Greatness doesn’t always look like you want it to.

“Everyone can be great” is the sort of handed flowery thing we often say without considering it’s actual meaning. In the wake of Muhammad Ali’s death, many of us have been reflecting on his life and what it means to be great. What does greatness look like? How do we define who will succeed in life, and how does that inform how we treat them?

Truth be told, many of history’s greats didn’t look like anything that came before them. Muhammad Ali made his debut as Cassius Clay. He was a slick talking, swift-footed,unapologetically black man in a world that was not only, not ready to accept him, but the structure of society stood in direct opposition to his identity. It became even more combative as he made his transition in faith. From Martin Luther King Jr. to Steve Jobs, those that stood as titans among us were often polarizing figures during their lifetime. And though we often suffer from collective amnesia, the story is the same over and over again. Prince was deemed too sexual. Michael Jackson? Too strange. Even Jesus, whether you believe in him or not, was seen a heretic and crucified for standing in direct opposition to the prevailing views and power of the time. But in death, we mourn our heroes and praise them for their individualism and unique perspectives. We laud them for changing the way we live, love, and learn today. And because of this, I pose this question.

“Why do we try to force those who don’t conform into a box?”

It’s true. Whenever we find someone that’s great or promising we immediately set about the process to change them into something we can understand.

Take this example for instance. This young man is the valedictorian at his school. His grades are the absolute best. Even despite social structure, background, community, and prevailing statistics he’s excelled at his education. But the schools bylaws value conformity over accomplishment, and thusly he’s punished. Our American education is fraught with rigidly defined, and often outdated, standards of value and success. Standardized tests reward one type of thinking. And even though I excelled at them, I know many students that competed at a much higher level than me academically. I’m just exceptionally talented at test-taking. Curriculums and a heavy-handed focus on STEM education are beginning to marginalize artists and creative thinkers. Why? Because we recognize doctors, engineers, and developers as understandably great. Everything else is just a hobby. We preach this, while celebrating how brilliant Michaelangelo was and how Leonardo da Vinci was one of the greatest minds in human history. Even Charles Darwin, a pioneer in our understanding of life and evolution, meticulously chronicled and illustrated his findings in intricate detail.

So where does this duplicity come from? Quite frankly, I believe we’re just afraid of nonconformity. We fear things we can’t wrap our minds around. And so, we tend to search for greatness in things that remind us of ourselves.

“Yeah, I love this art thing you do. Have you tried it, in a suit, in an office, in the way that I would do it?”
“I see you have great business acumen, but could you do it without the ebonics and natural hair?”
“Your grades are terrific, but could you watch less cartoons and dress like everybody else?”

Honestly, we’re just taking a one size fits all approach to becoming successful. Is it not the peak of hypocrisy to ask young black kids not to speak slang, even going so far as to label them illiterate and on a pipeline to prison, but have Ellen and Hilary Clinton learn how to dab on national television? This is a dance born from the same communities and slang that sentence the people that created it to eternal poverty. How strange is it to tell the Latino community that they shouldn’t be allowed to speak Spanish while turning a restaurant called Chipotle into a multi-billion dollar fast casual empire? I believe this is all of this due to language barriers. And instead of learning the language, we ban the expression. We close our eyes to the possibility of gleaning greatness directly from the source.

The most dangerous form of this practice is using the success of others as a weapon.

“Well, Barack Obama made it, so why not you?”
“Your Brother is a lawyer, why can’t you be more like him?”

The danger here is comparing people, without considering circumstance or individual talents. Some people would consider Richard Branson as successful, if not more so, that Barack Obama. But his path to success was much different. Some would say both paths were strange and unorthodox. That strangeness makes us nervous, but that doesn’t make it wrong. In a nation that supposedly celebrates individualism and dreamers, it’s time we start looking at new ways to empower non-traditional paths.

This homeless valedictorian is yet another example of someone defying the rigidly defined pathway to success.

As a black male that grew up in the ghetto, and never acquired a degree some people would’ve said that my path was set as well. But I am more than those supposedly damning identifiers. I love anime, rock music, trap music, jazz, and documentaries. I speak well, but also curse, and use a plethora of slang. I excelled at every subject, scored a 32 on my ACT, but barely managed to escape high school with a G.P.A of 1.8 — my disinterest was very real. I wear suits everyday and don’t own jeans. By all accounts, I shouldn’t be successful anywhere. Not in corporate situations, and not in the streets. But here I am, with two businesses, employing my fellow Detroiters, and making waves with my writing. My business partner and I are even recipients of this year’s Crain’s Twenty in their 20’s award. But here’s the thing, I’m not a fluke. There are a lot of people like myself, often overlooked because they don’t match the archetype of success. I think it’s time we start to expand our view of who we expect to succeed. Stats are important, but people always have time to grow when given the opportunity to thrive.

Greatness does not always look like us or what we want it to. We need to be aware of that when we’re trying to make others smaller to make ourselves comfortable. There are layers to excellence, we only do ourselves a disservice when we don’t acknowledge them.

— — —

Follow or connect for more articles on Branding, Marketing, and Diversity.

Eric Thomas is a Branding Specialist and Senior Partner at Saga MKTGbased in Detroit MI. He’s also an entrepreneur who never believes “the way it has been done” is the “way it must be done.”

Connect: Linkedin | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram

Like what you read? Give Eric Thomas a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.