To Someone Striving to be Great: A Shaffer Story Essay

To someone striving to be great, there is nothing more utterly corrosive than being merely “good”. Tasting greatness, even just a drop, to an individual determined to achieve it, catapults them into a reality beyond theirs, unable to ever return to the world they once existed in, where “good” was acceptable. The dreamt of experience, incapable of replicating the actual sensation. I had it for a moment… and it was beautiful and fulfilling and so far superior to anything my mind could’ve conjured on its own. But I didn’t realize, it was also toxic. I did have it, but it dissolved in my hands and I had to watch, helplessly, as it melted away in between my fingers. I desperately tried to hold onto it, but the harder I tried, the more it spilled to the ground. And the pain of losing it was so much stronger than the joy of getting it in the first place. The poisonous drug of greatness had infected me. Its cancerous germs pouring through my veins, eventually pooling in my mind. And that sickness began to chew away at me. Abandoned me in an existence that required it for happiness. I became an addict for it. The only way to appease the swelling tide of its withdrawal, hellbent on destroying all of me, was to seek it out once again. Knowing its destructive force. Ignoring its insatiable appetite. There was no other way. If I were to survive in this new reality I stumbled into, I had to have it again. So, I clawed my way back up a treacherous mountain to get it, alone this time. No Sherpa there to warn me of faults in the ice. No rope that allowed me slip and tumble back down its frozen face, only to be caught. There was no one. Only the loved ones I left at the base of the mountain, urging me to be careful because they witnessed the toll taken of my first fall. But there was nothing they could do but pray and wait. So, I climbed. Harder than I ever had before. Fueled by the desire for the incomparable high of greatness and the petrifying fear of its soul sucking absence. And this time, the climb seemed easier. Understanding what I was truly climbing towards. Comprehending the patience needed. The commitment to optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, needed. I was convinced nothing would stop me. And I was right. For once, it wasn’t going to be me, who stopped me. But the higher I climbed and the closer I got to the summit, the more anxious I became. The memories of my fall began to bleed into my focus. I couldn’t survive another fall. I couldn’t fail. I started becoming more cautious. Not wanting to come this far again, just to plummet back to the bottom in an avalanche of heartbreak. And I slowed. Considerably. But I still inched toward greatness, knowing its peak was just beyond the bed of clouds that lay ahead. I was so close. So close to breaching through the hazy veil that concealed my destiny and claiming what I had sought after for so long. I had almost done it. Done something so few can do, summit the mountain again after falling all the way down. But as I reached the clouds, something unexpected happened. The hazy fog I thought was a bed of clouds was actually a wall of smoked glass. The image on the other side, distorted and twisted. A wall that wasn’t there the first time I scaled this mountain. At first, I couldn’t believe it was there. Surely there was some mistake. I reached the ceiling and pressed my hands to it, trying to see through to the other side. But sure enough, shaped through tinted glass, I could see it. In all of its intoxicating glory and magnificence, exactly as I remembered. Just the sight of it flooded my mind again with its highly combustible energy. My body eager to consume it. But as I squinted through the glass, searching for a way through, I was met with the soles of boots. Their tread, one I recognized, imprinted on the foreheads of so many that came before me. And it was in that moment, I understood my climb was for nothing. All the blood, sweat and tears halted. Greatness wouldn’t be mine. And that foot put its boot on my forehead, like it had to countless others before me, said no and pushed. Then I fell. And did I ever fall. Slamming into rocks, crashing end over end, body a limp carcass. I fell for what seemed an eternity. Greatness just at the tip of my tongue, but gone. As if it never existed. And when I finally crumpled into the bottom, the avalanche didn’t just follow me, it buried me. Under a weight so immense, I didn’t think possible to dig out of. I wasn’t sure if was going to be able to reach greatness atop that mountain again, but I never thought I wouldn’t be allowed to. That was a realization so damaging it morphed who I was at my core. When I finally gathered up the strength to try again, it wasn’t the same. I was terrified the glass waited for me. I didn’t have the same fire to push ahead because just as tasting greatness the first time thrust me into a new reality, one where the manifestations of my dreams were tangible and breathtaking, the realization that the goal my entire life revolved around was nothing more than an illusion of my doing, was catastrophic. I hadn’t actually achieved the greatness I thought I did the first time. I scaled the mountain, and was then granted the title of great. Two very different things. I always thought greatness was obtainable, because I had the ability, the vigor and the heart to attempt to claim it. But I didn’t understand the greatness I yearned for, was vaulted away in a room under lock and key. And it didn’t matter if you scaled the mountain or not, the only ones allowed in the sanctum were those they allowed. And I do not resent the keepers of this sanctum for denying me access. It is theirs to dictate who is worthy or unworthy of its membership. I resent myself for not understanding, access to that kingdom was not greatness. I resent myself for the naïve presumptions that greatness was obtained through