I don’t know that there was ever a time I didn’t want, desperately, to be great at something. I’ve always been a woman of many passions, and there are many things I do well, but that never felt like enough.
I wanted to be a genius.
I wanted to be off-the-charts amazing.
I wanted to be the best.
Face it, I wanted to be like Mozart. But instead I always felt like Salieri in the play and film Amadeus.
I called it my “Mozart Complex.”
Why did it feel so important to be a genius? I’m still not entirely sure, but underneath it all I guess I thought it would make me happy.
The problem, of course, is that there are some flaws in this thinking. Let’s take a look at a few:
1. Genius/greatness does not necessarily lead to happiness
For starters, Mozart died young and impoverished, buried in a pauper’s grave. Although there’s no way to know for sure, I don’t get the feeling that he was very happy at the time he died.
And of course history shows us a whole bevy of other “greats” who led pretty miserable lives, drank themselves to death, committed suicide, etc.
Then there are the amazing savants who can do things like calculate multiple sums to five decimal places in their heads (ie, genius), but can’t carry on a conversation with another human being. That never seemed like a desirable way to be.
That’s not to say that greatness causes misery — there are plenty of examples of people who achieved greatness at one thing or another, and also lived happy lives. (See, for example, the life story of the sculptor Alexander Calder, who achieved phenomenal success with his art and lived a long, happy life.)
But it isn’t greatness in and of itself that leads to happiness.
2. Who’s “the best” is frequently hard to determine
How do you even tell if someone is “the best” at something? Unless you’re an Olympic runner, or your thing is something truly quantifiable, how do you know if you’re the best at it?
Even if you win an Olympic gold medal, say, or a chess match, there’s always the possibility that someone else who didn’t compete that day might have beat you had they been there. And there’s no guarantee you’re going to win next time!
3. Who’s “the best” is often highly subjective anyway
If your thing is something creative, determining a “best” is pretty much impossible.
Take opera singers, for example: just because Pavarotti (or whoever) rocks your world, doesn’t mean he’ll make even the slightest impact on mine.
Take painters: Picasso is lauded the world over, but there are plenty of other artists that I personally like better!
Take writers: I think Jasper Fforde is the absolute bees knees of humorous novelists and I worship at his altar, but I have friends who couldn’t get through one of his books if you paid them.
4. If your happiness depends on being “the best,” what happens when you fall?
Let’s pretend you’re that imaginary Olympic gold medalist. What happens when, the next time there’s a race, you don’t win the gold? If your happiness is dependent on being “the best,” that’s really going to suck for you. You’re pretty much going to be doomed to eventual unhappiness, because the reality is you’re not going to keep winning gold forever.
5. Genius/greatness is externally determined
The thing is, people whom the world declares as “great” don’t always see themselves that way. This hit home for me personally when I was eating lunch with a calligraphy hero of mine, John Stevens. The man is amazing. It’s like he emerged from the womb with a pen in his hand. Genius, truly. I wish I had a fraction of his skill!
And yet, he reminded me that there may be people who see me that way.
John Stevens probably doesn’t consider himself a genius, or great. He just does his thing, and works very hard at it. He may have no idea that others have bestowed these titles on him, so they really have no bearing on his feelings about his work.
And think about this: if your happiness is dependent on being labeled as great, and if you wait for some external authority to bestow that label upon you, you’re giving power over your happiness to someone outside of yourself.
Never a good idea.
6. Genius/greatness is a moving target at best
If greatness is your aim, it’s likely that the better you get at your thing, the better you’ll want to get. As soon as you reach one level, your eyes are already set on the level beyond that.
I’ve experienced this with every creative pursuit I’ve taken on. The better I got at calligraphy, dance, singing, etc, the better able I was at seeing where my work fell short of the Platonic ideal I was aiming for.
Greatness is, then, forever out of reach, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
So if greatness isn’t the key to happiness, what then?
I’d be lying if I told you I had no desire for greatness anymore. I still want to get really good at the things I love doing. But the key to (mostly) losing my Mozart Complex has been to figure out what really brings me happiness, and chase after that.
First off, I’ve figured out that the only thing I’ll ever truly be “the best” at is being me. So I might as well be the most fully-expressed me that I can. For me that means following several Blisses, not just one.
I realized that focusing singlemindedly on one thing has never made me happy, so I’ve learned to embrace my multi-passionate personality. I’ve learned that I need to follow what’s calling to me the loudest right now. I’ve learned, also, that the pursuit of mastery makes me happier than the actual achievement of it.
Yes, this means I’ll probably never achieve “the best” status in any of my passions, but I’ve (pretty much) come to terms with that.
Ultimately, I’ve decided that I’d rather be happy than great.
So what do YOU think? Do you think you have to choose between happiness and greatness, and if so, which would you choose?
PS — Pssst! Know someone who might benefit from seeing this today? Pass it on!