Who are the figures in history we would consider to have achieved Greatness? This is obviously a rather subjective question, and one that would elicit different answers from different people based upon their values, culture, language, and historical perspective. But certainly more than a few people’s lists would include names like Napoleon, Alexander the Great, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln,  Winston Churchill, John D. Rockefeller, and Albert Einstein. Why do we consider these men to be great?

The question is not rhetorical. If the answer seems obvious or self-evident to you, then I would submit that you need to more rigorously test your presuppositions. A sort of unsatisfactory answer might be that they are considered great because history has remembered them as such. Not only does that beg the question, it is also a moving target. What happens when, in 200 years, Winston Churchill is an all but forgotten figure? Napoleon will likely be remembered for longer, but what about Lincoln? If the United States goes the way of Rome, how many people will remember him?

Most of these men earned their historical marks by involving themselves in mass slaughter (war) of some sort. Rockefeller earned his by becoming insanely wealthy. Einstein by scientific discovery (which could well all be disproved at some point in the future–then where would he be?). There are a lot of men (and they are mostly men) who have set out to become great and have left carnage and destruction in their paths. Depending on the nature of the carnage, but more on whether they won or lost, they are included on the greatness list by history. Hitler, had he won, might have gone down as the man who united Europe and brought peace to it once and for all. Had the Soviet Union emerged victorious in the Cold War, Stalin might have been the greatest visionary for equality and social justice the world had ever known. This is the problem with history.

Napoleon himself gave a lot of thought to this subject, and there are two statements he made in particular that should give us insight into the topic. He was once asked who he thought were the greatest generals. He replied “the victors.” The second statement, which has become a semi-famous quote of his–“history is but a set of lies agreed upon.” Indeed, he seemed to understand rather well that his pursuit of greatness and glory was rooted first in victory and second in the ability to utilize that victory to write history the way he wanted it to be told. I suggest that much of what we believe we know about world history is substantially skewed if not rendered utterly useless by this reality, if not the particularities of events, the grand narrative and story arc of history’s various episodes. Perhaps indeed much more of what we know about the world pre-history is accurate, even if we know less about it.

When we take Napoleon’s first observation that the greatest generals (and we could insert anything here…greatest tech visionaries, greatest politicians, greatest financiers, or whatever) are the victors, then the pursuit of greatness so defined necessitates a win-at-all-costs attitude. After all, failing to win relegates one to the dustbins of history, or worse, to be vilified by the victor as he is writing history. Therefore, we may be able to conclude (or at least reach a working assumption) that the pursuit of greatness puts the pursuer unavoidably in a zero sum game. He must win at others’ expense.

Zero sum games are troubling to anybody who has studied economics, as the final outcome represents a static state of affairs. There have been no net gains as a result of the ‘game’ being played. All too often, however, the pursuit of greatness leads to many negative sum games, that is, where there are net losses as a result of the game being played. War is an archetypal example of a negative sum game. People die, resources are expended, capital goods are consumed without being replaced, and both sides are worse off in absolute terms, even if the victor is better off in relative terms. The negative externalities of such conflict are overwhelming.

In business competition the same is true as well. Although competitive forces are economically beneficial, in the same way that fertilizer is beneficial in the growing of plants, also like fertilizer, too much can turn growth to ruin. The cut-throat competition of modern corporatist capitalism where people will do anything (illegal, immoral) to gain an advantage proves this point rather well. We should look no further than the absurdity of the recent Apple-Samsung patent dispute. The consumer, the global labour market, everybody but Apple is worse off for that dispute having taken place. What we find is that hyper-competition eliminates positive competition in the way that malevolent bacteria eliminate good bacteria in the human body (there is a corollary too, that the external remedy often does even more damage, but that is a topic for another day). The pursuit of greatness comes at great cost.

The alternative, however, would appear to be unpalatable to many high achievers: the pursuit of mediocrity. After all, is that not the opposite of greatness?

Any of my readers who know me personally will be sure that this is not what I mean to suggest. Nothing is more anathema to my own character and personality than the mediocre. Herein has been the root of my personal struggle in the past five years–a vacillation between a desire for greatness and a moral dilemma at the cost of pursuing it.

There are other options, two of which can be pursued simultaneously: Goodness and Excellence. Both of these, when pursued, allow us to play positive sum games. When we play them, all sides are better off in the end. An Excellent Apple can make outstanding products adored by their customers at the same time that an Excellent Samsung, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google are doing the same. An Excellent United States can have market policies, flexible labour laws, open immigration, and a growing economy at the same time as an Excellent China, Russia, Germany, and Iran could do the same.

An Excellent You can live an amazingly fulfilled life of service to others at the same time as millions of Excellent Others are doing so as well. All of the back-stabbing inside of organizations, jockeying for position, securing the promotion over somebody else whatever the cost, is not only unnecessary, but brings out the worst in all of us. It damages our humanity and ability to be present for other people and makes it impossible to be instruments of healing in a world full of suffering. But even removing the altruistic motivation, we will find that this zero sum game attitude of living produces endless disappointment for ourselves. We are forever comparing, measuring, and ultimately falling short. Even if we become the best at what we do, we will always be compared to somebody in another field, or another person in history who might have been better. “The greatest since so and so” implies there was one better.

We should strive instead for Excellence–to deliver on our commitments at the time, quality, and price agreed. We should strive for Goodness–to treat others as we would want to be treated, to love others as we love ourselves, to act the same in public as we do in private, to be honest with ourselves and others. With enough Goodness and enough Excellence, we might just end up getting recognition and remembrance after all. It has worked for a few people–Gandhi and Mother Theresa come to mind. But still, it would be better to live the life of Mother Theresa and be forgotten than to be like Napoleon and be remembered.