their validation. I allowed greatness to be a disease. By misdiagnosing it. By defining it improperly. I allowed the peak to be my definition of greatness, which to many, still is. But to anyone striving to be great, shouldn’t be. Those unwilling to embark on that challenge, choosing instead to hide in the comfort of good, let them define you by your peak. For they will never truly know the meaning of greatness. This is not a justification for the acceptance of failure, yet a reimagining of what failure and success looks like. By the metrics of reaching the summit, the very epitome of my pursuit, I was good, not great. I scratched the surface, nearly elevating to the level I craved to be at. And make no mistake, regardless of my new outlook on the meaning of greatness, I do, did and will always still want that basic definition of great. For that exclusive club, to anyone who considers themselves in search of greatness, does provide the clearest, most rewarding version of our goals. But reaching that summit is not the requirement for greatness. The only ingredient necessary is the unrelenting pursuit of that greatness. And that is a lesson I learned far too late for the endeavor of my first career, but will no doubt guide me through my next. I did not write this for the sake of digital affirmations, for the world of a keyboard and screen is a bizarre world full of bizarre human interactions. I have zero interest in virality nor do I pine for the pseudo-acceptance of that world. I certainly don’t consider myself some enlightened philosopher preaching to you about the uncovered truths of life. I’m not. I’m simply someone who needed to hear this at one point in their life but never did. Who knows, maybe I did and I was just too stubborn to hear it. Regardless, by the time I figured it out for myself, it was too late and I wish like crazy it wasn’t. So, I wrote this to anyone out there who right this moment feels like a failure, in hopes that it’s not too late for you. To anyone who feels defeated and stranded once again at the bottom of the mountain. Intimidated. Starring up at its jagged ridges and knowing the struggles of the climb to come. Unsure if you can handle that voyage again. I know that fear. I’ve been there. I’ve lived it. And to you, I say this. Greatness is not the moment you set foot atop the mountain, its perilous ascent, conquered and defeated. Greatness isn’t even reaching the peak at all. Greatness is every step up you take along the way. Every inch you decide to forge ahead instead of staying put inside the friendly confines of content. Content in the version of complacency, not the lack of greed. For I know appreciation of what you have is vital to fulfillment, the content I speak of is the failure to push yourself beyond the boundaries of your comfort. The content I speak of is the decision to reside at the bottom of the mountain because the climb is riddled with unknowns and obstacles. The lack of desire to grow for the fear of falling. That is only time you fail. And I will tell you, throughout my journey, I only failed once. And it was near the very end. I had given up hope because I was convinced that elusive greatness, with all its splendor and shine, laid waiting atop a mountain that I couldn’t know whether it was haloed with clouds or glass. So instead of mustering up the courage to hike that mountain once more, I floundered. Safeguarded myself from the threat of the glass. I made excuses, didn’t pour every ounce of myself into that pursuit because I knew that way, the fall wouldn’t hurt as bad. And I was right. When I did eventually tumble back down the mountain, I was ready for it, almost anticipating it. For I barely made it up the hill at all, I had insulated myself with such a cushion of content. But now that I know I’ll never get another opportunity to scale that mountain again, there is nothing I regret more in my life than succumbing to the comforts of content, even for that brief moment. I am great. I’ve been good, I’ve been average, I’ve been bad. But I am great. Because greatness isn’t a serum you ingest through the act of achievement, like my more inexperienced self would’ve argued. It’s never allowing yourself to miss an opportunity to pursue that greatness. So, go, be great. Go challenge that mountain. I can’t promise you won’t pour your heart into the climb only to hit glass and spill back down in pain. But I promise you, the regret of not climbing is far more painful than the fall itself. And if you’re anything like me, you’ve already spent too much of your life under the false assumption that greatness is a destination, when truly it’s a decision, to not push away any feelings of inadequacy and dive head first into the pursuit of greatness. For that act alone is what truly makes people great. And it’s what will make you great. Make us great. So, go. Pursue whatever it is in your life you desire and seek it out with every fiber you have. And if, for some reason, you don’t get it, the only thing that will determine your greatness is whether or not you try again. I’ll likely never get another opportunity to pursue what I wanted because of my one moment of content. And I’ll have to live with that. But through it all, that’s the only thing I wish I could take back. Not the disappointments, not the rejections, not every frustrated night spent questioning my years of work. I wouldn’t have changed any of that. Because without them, I wouldn’t have had to climb up that mountain one more time. And I never would’ve understood the moments I was at my greatest, weren’t the times I spent at the peak, but the times I spent slogging up the slope. So, attack your slope. Go be great. And don’t let anyone define your greatness by the heights you reach, but the size of the mountain you challenge. You won’t always be in control of how far you get, but greatness only asks that you climb.

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