In our previous article, we laid down the groundwork for our underlying question of “Why don’t people become great?” We discussed the importance of developing an empowering identity that clarifies the path towards achieving our unique greatness and inspires us to begin the journey. However, even among those of us who have a clear path and genuinely want to achieve our greatness, many never begin the journey because of three common reasons:
Lack of Self-Worth
The first step on the journey towards greatness is developing and choosing a strong sense of identity. However, even those of us who have chosen an identity may realize that the identity we have chosen is limited, unempowering, and not a true reflection of who we really are.
Just think about it for a moment: Have you ever been inspired by someone extraordinary? Maybe he or she was brilliant, had an amazing marriage, was healthy and full of energy, or was simply achieving his/her unique greatness in life. For an instant, you’re inspired, and you think to yourself, “What if I achieved that…?” Your mind goes racing as you imagine what your life could be like. But then another voice speaks up in the back of your head: “What makes you think you can accomplish that? Have you ever achieved anything like that in your past? You’re just ‘normal.’ You’re not destined for greatness. You’re destined to watch from the sidelines as others strive after their dreams and achieve the spectacular.” Often, this negative voice is a reflection of someone else’s limited belief in you, perhaps an echo of your friend, parent, or teacher’s negative comments. Their negativity, which often stems from a limited belief in themselves and their own value, becomes our inner voice. We adopt their negative perception as our own; they convince us that we’re not capable of achieving anything, and we ultimately come to believe them.
Once we believe that we are incapable, we are free to live mediocre lives. Even though, deep down, we know we’re capable of more, we convince ourselves that we’re comfortable with being okay, with being “normal.” When we look in the mirror, we say: “This is just who I am. There are great people, and there are people like me. And you know what? I don’t even want to be great. I’m okay with being okay. As long as people think of me as a ‘pretty good person,’ that’s enough for me.” We try to convince ourselves that we are happy living this way, that we are content with being mediocre, that we are happy to just be “okay.” But deep down, we know this is a lie; we know that we really want more from life, that we are capable and destined for more. But thinking about this makes us uncomfortable, so to sleep better at night and deal with our inadequacies, we convince ourselves otherwise.
However, life does not have to be this way. What could we accomplish if instead of listening to the voice that tells us we can’t, we listened to the voice us that tells us we can? Whether that negative voice comes from inside our head or from someone outside, we need to learn how to stand up and say, “NO. I will not let you crush me and my dreams. I can and will go after my greatness.” It’s time to say, “Yes, I can.” We need to stop holding ourselves back from our own greatness. We have greatness within us, and it’s our responsibility to bring that greatness to the world. (In future articles, we will develop some of the best strategies for accomplishing this.)
Even for those of us who have worked on developing an empowering identity, there is often still a powerful force that holds us back from beginning the journey towards our greatness: fear. In some way or another, we have all let fear hold us back. Fear blinds us, it paralyzes us, it stops us from chasing after our dreams.
While fear is universal, there are various forms of fear, and each is responsible for killing dreams. The most common is fear of failure. Any genuine journey towards greatness risks the possibility of failure, and we so scared of failing, that we become scared of striving for greatness itself. We can’t convince ourselves to step into the unknown, to try, because we are afraid of being vulnerable, of putting ourselves out on display; we are paralyzed by the possibility of failure. We’re afraid of what other people will think if they see us fail; perhaps more importantly, we’re afraid of what we’ll think of ourselves if we fail. We’re afraid that if we fail, we’ll become a failure. So we never push past our comfort zone, we never bet on ourselves, we never take a leap of faith, trusting that Hashem has something great designed for us.
