What makes a person truly great? One way of measuring greatness is by desire or thirst. How much we want to get a new job or acquire a new skill will affect if and how well we do that thing. Wanting something “badly enough” makes the desire overflow into our actions, guiding the choices and decisions we make. Pope Benedict XVI eloquently expressed the relationship between greatness and thirst in Spe Salvi when he said, “Man was created for greatness— for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched.”
Greatness ultimately means being filled with God. Greatness requires daring: How much do we desire greatness, even if it means being stretched? How much have we emptied ourselves in sacrificial love in hope of being filled by Him?
The Security of the Unsafe: Greatness Requires Daring
Our desire and thirst for a goal, or for God, is fed by the knowledge or hope that it can be attained. We don’t pursue things we know to be impossible. In our thirst, we believe that we can attain something, even if it is far off now and requires boldness or risk to reach. We are willing to sacrifice other things to draw nearer to that for which we thirst. In fact, “entrepreneur” literally means “risk-bearer,” suggesting that people who create great things have to first be willing to bear risk in pursuit of their goal!
Interestingly, according to a study of 700 American millionaires, the average college GPA of the millionaires was a meager 2.9. Why so low? One theory suggests that these men and women were students who risked lower grades in some subjects to pour their time and energy into topics they were passionate about, and this helped them achieve monetary success after college. Regardless of whether this theory holds true, the study makes us question our notions of what causes greatness.
What does greatness even mean, on a human level? Playing by our high school teachers’ rules is no guarantee of monetary success. Life decisions, academic decisions… these always include an element of risk. Again, greatness always requires daring.
The Value of Challenge
Challenge is an ever-present factor in thirsting for or desiring something that we do not have. Even the Beatles faced doomsayers who didn’t see a place for them in the music industry! “The Beatles have no future in show business,” a Decca Records executive reportedly told the group’s manager in 1962. Even as challenges may nag us or tempt us to turn away from what we desire, they also hone and purify our desire. Here are a few ways that challenge is valuable to us as we pursue a business goal or a spiritual goal.
First, challenge organizes our best energies and talents. We are forced to ask: In what areas can we improve, work harder, or be more disciplined? In the face of a setback, we may turn to close friends, mentors, or family for advice. Through this, we learn more about our strengths and weaknesses, gaining a better 360-degree view of our talents and what God may be asking of us.
Refocusing on Priorities
Next, challenge humbles us by focusing us on our true priorities. Some people, according to an old adage, are so indecisive that their favorite color is plaid. But this isn’t the case with strong business leaders or strong Christians. Challenge demands that we more intentionally choose what we desire, that we say (whether in our business life or our spiritual life): “This is hard but it is worth fighting for and I will not give up.”
Finally, challenge pushes us to new levels or capacities. Faced with a challenge and unwilling to give up the ideal we know to be true, we cling more tightly to our goal and accomplish what we might not have expected ourselves to be able to. St. Thomas Aquinas describes this when he speaks of the virtue of magnanimity or greatness of the soul, saying that magnanimity is a “stretching forth of the mind to great things,” even despite challenges. St. Thomas Aquinas, like Pope Benedict XVI, speaks of greatness in terms of stretching our humanness— stretching can be uncomfortable, but it is worth it!
What Happens if We Don’t Dare?
What happens if we aren’t willing to risk being stretched? Without stretching, we shrivel instead of grow. The opposite of greatness of soul can be manifested in a couple of ways. Fear of failure, for instance, can threaten the pursuit of greatness. Unable to face the thought of material loss, a leader becomes unwilling to sacrifice for the sake of his goal, and loses his goal in the process.
Alternatively, inability to recognize one’s own talents stops someone from even starting out on the path of greatness. Today, we see this manifested in how business training often focuses on business purely as a career choice, not as a vocation that can be integrated with a life of faith. This can blind people to the greatness of their calling and how they can live out their unique gifts. The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace’s Vocation of the Business Leader describes how business persons need to be formed in a culture “that shows them the good they can do and ought to do— the good that is distinctively theirs… business leaders come into the world through a gift, not through a contract or a market exchange.”
We cannot bring the Gospel to bear on our culture today by hiding in timidity. Christ was bold— coming down from Heaven like a shepherd looking for lost sheep, risking brambles and cliffs to rescue the sheep and carry it home on His shoulders— and He calls us to boldness as well. Let’s avoid the pitfalls of fear of failure and lack of confidence in ourselves, lifting our eyes to greatness instead.
For inspirational examples of daring amidst struggle, Scripture turns up countless vivid examples. In the Old Testament, for instance, Moses and his faithful Israelites followed the pillar of fire by night, the pillar of cloud by day as they journeyed out of Egypt into the unknown (Exodus 13:21). Reflection on this passage reveals how faith entails abandoning our own plans to follow, sometimes in a cloud of unknowing, the presence of God. It seems paradoxical to choose to believe when we don’t fully comprehend, but we do receive hints and helps along the way. Walking by faith is very different than walking by sight— it takes daring and a thirst for God, but it is doable!
Or consider the story of Esther, who dared to commit a capital offense— appearing without summons before the king— in an effort to prevent the Jewish people to be massacred. Esther had to stretch herself beyond her personal fears and vulnerabilities to involve herself in a greater public mission; because of her boldness, God was able to use Esther towards the salvation of the Jewish people. Such actions of the great prophets, apostles, and saints— the impact their lives have made on the world— reveals to us something about the heart of the One who sent these men and women, who called them to respond.
As we consider our call to live boldly, both in our spiritual life and our material life, it’s important to clarify that we’re not talking about needlessly embracing all risks. Leadership guru Adam Grant points out that, while we aren’t called to “play it safe,” risks are like stock portfolios, and successful people tend to balance a big risk in one area of their life with cautious behavior in other areas. Grant mentions how T. S. Eliot explored creative risk in his poetry, while at the same time being, as Aldous Huxley put it, “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks.”
In other words, living boldly probably isn’t about quitting our day jobs or breaking free of the ordinary tasks that face us; it’s about discovering that we are free and creative persons called to live our unique personality and God-given potential to the fullest!
Dare Great Things
Pursuing greatness for our own glory won’t take us far, but daring to live of thirst for God, a life of sacrificial love that stretches us at the very heart of our being, is ever so worth it. Faith and business each include some element of risk and promise challenges. Both spiritual greatness and entrepreneurial greatness requires daring. When faced with challenges, remember that challenge can be for our own good. Be strengthened by the Word of God and the conviction that you are given to the world, tasked with a unique calling that God will give you the grace to fulfill.