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VISIONs of Greatness – The Funny Thing About Greatness

VISIONs of Greatness – The Funny Thing About Greatness

He’s bearded. He’s bold. He’s silly. He’s creative. He’s one of the most successful comedians of all time. He started out doing stand-up and bombing. He became a Hollywood star. He still does stand-up. He still bombs. Studying his career—his approach—teaches us a lot about greatness. Turns out, greatness is a funny thing.

A True Story

He’s great. He’s rich, he’s famous, and everybody likes him (well, not everyone, but in this day and age, consensus is an all but mythical phenomenon).

And it’s not surprising. He is likeable. Is it his face? The beard? His overall appearance? When he hosted SNL, he described his look in a variety of colorful ways:

  • “homeless college professor”
  • “marijuana Santa Claus”
  • “someone who looks like they write on alpaca message boards”

People laughed. The things he said brought them joy. And maybe that’s it, right there—the reason he’s well-liked, the reason he’s great:

He brings people joy.

But like many comedians who got their start on the stand-up stage, success didn’t come quickly or easily. Before everyone knew him—before everyone liked him—he was just a scared kid pursuing a dream.

He still remembers that first road gig, at a dive bar in Kentucky.

The owner told him to perform in a cage—you know, for protection against the beer bottles the crowd might throw.

Naturally, in those early days, he would get nervous before a set. Real nervous. Scared.

What about now? After doing stand-up for decades, after starring in one of the highest-grossing comedy trilogies of all time, after interviewing, on his own fake talk show, the former President of the United States …

How does he feel when he takes the stage?

You want to know the truth?

He still gets nervous.

That’s because he’s still chasing the goal. He’s still getting after it.

But he’s rich, he’s famous, and everyone likes him. What else is there to prove? Achieve?

Well, here’s the thing … For him, “fame and all that crap” wasn’t—and isn’t—the goal. The goal is the stand-up itself.

The craft of bringing people joy.

And you can never perfect that. You can never be done. So you keep trying new stuff. You keep bombing. You keep creating. You keep going—rain, shine, or beer bottles.

It worked for Zach Galifianakis, and it’ll work for you too.

The Insights

Greatness isn’t a state.

It’s a process: ongoing and unfinished. You never ‘get to’ greatness. It’s a horizon, a hypothetical destination that you just keep chasing. That’s because greatness is an expression of passion—of caring—and when you care, you never stop trying to get better.

Greatness isn’t ‘great.’

It’s human. It’s nerves. It’s uncertainty. It’s failure. Great people are just like everyone else. So if you want to be great in the hopes of becoming someone else, find yourself a new motivation or else you’ll be sorely disappointed.

So … you can’t ‘get to’ greatness and greatness changes nothing?

Pretty much! Told you greatness is a funny thing.

But jokes aside, the message here really is a positive and joyful one …

Enjoy THIS—this day, this moment, this life (not some imagined future where you’re perfectly content, confident, and at ease). Embrace the messiness of it all. The imperfection. The absurdity. And yes, even the failure. Because that’s the good stuff—that’s the great stuff—and it’s never going away.


If you enjoyed this piece, look out for the next “VISION of Greatness” from The 20. And don’t forget to register for VISION ’23, the MSP event of the year!

VISION is a month away – secure your seat before spots fill up!