The Nature of Greatness

I was talking to someone recently about striving and desiring to be great at what you do.  That brought up the question of what makes someone truly great at something.

We refer to people as "great entrepreneurs" in the startup community all the time--but are they?  I've noted for a long time that too many people have untested, hollow reputations based on things like social proof that go untested.  How many founders have made hires, especially consultants, who were supposed to be great that didn't turn out to be?  Ask around for recommendations of who is great at marketing, PR, or anything else and you'll get lots of answers--and probably few of these folks have actually achieved "greatness".

So what makes someone great?

In sports, when I think of greatness, Greg Maddux is who comes to mind.  It wasn't so much that he was successful.  A lot of people have great stats.  It was the nature of his success.

Maddux seemed to understand how the machine worked better than anyone else.  It was like someone gave him the instruction manual on how to pitch and no one else had it.  He would count in his head how long fly balls were in the air, and get annoyed if he got to a certain count and the ball wasn't caught--because an outfielder should be able to get to a ball staying in the air for a certain amount of time.  

One time, he was sitting next to a player in the dugout and told him that he should move or he's going to get hit with a foul ball on the next pitch.  Sure enough, the very next pitch sent a screamer his way.  

The great ones have a deep working knowledge of the systems around them that they are able to exploit for their own purposes.

This next one is easy.  If you're truly great, then mastery on your level is rare.  If everyone is doing what you're doing, then how hard could it really be.  When Babe Ruth hit more home runs than any other American League *team* did at the time, that was pretty serious.  When you can't think of anyone else doing the kinds of things a person is doing, that's truly great.

I don't think greatness is innate.  You might be born with certain natural talents and predispositions, but I can't think of anyone who was great at something and didn't have to work at it--especially in competitive situations.  If you're great at what you do in a competitive situation, someone else is working hard to beat you the next time.  Greatness is about continuous learning and striving to be better.

When I worked at First Round Capital, Josh Kopelman seemed tortured by the question of what more the firm could be doing for entrepreneurs.  They already had the reputation for being the most value-added seed investor on the planet--but that didn't seem enough.  He knew other people would start doing the things that they were doing, so he was always trying to figure out what was next.  Look at how much they've stepped up their game in the content space in the last year or so--all that came *after* they already were a top tier branded firm.  

What makes you so great?  I think you need to be able to answer that.  Greatness comes with introspection.  Because no one is perfect, to be great, I think you have to understand yourself, and your strength and weaknesses.  Great ones inevitably wind up getting you to play their game--and they know what their game is.  They lean into it.

Greatness makes an impact.  You can't be great without actually doing anything.  This is when most people fall off when I'm told that so and so is great at something in the startup world.  What have they actually done?  

When you are great at something, it's not about a great game or a single great space--it's something you can count on day in and day out.  Greatness is consistent. 

When you're good at something, people what to be as good as you.  When you're great at something, the top performers in that area look to you, your accomplishments and your abilities as a goal.  That's when you get great referrals--when you ask all the top people who's really doing it the best.  

Back to sports for a second.  One of the reasons why I like sports is that you can measure things--and not just total outcomes, but outcomes in context.  When you look at a player's statistics, you can measure that against what everyone else is doing, or who that player has faced, and figure out who is actually outperforming.

Same with investments.  Alpha is defined as the outperformance you get not that isn't from the rising tide of the whole market, but from your picks.

Greatness outperforms.  It creates more than what it is given and achieves far more than the wind that it has at its back.

So, if you got invited into the first Open Angel Forum, a pitch event where Uber was trying to raise its seed round, and you just decided that seemed like a cool idea, it's hard to credit you as being one of the best seed investors of all time.  You wouldn't have been there without the invite, and that invite had a lot more to do with your success than your filter.  

Greatness also moves the bar, setting new standards.  In a world where achievement gets analyzed, practices get shared, and performance generally improves, the ones at the top generally raise the bar higher and higher.

Lastly, I think great ones make others around them better.  Whether it's because they push, or teach, great individual performers who don't make their teams better aren't that great--because teams can achieve more than individuals and it would be short-sighted not to want to make your team better as a whole.

Greatness, unfortunately, isn't universal.  It feels very specific.  There's no question in my mind that Mike Tyson was a great boxer.  He plowed through opponents in record time.  While he fought like a man playing with boys, it seems like he actually wasn't much of man in his youth.  He was immature, violent, and probably achieved success too early without a lot of guidance.  A lot of top performers go through this.  Steve Jobs wasn't nearly as much of a father as he was a product visionary.  Michael Jordan couldn't play baseball and Julia Child, at 6'2'', wasn't a particularly good basketball player, other than the jump ball.  

So before you say someone is great at something, think about pulling it back a little to very good.