On Greatness, and/or Being Great


A man known as Shakespeare once wrote*, “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” – (Twelfth Night: Act II, Scene V) *I say “known as” because I recently watched the movie Anonymous, and now find myself doubting along with numerous other skeptics.

Regardless of its true origin, I’ve always loved this quote. But I’ve also secretly wondered which, out of the three paths to greatness that Shakespeare outlines, is the most desirable.

In other words, is it luckiest to be born great (ie important), like Queen Victoria or Cleopatra?

Is it more impressive to achieve greatness and notoriety through hard work or sheer ruthlessness, like BB King or Napoleon Bonaparte?

Or, these days, is it simply good enough to position yourself at the right place at the right time, when greatness strikes like lightning? Like that guy who wrote Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. (Disclaimer: while I’m not trying to belittle Seth Grahame-Smith’s accomplishments, I really don’t think I’m alone in saying that if I had access to a time machine, I would gladly go back, hit him in the head with a frying pan, and take the idea first.)

And now, once again, we find ourselves back on the subject of writing. Which one of these will we strive to do or be?

For most of us, being born with the ability to publish isn’t in the cards. (Unless your name is Chris Paolini, of course. *Again, no bitterness here, just a bit of well-deserved envy.)

Likewise, if you think you know what hard work is, I’d seriously urge you to read Stephen King’s autobiographical book On Writing.

Finally, I don’t think anyone really plans to be great. (Or, if they do, it doesn’t always work out.) Some people get lucky, that’s true. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that they weren’t working just as hard as the rest of us.

While we’re at it, there’s another quote from a place I can’t quite remember: In order to succeed, you can be first, you can be better, or you can cheat.

If there was a cheat code for writing the next great novel, someone would’ve made millions by now marketing it to starving authors. If there was a way to ensure being the absolute first at anything, we wouldn’t have authors being sued left and right for supposedly “stealing” other people’s life stories or ideas. And if there is a word in the English language more subjective than “better,” I’d like to hear about it.

The moral of this story, boys and girls, is that being a GREAT writer comes down to one thing only: being the best writer YOU can possibly be.

After that, the rest is up to chance, fate, or lightning.