Mythologizing Greatness

I asked a friend the other day if she could marry any person in the world regardless of age, class, or other such restrictions who it would be. She answered Barack Obama. That makes some sense to me. She’s pretty liberal and stuff. So it’s cool.

I don’t really know how I would answer the question myself. I feel like I would probably pick a celebrity too, like Emma Watson or Zooey Deschanel or Janelle Monae or someone like that. There are probably a lot of people who would call that shallow, I suppose. But I think it’s something really different than shallow. It has to do with the “Great Man (or Person) Theory.”

The Great Man Theory developed in the nineteenth century as a way of talking about history. It theorizes that important changes are made by a few good people or heroes. In the modern day, the GMT got translated into leadership theory, and now people talk a lot about how influential one person may be for a corporation or an organization.

The GMT, though, has been mostly¬†disproved. History is not changed by one person. It’s changed by a bunch of driven people working together, some more publicly than others.

The big problem with the GMT, though, is it mythologizes people. We think that there is this class of people out there that never deals with any of the things that we deal with – that they are always focused on changing history for the better. This is just false. People are people are people. Abraham Lincoln failed at almost everything he did until he became president, including a marriage.

Sometimes when I’m really down for whatever reason I like to tell myself that maybe I’m just not one of those people who can change things – that I’m not committed enough, not focused enough, that I let the day-to-day weigh on me too much. But I think that’s mostly a lie. The people we look up to, the people who are making a difference are not people who are living without relationship issues, or self-confidence issues, or family issues. They are just people who have decided that there are more important things. And they are people who have figured out how to convince other people that there are more important things as well.

I’ve been learning a lot about Teach for America recently. And whether you agree with their mission or not, there’s one thing you have to admit. Wendy Kopp has figured out how to make people realize that education is far more important than your romantic relationships, your career problems, or sometimes even your ambition. If you talk to a TFA recruiter, you probably won’t be able to get off the topic of education for hours and hours. Because Wendy has made it that important.

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