When the Pursuit of Greatness Does More Harm Than Good

“Seek not greatness, but seek truth and you will find both.” ~Horace Mann

You’re destined for greatness. Don’t settle for mediocrity. You can be extraordinary.

Have you ever heard one of these motivating statements? I see them all the time around the web, and while I understand the intention, I sometimes have mixed feelings about the implication.

We all want to make a difference in the world. We all want to make some kind of impact, both to contribute to mankind and to feel that our lives mean something.

It’s a great, big world out there, and at times it can feel like we don’t matter unless we’re doing something huge. We might even be tempted to label our lives as unworthy if we’re not doing something that garners attention and admiration.

This was the foundation of my early interest in performing. It wasn’t just that I loved expressing myself creatively, though I did; I’ve always had a wellspring of emotion that craved some type of artistic outlet.

It was more that I needed that feeling of standing above a crowd that was fixated on me. I desperately craved their approval and applause, their confirmation that I was a valuable person—that I was someone with talent.

Talent made me special. It made me stand out. When I held a microphone or moved center stage, I felt good about me.

But when the house lights came on at the end of the night, that feeling depended on whether or not I received verbal confirmation of my greatness. If another actor received more flowers or compliments, I feared that I wasn’t good enough.

This, right here, is what I dislike about the implication we can and should strive for greatness—it seems to imply that where we are right now isn’t already great.

And the race to be extraordinary, to me this just feeds into the type of thinking that suggests we need to stand out, to prove we’re somehow better than ordinary.

Now I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t try to make an impact on the world, or that we should stifle our energy or efforts in order to play small.

This isn’t a judgment that small is better than big, though clearly I’m a proponent of focusing on the tiny things.

It’s just that we tend to feel more satisfied in the big things we create over time if we’re not focusing on the whole, but rather the many enjoyable parts that create it.

And we tend to be more effective if we’re drawn by a meaningful motive, rather than the need to reach some level of achievement.

When we strive for greatness, we feel a sense that we need to make a difference someday.

When we focus on our purpose, we feel a sense that we can make a difference right now.

When we aim to be extraordinary, we can get caught up competing and comparing, as if what we’re doing isn’t good enough.

When we endeavor to be meaningful, we make choices based on what aligns with our intentions, and feel good about each step along the way.

When we try to avoid mediocrity, we focus on what we don’t want to be, and create fear and pressure to excel.

When we embrace our passion, we focus on what we do want to do, and create excitement that naturally creates momentum.

If we have a compelling reason to do something, the doing itself feels great.

Now a caveat: As black and white as this may seem, naturally it isn’t. We may always feel that need for approval, at least on some level. We’re social creatures, and especially in our social media-driven world, we’re even more status-driven than ever.

This isn’t about completely relinquishing the desire to achieve and receive attention for it. It’s about recognizing how and when this desire creates more stress than inspiration.

At the end of the day, that’s what we really want—not just to seem inspiring, but also to feel inspired. We can only do that if we release the blocks that keep us gazing toward the future, looking for confirmation of our worth.

What’s your meaningful motive, and what can you do today to act on it with passion?

 Photo by Eddi van W.

About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha and Recreate Your Life Story, an online course that helps you let go of the past and live a life you love. Her latest bookTiny Buddha's Gratitude Journal, which includes 15 coloring pages, is now available for purchase. For daily wisdom, follow Tiny Buddha on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram..

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  • M Sonnier

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one who has noticed this. I see those motivational phrases all the time too, and I also have mixed feelings about them. When people look down on others or put pressure on them to succeed on a large scale, it makes me really upset.

    I actually wrote a similar post on my blog awhile back—about how we all matter and how we all make a difference in some way. You can read it here if you’d like:


  • Mother

    I think the key is to live OUR OWN best life. (Credit Oprah). Whenever I begin to get my ego too wrapped up in wanting huge kudos, I try to bring myself back to my own purpose…no matter what it is…for whatever I am doing. I’ll never be famous, and I hope not infamous; yet I can do my best to live my own mission.
    Hmm…isn’t that what you just said?

  • This blog spoke to my soul. I am an actress and this hits home. There is a balance between the need to perform and feeling worthy even if no one applauds. Thank you for this today!

  • Gwen

    “When we try to avoid mediocrity, we focus on what we don’t want to be, and create fear and pressure to excel. When we embrace our passion, we focus on what we do want to do, and create excitement that naturally creates momentum.”

    This really struck me as an important pair of statements. I have tended to navigate through life by avoiding what I don’t want, instead of going after what I do want. Not always, bt too often. I have understood that I operate too much in fear mode, but somehow never connected the dots like this.

