On the Good Life Project, Jonathan Fields interviews famed designer and author Debbie Millman, someone I deeply admire and who’s work has helped me understand the power behind brands. Fields asks excellent questions that helps us, the eager students, understand someone’s successful career and journey. As Millman shares her story of reinventing herself in her 30s in the pursuit of doing what she loves, going through a divorce, being homeless and jobless, she talks about a desire for greatness and says it in a way that reflects what many of us may feel.
Jonathan Field asks Millman if she ever saw greatness within herself. Millman responds [emphasis by me]:
“No, no, no. And that has been a lifelong process in trying to uncover. I desire greatness, and I’m dogged, and incredibly persistent, and want so badly to be great, but there never has been a moment in my life that I actually have felt that I was great. But I desire it so much and want it so badly, that I can’t help but try to keep achieving something that might be close to it.”
Do you have a desire for greatness? I think many of us do, but like Millman, we rarely feel that greatness residing within us. And so we go searching for it, for good or ill. Some people find it in an artistic endeavor, like drawing or writing books or starting a business. Others may find it, however fleeting, in the purchase of name-brand items and the amount of likes they get on a selfie.
What’s vitally important is that if you identify with this desire for greatness, if you crave it even in the midsts of all your trials and tribulations, perhaps this quote from Epictetus could provide a sense of guidance [emphasis by me]:
Philosophy’s main task is to respond to the soul’s cry; to make sense of and thereby free ourselves from the hold of our griefs and fears.
Philosophy calls us when we’ve reached the end of our rope. The insistent feeling that something is not right with our lives and the longing to be restored to our better selves will not go away. Our fears of death and being alone, our confusion about love and sex, and our sense of impotence in the face of our anger and outsized ambitions bring us to ask our first sincere philosophical questions.
It’s true: there is no obviously apparent meaning to our lives. Cruelty, injustice, bodily discomfort, illness, annoyances, and inconveniences big and small are the prosaic facts of any day. So what do we do about this? How do we—in spite of the pain and suffering in the outside world and our own wayward emotions—live ennobled lives rather than succumbing to a despairing numbness and merely coping like a mule with tedium and unbidden responsibilities?
When the soul cries out, it is a sign that we have arrived at a necessary, mature stage of self-reflection. The secret is not to get stuck there dithering or wringing your hands, but to move forward by resolving to heal yourself. Philosophy asks us to move into courage. Its remedy is the unblinking excavation of the faulty and specious premises on which we base our lives and our personal identity.
I wish this was on a billboard on every college campus.
Debbie Millman also runs a podcast called Design Matters. She has done about 200 interviews and shares this one nugget of wisdom:
The one common denominator that I share with anybody that feels self-loathing or insecurity in their 20s or 30s or 40s or 50s is, don’t give up hope that that might not ever go away—because I think it does.
The one common denominator that I can share that great brand thinkers, great cultural commentators, great designer have shared with me over the years is that they all feel like they have to get up everyday and do it again. They all feel like they very well may be discovered as phonies, they very well may never ever achieve what they’d hoped.”
And perhaps that is what greatness is: waking up the next day, showing up, and doing your work, regardless of how successful you become. As a 25-year-old, I’m right in the epicenter of the kind of cultural conversations that completely misses the point about success or happiness. Easier to believe that it can be bought, not earned.
In order to introduce the spark to the fuel, our beliefs about greatness and a good life must be analyzed and reinvented from time to time. It may not be about how many mentors you had or your circumstances growing up—although those are powerful influences that help define one’s character—but more about habits, a life philosophy, and a deep-seated desire that is untamable against any obstructions that we may face.
The one sentence that keeps reverberating in my mind is, “they all feel like they have to get up everyday and do it again.” There are two kinds of successful people: There are those who become successful and grow comfortable and stagnate. And then there are those who become successful but remain humble, focused, and committed to consistently creating and contributing. The latter is worth learning from.
A desire for greatness is a feeling that any individual is entitled to feel (should feel), but more importantly, responsible in bringing that desire to fruition. It’s a grim reality that we may never truly achieve what we’d hope, but perhaps by using this awareness it can motivate us to focus on the things that actually matter, and to show up and get to work.