Others fear the pain and struggle that comes with striving for greatness. Learning is difficult; exercising and giving up junk food can be painful; getting out of a bad relationship can be heart-wrenching. We fear the pain that comes with the journey, the discomfort of progress, the instability of growth. We convince ourselves that the complacency of okay is “okay,” the stagnancy of average is “just fine,” and that being good enough is “good enough.” But if we can be better, than good enough is not good enough, and if we can be great, then being okay is not okay! The ultimate pain of staying where we are will always outweigh the pain of growth, the struggle of progress. Because the pain of growth is meaningful pain, and meaningful pain is the most enjoyable pain imaginable. The pain of staying where we are is existential pain – the pain of wasted potential.
Suffering is meaningless pain, and therefore unbearable. But when we give meaning to our pain, it becomes bearable. When someone at the gym lifts weights, he is ripping his muscles, a painful and strenuous experience. But he knows that this pain is the source of his growth, the source of his progress. Growth only occurs only in the face of resistance and pressure. There is no growth in the comfort zone. You can only grow muscle when you rip your muscle fibers; you can only grow existentially when you rip yourself out of your comfort zone. Growth in our life, learning, midos, career, and relationships only happens when we push ourselves to the limit.
The last form of fear is perhaps the most surprising. Deep down, we’re afraid that if we strive for greatness, we might just succeed; we might just become extraordinary, and what if we’re unable to handle it? What if it’s too much for us? What if we fall apart? So we take the easy road; we don’t push, we don’t strive, we simply pretend that we aren’t capable of that incredible dream that we’ve tucked down somewhere deep inside of ourselves. But this is the greatest tragedy of all. As the quote goes, “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” The greatest shame is not aiming too big in life and missing; it’s aiming too low and hitting. So many of us are pretending like we’ve succeeded when we know deep down that there’s so much more that we’re capable of, so much more that we can contribute to the world.
Desire to Be Ordinary and Fit In
There is another reason that holds us back from our greatness, an obstacle that touches the very root of our identity and how we see ourselves in the world. We want to fit in, we want to be “normal,” we want to have friends, we want everyone to like us. This is because, at root, we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Hashem created all of us as a single interconnected self, and a single soul; we are, each of us, individual selves that are part of this bigger self. Because of this common root, we all yearn to feel connected to, and accepted by, those around us.
And what will happen if you start striving for greatness? What will happen if you start valuing your time, the words that come out of your mouth, the thoughts you think about, the impact and importance of every single decision you make? You will start to become different. You’ll start to stand out. Why? Because most people are not doing that. By default, the people in your life will start to see you differently, treat you differently, act differently around you; mostly, because you will start to become…you. And while many will be happy for you, support you, even encourage you, others will judge you, discourage you, or even hate you for it. They will assume that you assume that you’re better than them; they will think that you think that they are a failure. By becoming you, by not blending into the crowd and being a nobody, you will, by nature, stand out.
But we don’t necessarily want all this. We don’t want to lose any of our friends or relationships. We don’t want to be judged or singled out. And while the ideal is to strive for our greatness while balancing these potential struggles, such a path is difficult and requires tremendous balance and nuance. So, we hide our dreams, we cripple our ambitions, we stifle our drive for greatness, we crush our hopes and aspirations – and we pretend like we don’t want what we want. We live as a shadow, a skeleton of our true selves, and pretend like we’re happy with who we are. We know we’re destined for something more, but we prefer the companionship of people who, we have just admitted to ourselves, don’t want us to strive for greatness over the challenging but extraordinary path into the unknown, towards our true selves.
In our next column, we will delve more deeply into this topic and finish exploring the factors that hold people back from striving after their greatness.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is an author, educator, speaker, and coach who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah, psychology, and leadership. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, the transformative online self-development course. Rabbi Reichman received Semikha from RIETS, a master’s degree in Jewish Education from Azrieli, and a master’s degree in Jewish Thought from Revel. He is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago and has also spent a year studying at Harvard as an Ivy Plus Exchange Scholar. To find more inspirational content from Rabbi Reichman, to contact him, or to learn more about Self-Mastery Academy, visit his website: ShmuelReichman.com.