“Show me the path that leads to all the glory.”

Noel Gallagher

A few people have all the skills. We know their names. They’re famous, the giants of our culture. Their number is small, but seemingly, they’re everywhere. They’re all over our social media feeds. They’re in the headlines. They’re covered on YouTube. These people make news. They create conversation. We know they’re human, but they seem to be more than human. They’re phenoms.

They’re famous people in sports, the arts, business, gaming, culture, music, commentary, and even politics. Because they do things the rest of us can’t, we appreciate their talents and ignore their constant public appearances. Most of us don’t take their greatness personally. We take it in stride.

We’ll go to their concerts, watch their ball games, or stream their music. Otherwise, we don’t give their collective legend much thought. There are always phenoms out there. It’s how life works.

Some of us watch a little more closely. We’re inspired by these giants of culture. We’re awed by their achievements. We have our own ambitions in sports, the arts, business, music, or culture. We’d like to make the impact these people made. In our own way, we’d like to be a phenom, too.

What’s wrong with this? Objectively, nothing, and personally? Often, everything.

For a few ambitious souls, it’s the big question. Can I become a giant? If so, how? What do I need to do? 

It sounds vain. “You want to make it big.” It isn’t exactly like that, you know. Your goal is to perform at the highest level. It takes popularity to make it happen. Being well-known for your talent isn’t optional, and yet, it doesn’t have to be the main focus. Instead, you’re striving for greatness.

It’s fulfilling your dream that matters. The inspiration behind achieving it is so simple. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired, right? It feels like the most natural thing. We see phenoms doing incredible things every day. They show what is possible. If they can do it, why couldn’t you? New people are always joining the club. These people had to start somewhere.

You have a talent for the thing you want to do. You wouldn’t have a big dream without some aptitude. You’re drawn to be a musician, a writer, an actor, or an influencer. You’re ready to devote your life to success. You even started working on your dream at a young age. You have years of experience already.

Only, you know it isn’t that easy. Having a dream is natural, yes, even healthy, but achieving it isn’t simple. You would be a fool to deny the odds are stacked against you. Regardless of your drive, you may never find success. There is only so much attention to go around. You might be the most accomplished person you know. Still, you could be ignored at the highest levels, forever.

It’s a harsh truth. In the realm of the phenom, you may not be a talent. You’re likely just average.

Only later on does another big question arise. How do I know when I’ve failed?

For some, it’s a taboo subject. There’s nothing stopping you from plying your trade until the wheels fall off. You can continue to create, act, write, or play a sport. You can build another small business, or start another YouTube channel. On any given day, you might get noticed. If you quit, all the effort up to that point could go wasted. In a way, you can’t quit.

Even later on, another question comes up. Why did I want to be a phenom in the first place?

Anyone who has tried to be great at something will tell you. Once you reach for that prize, your life is no longer your own to define. If you fail, your life will seem to be a failure to many. If you succeed, well, you probably won’t. If you do, you won’t be the same person who once had that innocent dream.

Striving for greatness changes you, they say. Many can relate. Dreamers make sacrifices. They quit their jobs to pursue an unpaid art form. They spent thousands on graduate school, or to self-finance a movie, an album, or a business. They pursue their dreams at night, on the weekends, and on vacations. The process does change you. A dream makes you more resilient, and more patient. At the same time, it can also leave you a little bitter.

You begin to suspect the deck is stacked. You need more than talent. You need to be chosen.

It certainly seems the best are gifted in a different way. They know it early on. Just like, early on, most of us know that we’re not. In the 1980s, Michael Jordan was clearly on another level. He made other top basketball players look average. In the same era, Eddie Van Halen displayed the skills of a legendary guitarist. Fans of both were in awe. It included nearly everyone.

Both came from backgrounds that suggested future glory. Jordan was raised in a two-parent family where discipline and character were driven into him. Van Halen came from a musical line. Jordan might have been cut from his high school basketball team, and Eddie might have been a self-taught guitarist, but they both had the nature to excel. In hindsight, it wasn’t a surprise. Both were extremely hard workers and also gifted beyond effort.

(And as for Noel Gallagher, quoted at the top? He never took a music lesson.)

Examples are everywhere. Twenty years later, Magnus Carlsen became the youngest grandmaster in chess history. Carlsen was aided by his father from a young age. His aptitude was clear from the beginning. The chess app “Play Magnus” allows people to test their skills against Magnus at various ages of development. Magnus, at five years old, is beatable by a casual adult player. Eight-year-old Magnus is unbeatable to all but well-practiced chess players. 

History never wavers on who is chosen as a favorite. True phenoms reset the expectation of greatness. Like Michael Jordan did to his opponents, Magnus Carlsen can routinely will a victory and make other top players look average. Carlsen is believed to be the strongest player in chess history, remarkable in a game filled with phenoms. All of Carlsen’s contemporaries were prodigies as kids. Today, as the top players in their respective countries, they fight for victories in Carlsen’s shadow.

Even in a group of phenoms, you can end your career feeling average. 

It informs the sober dreamer that you must go beyond above-average skill. To gain the major recognition you need, you must be considered a phenom by a lot of people, which, by the very definition, is rare. The dreamer’s goal of striving for greatness is often doomed before it begins because of a lack of otherworldly ability. Making reality more sobering, we often suspect this of ourselves already. Most of us know we aren’t phenoms in our respective pursuits. We’re enthusiasts, lacking those elite qualities.

Many of us knew it all along. It was our enthusiasm, not our talent, that carried us forward. We hoped an exception could be made. We hoped that effort would be enough. And even though we’ve seen that the goal remains firmly out of reach, we can’t stop trying to be that exception to greatness.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *