This week, I've written an earlier blog post on the idea of greatness. A friend read it and told me something interesting. He said that his son had once been at a school where he was surrounded by mediocrity, and then switched to another school in the same town where he encountered the quest for personal greatness, left and right. My friend went on to say that the new, more challenging environment, had a decidedly uplifting effect on his son, right away, and that the results of this got him into a top university, where the level of expected excellence increased again.
It's amazing how often we've been told by philosophers that we become like the people we're around, and how commonly we forget to use this important truth to our own advantage. During my years at Notre Dame, it astonished me to see that, no matter how good our football team might be, when they played a bad team, they played badly themselves. The sloppiness and mistakes they showed could be truly perplexing to witness. And yet, when they played a top five team, they'd play them toe-to-toe, and often win.
We're so often like thermometers, rising or falling with the temperature around us, and yet we'd prefer to think of ourselves as thermostats, determining it, instead.
There are a lot of deep evolutionary reasons, related to survival, for our unconscious need and drive to fit in with the people around us. We need to be accepted. We need to be liked. And so, below the level of awareness, we conform in many ways. We become like our tribe.
But we also have the gift of free will. And that allows the possibility, within limits, and sometimes even apart from any limits, for us to choose our tribe. Who do we want to hang around? Who do we want to be like? Who do we most admire?
And yet, here's the apparent dilemma: I want to be like people who are a lot better than me. That way, I can grow into my own form of greatness, encouraged by my environment. But if they're at least as smart and ambitious as I am, they'll want to be around people much better than them, which clearly excludes me. Remember Groucho Marx, who said he'd never want to belong to a club that would have someone like him as a member? That's sort of the problem.
But there's the secret. If I want to be around people significantly better than I am in all the right ways, they will be people of great kindness and curiosity - two very different virtues. And yet, either of those qualities will open them up to my company. Problem solved.
So, why not aim for the stars? The real stars, I mean, not the fake, manufactured ones. When we associate with people of real wisdom and virtue, real accomplishment and knowledge, we're encouraged in our own adventures with greatness. The path is much easier.
Why, then, should we ever settle for less?