Select Page



by William H. Benson

May 22, 2003

     On May 21, 1927 Charles Lindbergh landed his aircraft, The Spirit of St. Louis, near Paris, France, where crowds mobbed his arrival, for his was the first solo airplane flight across the Atlantic Ocean.  The thinkers of that day understood that travel by air across oceans was now a real possiblity, and Lindbergh’s historic flight hinted at greater things, an opening up of potential.

     Fifty years ago on May 29, 1953 at 11:30 a.m. Edmund Hillary, a New Zealand beekeeper, along with Tenzing Norgay, stepped on to the summit of Mount Everest.  Queen Elizabeth later knighted him Sir Edmund Hillary, for he was the first to stand on the top of the tallest mountain.

     Elvis Presley’s promoter proclaimed him the King of Rock and Roll, and so he was, the first and the only King of entertainment..  Muhammed Ali shouted to the world, “I am the greatest!”, and so he thought he was.  Commentators now rank Tiger Woods as the greatest all-time golf champion, and he probably is.  Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player ever, has now retired once again.

     Being the first, the best, or the greatest is of utmost importance in our culture which prizes the champion, the winner, the news-maker, and then disregards the loser, the failure, the also-ran, or the second-rate.  And we know that the sequel is never quite as good as the original.  So say the critics of Matrix Reloaded.

     The person who first achieves some remarkable feat is now held up as an example of greatness because being first means assuming risks and conquering them.  The competition is fierce.  But Lindbergh could just as easily have plunged into the ocean, and Hillary could have fallen off the mountain.  But they both lived thereafter under the public glare of fame and adulation.

     A mind-boggling mountain of minutia called statistics ranks performers, sports personalities, and politicians, sorting people into world-record holders for a dizzying array of endless athletic and political and social and cultural contests.  And the point of all that compilation is that if your name is listed there, you are great, and if your name is not there, you are less than great.

     About statistics Eric Hoffer, the longshoreman turned philosopher, said, “Our present addiction to pollsters and forecasters is a symptom of our chronic uncertainity about the future.  Even when the forecasts are proven wrong, we still go on asking for them.  We watch our experts read the entrails of statistical tables and graphs the way the ancients watched their soothsayers read the entrails of a chicken.”

     Numbers applied inappropriately often can be converted into lies. Statistics can point out a trend that suddenly reverses itself.  And the forecasters can be just as easily mistaken because the public has a habit of making up its own mind about what is great and what is fifth-rate.  And individuals can decide for themselves about themselves and formulate their own definition of personal greatness.  This we label self-esteem.

     A better definition of personal greatness revolves around the twin concepts of potential and influence:  how much personal potential does an individual actually achieve, and how positive an influence does that person direct upon other people?  By that definition personal greatness means knowing who you are, living out your key purpose in life, and influencing as many people as you can for good by activity and giving.

     It is now the season for high school and college graduations.  Class rank, GPA, grades, and the list of accomplishments are now in the record books, for what was attempted the past four years has now been sorted into varying degrees of achievement.  And the great thing about graduation is that it is a levelling experience; each graduate, no matter his class rank or how many basketball points he or she scored last season, wears a cap and a gown and sports a tassel.  All are equal.  For an hour or two each graduate is the first, the best, and the greatest.

     Charles Lindbergh once wrote, “Life is like a landscape.  You live in the midst of it, but you can describe it only from the vantage point of distance.”  To experience graduation is to step up higher, on to a distant point that allows a better view of what can be achieved.