The Myth of Greatness

At the 1972 Munich Olympics, Frank Shorter did the unthinkable for an American: he won the marathon. At the same race, his friend, countryman, and occasional training partner Kenny Moore ran an incredibly strong race to take the heartbreaking 4th place spot. In his book Best Efforts, Moore describes a conversation he had with Shorter the day after the marathon:

“You know,” I said, “all this time I thought the Olympic Champion was somebody incredibly special.” Frank gave me a consoling look, as though he would have liked to protect me from this final disillusionment. “And then you found out,” he said, “that it was only me.”

Often in life, we build up the greats, anointing them to a throne, allowing them to sit on a perch above us. We watch from afar, imagining the great powers, talent, or work that allowed them to get that point. Frequently, we are left wondering, what was their secret? What did they know that we haven’t yet grasped?

When we give into the myth of greatness, we fall trap to several mistakes. First, that there is some secret, that what we are missing is some piece of knowledge that they have, that we do not. Secondly, that in order to reach great heights we need to be near perfect; superhuman, the athlete who has a perfect diet, washboard abs, and has never missed a workout.

Both of these ideas do harm by setting up false expectations, which brings me back to the conversation between Shorter and Moore. I think the point they were trying to make is a simple yet profound one. What they had been doing, each and every day, was enough to reach greatness. The normal human that Moore had been training beside was indeed all of the things we’d expect from an athlete of that caliber, dedicated with an enormous work ethic. But he wasn’t perfect. He was human, with flaws, imperfections, and workouts that he bombed.

When we realize that we are all humans, it doesn’t diminish what Shorter and other amazing champions have accomplished, but instead, makes you appreciate it even more. As I often tell my collegiate runners, the best of the best go through the same doldrums, lack of motivation, fear of failure, the anxiety of racing, and inner demons of self-doubt that you go through. They feel and experience it all. They are human. Release yourself from unrealistic expectations and you free yourself up to perform to your own capabilities.

Steve Magness is a coach to world-class runners, as well as the author of the new book, Peak Performance. He can be found on twitter @stevemagness