to ourselves, pretend we’re okay with the safe bet that we don’t want to make, and store up regrets we hope will magically evaporate. In short, we cast away our dreams and settle for the certainty of ordinary because we fear the uncertainty of extraordinary.
We will brilliantly rationalize our decision to step away from our dreams so that we can live with ourselves. You do it, I do it, we all do it; all the time. And the more intelligent you are the greater the risk that you’ll be able to build an impenetrable fortress of rational argument around the ordinary; it’s safe, secure, and predictable. It’s also an illusion.
“…we cast away our dreams and settle for the certainty of ordinary because we fear the uncertainty of extraordinary.”
Here’s the thing, no matter how hard we try to play life’s numbers game the one thing we can be most certain of is that something will always come along that we could never have predicted to undermine our best thought out plans or to present an unimagined opportunity. To paraphrase that eternal font of wisdom, John Lennon, uncertainty is what happens when we’re busy making other plans.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that betting on predictability is always wrong. It’s usually right when we apply it to the more mundane aspects of our lives. We weigh the odds constantly in many decisions; it’s common sense. But the trap we masterfully construct for ourselves, when we make every decision based on avoiding uncertainty, consists of two illusions. The first is that we fool ourselves into believing that we know all of the existential factors involved in how the bet will play out. The second is that we are always in control of these factors because we know how likely they are. We’re wrong on both counts.
In fact the only things we get to control are our own dreams and ambitions and our reactions in the face of uncertainty when those are threatened. And this is where it gets really interesting. If you dream boldly enough, if you set your ambitions high enough the predictable no longer applies. By definition, what you’ve just decided to do is anything but likely.
So, does that mean you throttle back your ambitions, set aside your dreams? Only if you’re willing to give up on them.
“…if you’re going to bet on what’s likely then admit that the sum of your fears has just exceeded the sum of your dreams…”
I don’t care who or what you use as a role model for greatness, in every case what you’ll find, when you look closely at the path taken to achieve greatness and a life of fulfillment, is that a ridiculously uncertain bet was made that nobody in their right mind would have placed by betting strictly on the numbers. That’s because greatness always falls well outside of the normal bounds of what is “likely;” if it didn’t everyone would be living the dream.
History is littered with people who’ve reached for the impossible. They bet on what everyone else believed was totally uncertain and unachievable, But what all of these people had in common was that they refused to compromise their ambitions and reacted to every setback as fuel to double down on the future. Was it easy? No, it was agonizingly difficult, but ordinary people can make extraordinary choices. From Lincoln, to Jobs, Edison to Disney, Churchill to Winfrey, the impossible was never a matter of probability, it was a matter of choosing to make a commitment to something uncertain and the unequivocal determination to realize it.
On the other hand, if you’re going to bet on what’s likely then admit that the sum of your fears has just exceeded the sum of your dreams. Am I saying that all dreamers will succeed? That would be absurd. Most don’t. But this is less about success than it is about living with yourself and your choices.
The lesson here is a simple one; we buy into an illusion when we buy into a predictable view of the world and apply it universal to everything we do. What we are really buying into is the guarantee of the ordinary. And while that’s perfectly fine for some people, I’d suspect that if you’ve read this far you’re not ready to make that concession.
So, if greatness is what you’re after, if nothing less than realizing your wildest dreams is what you’re aiming for, set aside the probabilities, or at least limit them to your 401K. Accept that bold dreams require you to place bold bets that have no odds; bets which will not make sense to anyone other than you. And then make a contract with yourself to react to the challenges and derailments as a means of simply redirecting you back onto the track of your ambitions.
Because, while I can’t guarantee much, I can make a promise that’s certain; you have one life, the greatest regret is realizing that you’ve squandered it on the ordinary.
This article was originally published on Inc.
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Tom Koulopoulos is the author of 10 books and founder of the Delphi Group, a 25-year-old Boston-based think tank and a past Inc. 500 company that focuses on innovation and the future of business. He tweets from @tkspeaks.
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