Defining Greatness

“If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.” — Voltaire

“I’m great.” That’s a standard response whenever you ask someone, “How are you today?” It’s kind of funny that we throw around the word “great” so easily. Of course, in this context, it’s an acceptable response. No one actually means, “I’m the best in my field.”

So, we use “great” a lot. It is a universal concept. Though maybe it does say something about the hemispheres’ value systems that the Great Soul in the East (Mahatma Gandhi) is a man who led India to freedom and The Great One (Wayne Gretzky) in the West is a hockey player.

They Have Some Range.

For research, I posted this question on Quora:

What are the elements of greatness?

  • I’m not referring to “great” as in “honorable,” as we would describe Gandhi or Lincoln. I’m thinking of “greatest” as in “best,” more in the context of The Beatles or Michael Jordan.
  • Greatness as a concept consists of several traits. There is no other word for it, just like there’s no other word for “leadership.” It’s comprised of several things. So, what are they?
  • Think of it this way: I want a set of principles to help me define who, for example, is the greatest musical act or the greatest basketball player. It’s difficult to compare across genres and eras, hence the reason I want some guidelines for comparing, say, Elvis Presley vs. Jay-Z or Larry Bird vs. Kobe Bryant.
  • Without answering the question myself, here are some examples of what I’m looking for: range, versatility, innovation, etc.
  • I looked through as many answers on Quora as I could that related to “great.” I don’t believe this one has been answered.
  • Finally, could you please direct me to any research that’s available online? The only ones I found helpful are here and here. I didn’t think any others were good. Thanks for your help! You’re the greatest. Ha.

As I see it, there are nine elements of greatness. I’m not assigning a weight to each factor; they’re listed simply in the order they occurred to me. To define something means to analyze it, so let’s break it down, using the Beatles, universally regarded as the greatest musical act in history.

1. Range

The first three factors in this list provide some sort of dimension. Think of them as a cube. Great entities, be they people or teams or concepts, display versatility. They seem to be able to do a wide range of things. So, call this “width.” The Beatles are possibly the only musicians to reinvent themselves twice, starting in oldies, moving to psychedelia, and then ending up in classic rock.

2. Volume

If Range is “width,” then Volume is “depth.” The greats are prolific. They have a body of work. The Beatles released, whether through LPs or EPs, the equivalent of 15 albums.

3. Longevity

Finally, they span eras. They’re not a flash in the pan. They have staying power. This would be the one the Beatles don’t really own, remaining together a mere 7 ½ years. But in their case, this only serves to accentuate what a feat their productivity was. And what they lack in longevity as a cohesive rock ’n roll band, they more than make up for influence. In certain endeavors, the game only gets harder as more enter the field.

This is especially true in sports. The level of competition simply increases every year, as athletes get stronger and faster. That’s why it would be prudent to take into account not only championships (the ultimate metric), but also the number of finals a team/person made. For example, in tennis, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi came along at the same time. So did Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Did they deprive each other of titles or push each other to be better? A bit of both, most likely, but this factors in the element of timing. Similarly, Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls pushed each other too hard — they lost their lives. In fact, what keeps Tupac and Biggie from being the greatest is longevity; these poor guys weren’t around long enough to create more work.

I recall one night in college at Case Western Reserve University. About ten guys and girls were sitting in my room around 3 am, opening up to each other about our insecurities and failures. My friend, Brian, was one of the nicest guys around — not a shred of arrogance. He told us that he had wanted to go to Harvard and he did well on his SATs. But he could have had a much higher score. During the analogies section of the Verbal portion of the test, he was writing his answers on a scrap piece of paper. Time was running out as he was transferring his answers over to the actual test. As he got to the last one, he realized he had missed filling in a bubble so he was off by one, thereby getting just about all of those answers incorrect. As he told us that he could’ve had a better score had he not made that error, everybody sighed and felt such empathy for Brian. After a few seconds, I exclaimed, “Well… that’s part of it, dude!” Everyone was so pissed off at me for ruining the moment. But it is part of it, dude. And it’s same with Tupac and Biggie. Staying alive and in the game is part of it, dude.

4. Influence

Accordingly, they may not necessarily be around for too long, but their influence is felt and talked about for years to come. Their peers, whether predecessors who praise them, or contemporaries and successors who speak about how they “wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for them,” respect their efforts. Clearly, the Beatles evince this trait.

5. Skill

Skill refers to what extent they have mastered their craft. How good are they? One metric here would be indexing — compared to their contemporaries, how is their shooting percentage? Their number of Billboard hits? Their Grand Slams?

None of the Beatles is routinely cited for his instrumental ability, but Paul McCartney and John Lennon are still considered two of the best singers and songwriters in history. It also helps to have people, whether the public or peers, say things like “nobody’s doing what they’re doing.” They’re distinctive. They’re unique. They have a sound or a look/tone/feel about them.

In standup comedy, some comics pursue a tougher path. They’re not just doing relationship or dick jokes or using a lot of devices. They’re drawing laughs that are harder to get.