    Interesting idea to contemplate further. Thank you!

  • John Doe

    Lori, you have already achieved greatness. To put together such a meaningful site that, I am sure, has helped thousands of people and will continue to do so in the future is not an easy task and you have done an excellent job with it. I can see how pursuing something you love instead of just chasing greatness has already enabled you to make a bigger impact on our world than most of us ever will. Thanks for your wonderful post!

  • Susanna

    “It’s about recognizing how and when this desire creates more stress than inspiration.”…”We can only do that if we release the blocks that keep us gazing toward the future, looking for confirmation of our worth.” Hmm.. now this is some new insights to be contemplated. Thank you, Lori. =)

  • Irving Podolsky

    Wow, Lori! You’re talking about my personal quest: gaining self respect for who I am NOW, as opposed to a rich and famous SYMBOL of ever expanding success – Lady Gaga/Neal Diamond type success. And this drive to be validated in a humongous way leads me to the question: WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT TO ME?

    More importantly: Why is every goal I achieve not enough to make me feel good about myself? How much money and popularity will it take before I feel worthy to wake up the next morning? When will I feel I’m making a significant difference even though I AM!

    And finally…when is it okay to blame my parents?

    I’m no psychologist, Lori, but it doesn’t take a PhD in psychology to figure out that a baby can get pretty insecure if it’s needs are not met, if it’s not hugged enough or at all, if routine structure is not established in the home, or if parents are not at home at all!

    I was raised with all of the above, on the negative side. I’m not blaming my parents. They did the best they could. But I’ve finally come to understand that I grew up craving a need to be loved and touched. And the mind-blowing thing about that, is that although I have all the love I could ever want from others right now, I don’t love myself.

    I’m still not good enough!

    “Someday you’re gonna make it, kid.” That’s what my dad always told me. It would happen in the future, and that “making it” would vast money and power, which is entirely what I am NOT.

    I’m an artist, drawn to the experience of creating something new. But sadly, I don’t value what I create unless it can bring me tons of money and fame. That has yet to happen. So in my mind, until it does, I’m in a constant cycle of subtle failures, which I deny with new-age rationalizations and distractions.

    It’s not as sad as it sounds, though. This condition isn’t overwhelming or consuming. But it does have a tendency to suck the happiness out of my life, until a success comes along that I accept as a “success.” And then I sink back to Earth to look up at the sky again, wishing I could fly.


  • jksca

    Wow. This was perfect timing. I am struggling a lot with changes at work. I was told I would be promoted, but then was overlooked without any explanation of why. I am having a hard time regaining my confidence and constantly worrying what I did not do well. I thought I would be “recognized” for my past work and now am finding my declassified status as a failure, when in reality, I can help more people each day. That should be what I focus upon, instead of the title I did not get. Thank you for helping me remember that!

  • sabrina

    This spoke to me. Thank you for sharing your thoughts 🙂 I am going to take this with me and spread these insightful ideas.

  • You’re most welcome Susanna. =)

  • What a powerful post Madison! It sounds like that janitor was a wonderful man.

  • I like how you said it =) And that’s a wonderful piece of advice from Oprah!

  • Thank you so much for the compliment John. It means a lot to me to know the site makes a difference! And you’re most welcome. =)

  • You’re most welcome! I’ve definitely done the same thing. It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in those fears. I’m glad this was helpful to you. =)

  • You’re most welcome Neerja! Interestingly, I took an acting class over the summer (just for fun) and this particular program prohibited feedback of any kind–both praise and criticism. It was fascinating to me, because it was meant to take us out of our heads and keep us focused on creating and trying new things. I think that’s a great approach to have for life in general!

  • You’re most welcome Sabrina. =)

  • Mahesh

    This is so insighting to read this article. It is liked and soaked in mind, body and soul. Thank you for sharing such a nice article.

  • Da Young

    I love this post. I was starting to wonder whether it is silly to attend medical school without desire to become “the best” or get to certain hospital or income level. I told my dad that I was no longer in the pursuit for greatness, and he asked me why I am taking such a long and tiresome path. I just told him that I want to use the tools I acquire from med school to do something good. It sounds cliche, but really the only thing I want to do enjoy life and help people enjoy their life. My dad doesn’t seem able to accept that a life just in itself is worth living, without chasing something or trying to become someone big and successful. I’m only 19 but the pursuit of success wore me out last year. When I entered med school people told me that I was going the right way, doing the right things, that I was in the road to success. I thought that entering med school was success and that was what people had told me until then. I began to think that success was just around the corner, when I graduate from med school, but then I realized after med school was internship and residency and… I realized it doesn’t end, that success can never be achieved because there is always some way to be “better” and “bigger”. Success, greatness, the desire to be extraordinary, so big that no one could say otherwise, to be admired… what I had thought (and truly felt until then) just felt so utterly empty, tiresome, unending, unreachable… completely meaningless. I was so worn out and tired of trying to prove myself… All for what?
    I thought I was chasing greatness but I was only acting on fear and insecurity. After realizing that everything changed. I am happy now. Everything was, is, and will be just right because it’s perfectly imperfect.

