There’s a 19th century idea called the ‘Great Man’ theory, which claims that history can be explained by the impact of ‘great men’ who used their power in a way that had decisive historical impact. People like Napoleon, Shakespeare, Muhammed, and the like who pushed humanity forward using nothing by their own charisma, wit, and understanding.
The idea has mainly fallen out of favor since World War 2, as critics have noted that such men are products of their society, noting that ‘before he can remake society, his society must make him’. In other words, their personal input was indeed critical, but it was more the result of him being in the right place at the right time than who he was. They weren’t the only one who could bring together the several converging movements into one (so the argument goes), but they happened to be the one who did.
Great Men of Tech
Today, the concept has resurfaced in tech, as men like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are hailed as unique visionaries who explicitly created our modern reality. The MIT Technology review does a good job of pointing out that government subsidies play a large part in these successes and how the great man myth is harmful, but I don’t think it dispels it entirely. Yes, such men are products of society, and happened to exist at a time when converging technologies allowed them to catapult things forward, but their own agency has some say in the matter.
It’s unlikely Steve Wozniac would have made Apple such a beautifully designed company, for instance, and unlikely that Martin Eberhard alone would have turned Tesla into the dynamo it is today. Without their ‘great men’, these companies would not have been driven to accomplish what was previously thought impossible or crazy.
Could someone else have pushed them in the same way? Would any visionary, controlling perfectionist have done instead? Perhaps. What, then, are the key personality traits that one would require for a modern, commodified ‘great man’?
It is not their peculiarities. One of the reasons why the theory is harmful is because it deifies the men and puts their eccentricities on pedestals. There’s a sense that if one wishes to be the next Steve Jobs, one must take acid, wear turtlenecks, and only eat fruit.
But these are not what made such people great. It is important to distinguish which personality traits are frivolities, and which were instrumental in their success
There are a few personality traits that will always be helpful – the ability to pattern match across many different topics, a drive towards perfection, and towering ambition all help. But even with all of these, one must have a good deal of luck, and the ability to see where the world is headed.
Luck: The Only Personality Trait That Matters
Some would argue that foresight coupled with luck is the only important trait.
In Shane Snow’s Smartcuts, for instance, he profiles Sonny Moore, an emo band guitarist who got decided to jump genres and start producing electronic dubstep music. He happened to start making EDM right as the genre became massively popular in the US, and now, as Skrillex, he’s one of it’s biggest stars. Snow notes that it was his ability to sense the impending dubstep wave that allowed him to produce the right stuff at the right time and be successful.
Bryan Lim, the founder of EmazingLights.com, is another person who benefited from the EDM boom. He was the only person selling rave gear stateside when the craze hit, mostly because he was frustrated with dealing with Chinese manufacturers who had month-long delivery times. While he acknowledges that he worked his ass off making the company, he says that his success was mostly luck and good timing.
Is luck and good timing, then, the only personality trait we should maintain? What should an ambitious young person who wishes to make an impact on the world do, if all who come before him were lucky and nothing more?
Passion + Luck > Foresight
I refuse to subscribe to this new ‘Lucky Men’ theory, that people are successful due to their time and place of life and not due to decisions made during it. It should be put down just as the Great Men theory was. Why? I believe the dichotomy here is not that of destiny vs agency but of passion vs opportunity, the same quandary I examined in Does Passion Trump an MBA?.
To be successful, one should not examine the times and find the wave that is likely coming to a head soon. One should not try to predict the next EDM boom. Jumping into a field because it looks promising will lead to failure, no matter how good the numbers look. Instead, one should jump into fields that one is authentically excited about, and use one’s own intelligence to see how it can fit into the times.
Skrillex and Bryan didn’t sense the coming EDM boom and jump ship – they were already passionate about what they were doing, and would have continued doing it regardless of market conditions. They were pursuing passions more than creating businesses. Even Elon and Steve were pursuing passions – Musk didn’t know anything about rockets, but he knew he wanted to, so he dove into all the regular texts on the subject, until he could count himself as an expert. He wasn’t doing that to make money – he did that because he cared about getting to Mars.
Then again, if they had decided to pursue passions in underwater basket weaving, farming, or horseback riding, it’s unlikely they would become ‘great’. Why? These are unscalable passions, that only affect a few people no matter how good you get at them. Integrate one of these with a technology wave coming to a head, however, and you’ve got something big. Run a farm using drones, track horse vitals using wearables, or make a platform that teaches people how to weave, and now we’re talking great.
Here, then, is my vote for the best way to become a ‘great person’, regardless of the times: Turn inward to discover what you re truly passionate about, and master it. Then turn outward, and see how evolving developments in your time and place are affecting your passion. Then put yourself in the right place with the right network to leverage your knowledge of the craft and the times to make a difference.
Find your passion, then get an MBA in the times to maximize your impact. How’s that for a recipe for greatness? (genuinely curious here)