In tennis, I’m reminded of Monica Seles. She was blowing Steffi Graf off the court until she unfortunately got stabbed by a supposed Graf fan. Her level of skill was simply higher than Graf’s. But she’s not greater because she wasn’t around long enough.

6. Critical Success

Critics usually will find those with the best skill. It’s often referred to as “industry cred.” But not always. Led Zeppelin was panned by music critics and did not attain its legendary status until later. Office Space did modestly well at the box office but became a cult classic to the point that it is now considered one of the funniest comedies around. Of course, the Beatles met with instantly positive musical reviews.

7. Commercial Success

This one is the easiest to measure. Indeed, in each attribute of greatness, one can define metrics. But this provides the basis for a claim. The number of records an entity owns would help make a strong case for being at the top of the pile. In each field, it would vary. In music, it’s the number of albums sold, the number of #1 Billboard hits, Top Ten hits, Top 40 hits, time spent on the Billboard 100 and 200 lists, etc. The Beatles own the records for most albums sold (600–1,000 million) and most Number Ones (20). And it’s that first one that is of paramount importance. Number Ones are ephemeral.

For example, when John and Paul decided to release “Penny Lane/Strawberry Field Forever” as a record with no defined Side A and Side B, they engaged in a bit of friendly competition. Whichever song went to #1 would determine which one was Side A. Paul’s “Penny” hit #1 while John’s “Strawberry” was edged out by Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me.” Really? “Strawberry” is now considered one of the greatest songs ever and by many fans (including this one) to be the Beatles’ best song. Very few people even remember the Humperdinck song. Besides, his name is ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK. Ha.

The number of records sold is the ultimate yardstick, as it’s far more timeless. The reason I wouldn’t use overall sales, or highest gross, is because of inflation. People are still buying the Beatles’ stuff today, which is why they’ve sold far more than anyone else, somewhere between 600 million and 1 billion records. Them’s McDonald’s numbers, son.

So, there’s the difference between “timeless” and “timely.” Billboard Number Ones capture the zeitgeist. They’re timely. “Records sold” more fully encapsulates “timeless.” Think of it this way: There’s a difference between “enjoyment” and “appreciation.” I love Elvis Presley but, aside from “Jailhouse Rock,” I can’t really rock out to him. I listen to Elvis and think, “I can see how people used to be into this.” However, I can still crank up the Beatles’ “Drive My Car.” It’s as if the Beatles captured an era but Elvis was captured by one. So, I can appreciate Elvis; I can enjoy the Beatles.

8. Innovation

It pays to be early. A lot of rock ’n roll legends came along at or near the dawn of the era, i.e., 1955. But it was the creativity the Beatles displayed, from being the first act to use fading as the end of a song (vs. a definitive ending) to the first to use feedback (“I Feel Fine”) as a sound. They were game-changers.

9. Transcendence

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the greats aim for something larger than mere success. They seem to be connected to an ideal that is bigger than they are. They don’t necessarily set out to be great or change the world; it’s as if they dedicate themselves to excellence and then greatness chooses them… and they do end up changing the world. And only but a select few transcend their fields. They become larger than the generic term for what they are.

Muhammad Ali was bigger than boxing. Michael Jordan was bigger than basketball. And the Beatles were bigger than rock music.

The greats have a defining moment that is larger than their peers’: Willie Mays had The Catch. Jack Nicholson had The Monologue.

The greats seem to continue to float in the zeitgeist. They remain the topic of conversation. They’ve got replay value — if you happen to catch Back to The Future or The Shawshank Redemption on TNT, there goes your Saturday afternoon. They’re on magazine covers to this day. They’re still touted, sometimes even globally, as “the best.” Their peers fade away but their relevance is undeniable. Take a look at any number of Rolling Stone covers. The Beatles are still appearing on, if not topping, its lists. Their impact on pop culture surpasses any other musical acts’.

Perhaps to put too fine a point on it, comedian Hasan Minhaj summed it up like this as we were discussing the greatest hip-hop artist ever. Complete this list: The Beatles, U2, Madonna, and ___.

Tupac Shakur? No way. He and Biggie Smalls are great rappers, but you’d never place them on that list. They’re still wholly contained within the realm of hip-hop. You have but two transcendent choices: Jay-Z and Eminem.

So, that’s my list. It does seem to dovetail with Jay Z’s formula:

And I ain’t animated like, say, Busta Rhymes
But the real sh!t you get when you bust down my lines
Add that to the fact I went plat’ a bunch of times
Times that by my influence on pop culture
I’m supposed to be number one on everybody list
We’ll see what happens when I no longer exist

Basically, his is Skill + Commercial Success x Influence.

Now, to evaluate greatness in any number of fields, one would only have to define the metrics, brainstorm on some of the parties that come to mind, and run ’em through all nine elements.

And if a particular person or group or team didn’t come to mind, they’re not part of the conversation. After I started this piece, I found a post on Song of The Decade. They defined their factors — similar to mine — and even if you don’t agree with their #1 pick, your pick is likely in their Top Ten.

Hopefully, you liked this post. I of course thought it was great. And if you thought it sucked, well, Jerry Seinfeld would tell you that’s pretty much the same thing.

Originally published at on June 27, 2011.

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