    Thank you for such an awesome post!

  • You’re most welcome Mahesh!

  • You’re most welcome! That’s wonderful you’ve recognized what you do and don’t want to do, particularly at such a young age. I’m sure you’ll form many new conclusions about what makes you happy professionally as the years progress. I know I did! I think it’s all about course-correcting as we go. We try something, see how it makes us feel, and then decide from there what makes the most sense.

  • Lori … this is so good! And it’s not just the socially driven world alone, I think it’s the Egocentric world we live in. And by that I mean a world of appearance over substance.

    Your point is so valid. Being admonished to go after greatness is like when we’re told to make big money goals so that we’re driven to achieve. We miss our days. We miss out on the fabric of present moment awareness. We miss our lives.

    We’re all already great, aren’t we? I hope I’m not wrong but what I got out of your post is to be authentic and to live in presence in this very moment. And doing so will contribute more to the world than big plans that, even if we reach, will be tarnished if we’ve forgotten to live.

    You’re making a difference, Lori … every day. Thanks. 🙂

  • You’re most welcome! That’s great you will be able to help more people, even if you did not get the promotion, and that you see the value in that. Your company is fortunate to have you. =)

  • As always, this is all so insightful Irv! I know I can trace a lot of my own worth issues back to my childhood, as I’m sure many of us could.

    I think a lot of artists have that same mentality, with their work and the money it earns. (I know I’ve been there before.) I was actually just talking to a friend about this the other day. He said he’d feel like a failure until he “made it,” regardless of how much others already appreciate his work. It’s something we’ve had drilled into us for so longer–that money=value.

    What type of art do you create?

  • Marlene

    I am so shocked at how this came into my life on the perfect day at the perfect hour. This was I needed to hear and be reminded of. Beautifully written and so full of wisdom and truth. I appreciate this so very much!! Thank you!

  • Irving Podolsky

    Interesting…sort of a test now. This is the second time I’m answering this question.

    What art do I create? Well, I’m an author of novels but I think you know that. In high school and college I majored in the fine arts while playing in rock and blues bands which I still do. Currently I work in the LA feature film business with an entirely different identity.

  • Sorry about that Irv! Not meant as a test. When I read that I thought you were referring to art in form, like painting, sculpting, etc, perhaps something I did not know about. I bet it’s exciting to work in film! I’m a huge movie buff, and I hope to have a screenplay made someday!

  • Irving Podolsky

    The test was the website, not you. The first time I entered the info, it didn’t stick!

    A little hint about selling a screenplay… Hollywood, like everyone else, replies on “social proof” to validate what might be popular as a film. If you can write a novel that gets traditionally published, even it it’s not a best seller, you have a much better chance of gaining relevance from an agent and/or producer.

    If your book is a hit, the producers will have an easier time getting the financing to make the movie. That’s really the hard part now. Everyone’s looking for money. So if you keep your story paired down to a few characters and contemporary locations, it will be much cheaper to make and consequently, get the budget financed.

    (You probably knew this.)


  • Oh, well that makes more sense! =) Thanks for the tips regarding my screenplay. I actually don’t know a ton about the industry, but my boyfriend studied film, so he knows a lot more than me. We wrote the screenplay together and we’re just shopping it around now!

  • Jeffrey Willius

    Great post, Lori — something I’m really struggling with right now. My upbringing taught me never to be satisfied with what I accomplish. Always trying to step back from myself and see if I’m being driven by the artistic “adrenaline” that creating injects in one, or the more addictive need for affirmation from others. Probably, as you say, it’s all about balancing.

  • Sally

    This is a great site. I don’t even remember how I stumbled upon it but it brings me hope every day. Thank you!

  • You’re most welcome Sally! Thanks for taking the time to write. =)

  • Thanks Jeffrey! I learned the same thing in my childhood. I think it’s so ingrained in most of us that it can be challenging sometimes to even recognize and change that type of thinking. Balance isn’t always easy, but it feels like a much more attainable goal than completely releasing the quest for recognition/affirmation.

  • You’re most welcome Marlene. I’m glad this was helpful to you!

  • That’s exactly what I hoped to convey Carmelo! I love what you wrote, about how we can contribute so much just be being authentic and living in the moment. Thank you for the kind words. =)