What do monks, Olympians, and entrepreneurs all share in common?
At first glance, it is the differences between the three callings that appear most starkly. Monks devote their life to inconspicuous prayer and work in the stillness and stability of a monastic setting, while Olympians train and mold their body into a state of almost inhuman physical prowess, often gaining fame and vast fan followings as they do so. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs innovate, thinking outside the box and presenting new goods or services at the doors of the public. Although in quite different ways, monks, Olympians, and entrepreneurs do share a common pursuit: the pursuit of greatness.
The Tie that Binds: The Pursuit of Greatness
Monks, Olympians, and entrepreneurs all share in common an intense pursuit of greatness or excellence. For all three, the goal is not so much about the material consequences achievable by their action, but the action itself. For monks, Olympians, and entrepreneurs, greatness isn’t fundamentally about material success. The goal of great people is much more closely linked to the very actions they are performing: Great people find passion and meaning in what they do.
For monks, for instance, the great goal is sanctification through living a disciplined rule of life. The process of sanctification occurs in the little motions of obedience in daily life. The highly structured life of monks often helps monasteries be self-sustaining, but that is not the primary end of the monks’ actions. The monks’ work, prayer, and obedience is a renunciation of self in gift to others and God. What is important is not what is achieved by the monks’ daily actions, but the spirit and intention embedded in the action itself. If the monk is living the littlest action in the monastery for God, how meaningful must that seemingly insignificant action be for him?
Olympians’ goal, meanwhile, is not ultimately to achieve something (like fame or wealth) by their swimming, skiing, or skating; rather the goal of the greatest athletes is more immediately in the action itself— in swimming, skiing, skating or otherwise competing as best as possible. Summer Sanders, a USA gold medalist in swimming, expressed this when she said, “It’s not about trophies and ribbons. It’s about being on time for practice, accepting challenges and being fearful of the elements.”
Even for entrepreneurs, this idea of the importance of the action itself holds true. Mark Zuckerburg, for example, has spoken of how his goal in developing Facebook was not merely to create a company. He qualifies this statement by explaining that he does in fact care about revenue and profit. Yet the primary motivation for him has been the way the creation of the social media platform has changed the world by its very existence, not the material wealth he has created and ripple effects he has caused. In other words, entrepreneurs are passionate about what they are doing, as are Olympians and monks.
Lessons from the Greats
Already, monks, Olympians, and entrepreneurs have shared with us a lesson about greatness: those who pursue greatness find meaning and purpose in the actions, even the small ones, that they perform. The flipside of this is that getting too caught up on a goal and losing focus on the meaning of individual actions will derail a person from the pursuit of greatness.
Monks, Olympians, and entrepreneurs— each in their own way— can share with us some other lessons applicable to any pursuit of greatness, whether it be in the spiritual or the business realm. Let’s identify a few of these lessons, drawing on their own words.
First, don’t quit simply because the path of greatness is hard, dark, or lonely. The fervent pursuit of spiritual, physical, or mental excellence will necessarily take time and perseverance. It is worth it to place these things at the feet of the pursuit of greatness!
- The monk: “The fruits of the earth are not brought to perfection immediately, but by time, rain and care; similarly, the fruits of men ripen through ascetic practice, study, time, perseverance, self-control, and patience.” – St. Anthony the Great.
- The Olympian: “One word: ‘Fight.’ Anyone can do it when it feels good. When you’re hurting, that’s when it makes a difference, so you have to keep fighting.” – Erin Cafaro, USA gold medalist in rowing in 2008.
- The entrepreneur: “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the nonsuccessful ones is pure perseverance….” – Steve Jobs.
Chanel Pain through Discipline
Second, channel pain, through discipline, into motivation for your goal. Greatness is not stumbled upon by chance, and simple perseverance isn’t enough. True greatness always requires disciplined use of time and the development of a strong work ethic.
- The monk: “Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in devout reading.” – St. Benedict of Nursia.
- The Olympian: “Nothing can substitute for just plain hard work. I had to put in the time to get back. And it was a grind. It meant training and sweating every day. But I was completely committed to working out to prove to myself that I still could do it.” — Andre Agassi, USA gold medalist in tennis in 1996.
- The entrepreneur: “You can’t have a million-dollar dream with a minimum-wage work ethic.” – Stephen C. Hogan.
Greatness can Arise from Struggle
Third, innovation, creativity, and realizing our self-potential come from the ardor of the struggle for greatness. Floating with the current will not result in greatness. Constantly striving for more, consistently turning our eyes to the heights, is necessary in the pursuit of greatness.
- The monk: “Let us carefully observe the manner of life of all the apostles, martyrs, ascetics, and just men who announced the coming of the Lord. And let us emulate their faith, charity, hope, zeal, life, patience under suffering, and perseverance unto death so that we may also share their glory.” – John of Damascus.
- The Olympian: “As simple as it sounds, we all must try to be the best person we can: by making the best choices, by making the most of the talents we’ve been given.” – Mary Lou Retton, USA gold medalist in gymnastics in 1984.
- The entrepreneur: “Any business today that embraces the status quo as an operating principle is going to be on a death march.” – Howard Schultz.
As missionary evangelizers called to a pursuit of greatness in God, our operating principle should never be the status quo. Rather, we are called to lift our eyes to the witness of the saints, the perfection of Christ, and the fullness of life to which He calls us. The differences in life choices of monks, Olympians, and entrepreneurs notwithstanding, all three of these groups offer insights into greatness and how to achieve it.
While learning what we can from both entrepreneurs and gold medalists, at the end of the day we must remember this principle: Let’s stop trying to be great in the eyes of anyone else but Jesus Christ. The more that we consider ourselves to be judged by Him and Him alone, the more we can dare great things in love for Him. Onward and upward!