Greatness: Nature vs. Nurture vs. Choice


I’m a firm believer that all human beings have potential to do great things. The challenge in saying something like this is what does “great” mean? I consider “greatness” to mean developing or exhibiting a quality, making a decision, or doing something that is worthy of admiration. At the risk of getting in to semantics, “great things” clearly can be situational. If you were abused as a child and as a parent have broken that cycle of abuse, you’ve done a great thing. If you lifted one who was downtrodden or stood up in the face of rebuke or peer pressure for what you knew was right, then you have done a great thing. And if you have been indispensable in building something great or that didn’t exist before, or otherwise achieved something that no one or few before ever have, then you have done a great thing.

I believe it was Tolstoy who saw a baby, peasant boy on a train in the arms of his poorly dressed parents, and he lamented that: “Oh, even if this boy were or could be the next Mozart, it will never happen because the environment for such to occur will not exist in this boy’s life.” (Or something like this…)

There is much that I enjoy and that is inspirational and rings true to me that I read in self development and self improvement literature. However I sometimes mentally grapple with two opposing ideas. The first is what I have shared above — the thought that our environment can have such a large influence on who we become. Let’s call this the argument for Nurture. The idea that destiny or our ultimate potential for achievement is largely dictated by the presence or lack of nurtured opportunities.

Another idea would be that destiny or achievement is essentially determined by our genes. The idea that born talent or natural abilities and gifts determine destiny or achievement or greatness. I think that many people acknowledge that genes play a role, some people have the body or build for athletics. Let’s call this argument Nature — the idea that one’s genes or through no work except for the born-with-it lottery does one have access to greatness or high achievement.

The last argument is essentially the “great by choice” argument. The idea that one’s destiny or ultimate achievement is more a matter of choice than anything else. Let’s call this the argument of Choice.

Is greatness or becoming great a matter of Nature, Nurture, or Choice?

Here is what I think: Nature makes greatness easier, but it in no way is exclusionary toward anyone. Nurture can be highly influenced by Choice. One’s environment and opportunities are influenced by choices. So I tend to lean towards the argument that greatness is more a matter of Choice. The difficulty with believing that greatness is merely a matter of choice is that then there are a whole bunch of people out there that would either completely disagree that they have that choice in the first place or else they simply choose poorly all the time. What keeps people from making the choice to be great?

We can only choose to be great when we have the freedom to make that choice.

Two things keep us from this choice: consequences of previous choices and a lack of freedom. Choices and consequences are inseparably connected. If you pick up a stick with one end labeled A and the other end of the stick labeled B. Picking up the stick will get you both ends of the stick. Consequence B follows picking up end A. They are connected. Shoplifting or drunk driving inherently brings with it the potential consequences of hefty fines, a criminal record, and possibly some jail time. If you’ve just been busted for committing a crime, your freedom to choose is diminished until after you’ve paid for the consequences of your previous actions.

The same thing applies when trying to choose greatness. As long as the sum of your previous actions has not placed a restrictive burden on your ability to choose and change to become great, you can indeed choose to be so.

Another impediment toward being able to choose greatness would be actual political or economic freedom. This is a case in which Nurture can trump Choice. If politically or economically your ability to choose is so drastically reduced, it would be unfair to expect political, economic, or perhaps even financial “greatness” from oneself. Nevertheless, the freedom to choose how to react to any situation will always be available to us and in this freedom a greatness in our response can be had — an excellent example of this is Victor Frankl. He learned and realized as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp that even with all their other freedoms taken away, each person was still at liberty to choose their attitude and how they reacted to the situation in which they were placed. Choosing to react in a selfless manner in extreme circumstances has often yielded glimpses of greatness.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one’s own way. -Victor Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning”

Take for example a mouse placed in a cage with an impossibly high glass wall between it and a cage full of other mice or wheels and cheese, etc. All the motivation in the world isn’t going to get that mouse over the wall. Expecting the mouse to be able to overcome such a barrier on its own is unrealistic. Trying and trying and trying all the while continuing to fall and fail isn’t going to get the mouse over the wall. It literally has no choice of its own that would include getting over the wall. At such a point, the path to greatness is not through changing our circumstances, it is rather, as Frankl says, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

Changing ourselves or choosing greatness is often difficult because of the fear of uncertainty.

“Good is the enemy of great.” — James C. Collins.

If life is good, the uncertainty that is necessary to embrace to achieve greatness can be extra difficult to pass through since there is a lack of pain of the “not-good” to push us or motivate us to change and wade through that uncertainty.

Lastly, and here’s a paradox I learned from reading Jeff Olson’s The Slight Edge, choosing greatness is easy to do. It’s easy, but may be slightly uncomfortable initially (remember that uncertainty!). The problem is that not-choosing greatness is also easy to do. Not-choosing greatness, though, requires no immediate discomfort. The kicker is that over time after many, many daily choices or rituals have been made or established the harvest of those compounded actions over time will either be greatness with more freedom and less discomfort, or it will be mediocrity and regret with discomfort. Take healthy eating and exercise as an example here. If I asked, “Could you exercise for 30 minutes today?” The answer would probably be, yes, that’s not an impossibly hard task. “Is it easier not to exercise for 30 minutes today?” Also, a yes. But over time, a daily ritual of exercise will create significant changes in a person’s health and happiness both mentally and physically and can put that person on a path to “greatness”. On the other hand, choosing the easier path, over time the person’s health and happiness may diminish both mentally and physically as weight gain and its associated comorbidities begin to take their toll.

So, what’s the bottom line? What’s the take-home message? I believe we all have potential to cultivate greatness — essentially qualities and decisions worthy of admiration — and that we do so primarily by choosing to perform simple, easy-to-do actions consistently over time when not performing those actions would be easier. I believe we choose greatness when our decisions are true and just and so the consequences of our choices expand rather than limit our freedom to choose. I believe that our Choices influence our opportunities and that we can Nurture greatness by preparing for opportunity to come our way. Lastly, I believe we need to be wise in choosing what we want to become great in or how we will exhibit that greatness. If I suddenly “chose” to become a great NBA basketball player, my chances of becoming great in this are pretty much zero — my previous choices didn’t focus on becoming a star basketball player, and so my freedom in making that choice now is limited. I’m like that mouse with the impossibly high glass wall — it would be unwise for me to set my heart on being on the other side of that wall, i.e. being an NBA basketball player. Had I chosen to be so earlier, the possibility would be greater, though admittedly farfetched as Nature didn’t do me any favors — being under 6 foot. So choose to be great each day, don’t wait too long to choose your greatness as greatness takes time to grow, and choose in a way that leaves you content with what you can and cannot change on your own.

Resonate & Align

If this resonates or aligns with you and you like what you read, subscribe to my blog, and share this with your friends who might feel the same way. Thanks! Justin.