The DNA of Greatness


What Does It Take?

I recently watched a documentary on Albert Einstein, and by recently I mean this morning. It was fascinating. Obviously, the main focus was on his achievements in theoretical physics like his papers on the photo-electric effect and, of course, general relativity. What I thought was interesting, though, was how they focused a lot on his character; i.e. who he was as a person. That got me thinking about the characteristics Einstein had that contributed to his greatness and if those can be quantified. Are there a collection of attributes that can be identified in people who change the world? Essentially, is there DNA to greatness?

I think there is. Obviously no two people are alike and these qualities will vary, but that doesn’t mean we can’t isolate certain features. Here’s my attempt to do just that.

They Tend to be Pariahs

At some point in their lives, the greats of this world are usually social outcasts. However, I’m more fascinated on the qualitiesthey possess that attribute to this, rather than their rejection by society.

Take Einstein, for instance. At a young age, he worked at a patent office in Bern, Switzerland. He wanted to teach physics, but after graduation his professors refused to give him recommendations. This made him desperate for money, hence, the patent office job.

Why were his professors adamant about not recommending him? As a student, Einstein demonstrated some quirky qualities to put it lightly. He was always speaking out of turn in class. He would go up to the blackboard and solve unfinished equations without being asked. He would even refuse to take classes that he found intellectually un-stimulating.

Maybe if Einstein had fallen into place more, he would have landed a job as a professor right after graduation. But his eccentricities prevented that from happening. It all worked, though, as his time at the patent office lended itself to a lot of thinking. It was then he theorized special relativity.


The World Is Malleable

I believe that built in to the DNA of greatness is the belief that the world around us is malleable. Einstein didn’t let the system limit him and it paid off. How else would anyone overturn centuries of belief on how the universe worked? He didn’t let his professors get to him and he didn’t let Newton’s classical theory stop him from dreaming about the possibility of a world that operated differently than what people believed. He shook the foundations of physics instead. He understood that the world is malleable.

Steve Jobs, eternal enemy of dogma, and self-proclaimed uprooter of the established, has a quote that perfectly describes this.

When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. 

Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

So, there’s a clear difference in the way that these influencers view the world. Life is not a structure that they simply live in. It’s not a vehicle that they hop into for seventy years until they die. Life is a sculpture that they are able to mold. It’s a system they can provide input for and receive some sort of result.

Simply put, they have the audacity to think they can change the world. Where this comes from, I have no idea, but it seems that by believing in their influence, they will it into existence.

Unapologetically Themselves

This goes without saying given the last point, but the Jobs and Einsteins of the world are true to themselves. Social pressure is not enough to keep them from doing what they know they are meant to do. If it was, they would never change the world. There’s this self-confidence in them that sometimes comes off as arrogance, but it’s necessary to make actual change. They have to be grounded in themselves and firm in their belief to withstand the hailstorm of doubt from others. George Bernard Shaw once said:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

Change is only possible when the status-quo is challenged. If there’s too much reverence for how things are, how will progress ever be made? So, we have an interesting paradox: we idolize those who make great change in the world, but before their genius is recognizable, they are labeled as heretics for trying to break well-established systems.


Courage to be Wrong

Lastly, with all this irreverence for the well-established must come the courage to be flat-out wrong. Einstein’s theory of general relativity was almost dismissed multiple times as assuredly false. It took three separate solar eclipses spanning across years of study and expeditions around the world to confirm the reality of his theory. Perhaps the smartest man who ever lived was almost overlooked.

Einstein knew this, and he knew the repercussions of being wrong, but he forged ahead anyway. Steve Jobs failed more times than he got things right, but we only focus on the times when he got it right because of how revolutionary they were.

They have a balance between the acceptance of failure and the tenacity to forge ahead. These things, along with a host of others, contribute to the perceived greatness of those people who’ve made a mark on the world. But I want to hear from you guys. What do you think?

Am I right about these qualities? Am I completely off-base? Or what are some other qualities you think contribute to greatness? Respond to this to let me know, I’m curious.