Keith Yamashita in his remarkable closing story at BIF-6 asked a question that still haunts and compels me. Is it worth daring to be great? No consulting buzzwords, no ambiguity, just a simple question for all of us to ponder. Implied within Keith’s question is the presumption we can all be great. We just have to dare to do it. Greatness isn’t something conferred or willed by others. It isn’t an entitlement or an inheritance. Greatness is innate and waiting for us to dare to achieve it. Keith rightly suggests greatness isn’t a deficit that you have to fill. We unlearn greatness. We permit “the system” to suppress greatness. We start to believe what other people say about us as being true about us. Kids don’t start out that way. Kids are innately and wonderfully curious about the world around them until sadly society wears the enthusiasm and opportunity for greatness down. All kids start great.
I’m reminded of Michelangelo saying, “every block of stone has a statue inside and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it”. The same is true for people. Each of us is born with an incredible sculpture inside. We all have greatness within us and it’s our personal opportunity and responsibility to discover it. We must be our own sculptors and not wait or depend on being sculpted by others. If we’re waiting for permission to be great we will be waiting a very long time. Compelling sculptures are born of self-exploration and personal passion. Greatness comes from within. It’s not up to parents, teachers, friends, and bosses to do the sculpting but to encourage us, create the conditions, and provide the tools for self-sculpting.
I remember the day an itinerant music teacher visited my elementary school class. Every student was given a recorder (little black plastic flute) and taught how to play Mary Had a Little Lamb in preparation for a grand solo performance in front of the music teacher. Somehow based on only a few notes she felt capable of assessing individual musical aptitude and discerning which instrument would be best suited for each student. Johnnie would be an excellent drummer, Jane should play the flute, and the saxophone is best suited to Keith. I guess my improvised riff was off the mark because what I remember hearing is, Saul should pursue other interests! Imagine the indignity. Ever a wise guy, I made a joke about it, and moved on to do lots of other stuff. To this day, while I love music, I don’t play a musical instrument. It’s on my bucket list.
You can guess what my wife and I did when it came time for our three children to face the music. We made the opposite mistake. Damn it, our kids were all going to play an instrument. No one was going to say otherwise including them! And play they did. So many forced lessons and practice sessions. I giggle thinking about their early learning curves as sounds resembling manatees in heat wafted from the kid’s bedrooms. We had a family woodwind section, and bought an orchestra full of saxophones and clarinets. A bamboo forest full of reeds was sacrificed for the cause. Hundreds of jazz ensembles jockeying for position to catch a 20 second solo. They actually got pretty good at it but their hearts were never in it. They each went on to successfully pursue many passions of their own choosing but none of the three now play their instruments as young adults. Maybe they will come back to it someday because they want to play and not because we wanted them to. I’m not holding my breath.
I love the W.B. Yeats quote “education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire”. Greatness comes from within and starts with the lighting of a fire. So back to Keith Yamashita’s question, is it worth daring to be great? Only you can answer for yourself. For this blessed and inspired innovation junkie my answer is, I don’t think I could live with myself if I didn’t dare to at least try.
Saul Kaplan is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory (BIF). Saul shares innovation musings on his blog at It’s Saul Connected and on Twitter at @skap5.