Absolutely everything and everyone has a story. We rarely think about it, but it’s true. The chair you’re sitting in, the man who pumps your gas, the newspaper you read every morning: they all came from somewhere. Every single thing that is created must have a creator. And since I was a little girl, I have been fascinated by the lives of anyone and everyone who changes the world in some way. The way I see it, we’re all born into something: it could be wealth and priviledge, talent, amazing opportunity, beauty…whatever. We’re all born into a set of circumstances, and all born with gifts. I read a quote once that I loved that said “with every child that is born, the potential of the human race is born again”. I truly believe that, because every single person has the potential to change the world. You may not believe it, but you do. There are some characteristics I’ve recognized in great leaders, and here they are:
1) Great people are often born in less than great circumstances. We’ve all heard stories about people born into poverty, civil unrest, or in a time when their gender or race had no rights. People who are destined to be great never accept the circumstances they’re born into; they fight them. And because they are great, others will follow. Like Emmeline Pankhurst, a suffragette who rallied women to fight for the vote, or Dr. Martin Luther King, who united so many Americans to put an end to racial segregation. These people didn’t look around them, shrug, and go about their business. They devoted their lives to making things right in the worlds they lived in.
2) Great people create opportunities where others see none. I talk to so many people who will tell me what they really and truly want to do with their lives…and then with their next breath tell me why they can’t. I find this endlessly frustrating. The world is full of stories of people like Queen Elizabeth I, who was the ruler of England in a time where women were property! Men were trying to assassinate her for much of her reign because she was a woman, she was protestant, she was a bastard…but instead of running away and hiding or laying down and crying, she became one of the greatest rulers England ever had.
3) Great people give up their own comfort to accomplish what they need to. It’s very comfortable to stay home, not step up, and never do anything you’re not completely sure of. And that is our modern affliction: comfort. Why fight for anything when you could just stay home and watch Oprah? It’s just too hard. Well, it’s a very good thing it wasn’t too hard for Winston Churchill to go into politics, become Prime Minister and enter the second World War, or the world could be completely different right now.
4) Great people embrace fear and lean into pain. Human beings like what’s easy; of course we do! We want to get rich quick, avoid pain as much as possible, and find the quickest way to have a simple, happy life. It’s not wrong to want that, it IS wrong to live that way though. Fear and pain are a part of life, and if we avoid them, we’ll have to face them some day anyway. I say better to face them head-on when they come, like the Mirabal sisters fighting the fascist dictatorship controlling the Dominican Republic. These sisters risked their lives to be leaders in a time when they were definitely not supposed to be; they gave their people hope that there was a better way to live. They were killed for standing up for what they believe in…but now the Dominican Republic is free.
5) Great people are not always happy people, but are always passionate people. My ex husband once told me that I’m the kind of person who will never be happy. I think he meant it as a sad observation, but I took it as an observance of potential greatness. No one who is content with the status quo will ever change the world. Now, of course you can be happy and see things that are wrong with the world. But the question is, what are you willing to risk to change what you see? If you’re too happy with what you have, the likelihood of you screwing that up to devote your life to a cause goes way down. This is why most people will get married, have kids, work at a job, buy stuff, and die. And that will be their lives. I used to really wish that was what I wanted…and I wondered what was wrong with me that most people I knew were content to get “good jobs” and not need to search for more and I did. Why most people gave up wanting to change the world in Elementary School and I still can’t. Why people I know can stay in relationships that make them less than they are…but I didn’t. I don’t get any of it, not at all. And now that I’m older, I’m really, really glad I don’t. Some of the greatest artists, politicians, and scientists on earth have been desperately unhappy for various reasons; but they’ve all been passionate. They’ve all been driven to contribute. They’ve all changed the world in their own way. Depression is not a prerequisite for greatness…but neither is happiness a reward of it.
So this is my new blog focus: once a week, starting this Sunday, I will present you, dear reader, with a biography on one great person. He or she will not always be good or just, but will always be a leader, and a catalyst for some kind of change. These people will have done things as seemingly small as inventing breakfast cereal, or as big as leading a country into a golden age. The characteristics modeled by these great leaders should be meditated upon, because it’s likely you’ve not met anyone in person who has them. In a world of increasing apathy and disconnectedness, we need to learn about these leaders to understand what is possible, what is desirable, and what is in danger of being lost in our society full of comforting distractions. We don’t have less to fight in our modern age…we’ve just all been lulled to sleep by consumerism and entertainment.
It’s time to wake up.