“There goes Raggedy Anne!” My pole vault coach screamed as I scrambled back towards Earth, a nickname he gave me because I bore a striking resemblance to a ragdoll thrown through the air when I jumped.
He wasn’t wrong. My 15-year-old, 6′ 2″ frame had outgrown my brain’s ability to coordinate everything as my limbs flailed across zip codes. My vertical wasn’t more than a few centimeters and my core muscles have been on sabbatical since birth, so getting upside-down over a bar hanging 10 feet in the air was out of the question.
Track meets became a well-worn routine. I’d watch these freakish athletes vault over ungodly heights until somebody called my name. Then I’d take my place on the runway, hop a few feet into the air with a 12-foot pole attached to my already lanky self and knock the bar somewhere towards Timbuktu. Everybody loved me because there was no chance they’d be last if I was competing that day.
After two years of the routine I realized athletics weren’t my future and moved on, but it wasn’t the last time I’d wonder why I couldn’t accomplish what everyone else could.
The other day I listened to an interview with Carey Lohrenz. She was 22 when the Navy told her she had peaked in her fighter pilot career because females weren’t allowed in combat, so she became a flight instructor and waited for her chance to serve. A couple years later the laws changed and Carey became the first female combat fighter pilot in the Navy. It was a great story.
But as I listened to her speak, a small voice gripped me.
“Look how much she accomplished by 22. What do I have to show for myself? I’m not a fighter pilot. I’m way behind. I’ll never be the first person to do anything. How am I ever going to succeed without having been as successful as her by now?”
The spiral was disheartening but familiar. I listen to stories all the time about people who have accomplished incredible things and each time I insist on comparing my journey to theirs. I wonder if my accomplishments will match.
In college I read a book that changed my life. It was one of those magic moments where the right words intersect with you at the right moment and you feel your heart changing by the minute. Old skin sheds and new perspectives become the norm.
I began to follow the author like a creepy stalker. I knew every story he told, watched him speak at conferences and listened to every interview. We even had a few one-on-one conversations. Everybody knew I was obsessed.
But as I learned more about his life I began to wonder if I was screwing mine up.
He was a lawyer. Should I have gone to law school?
He married right after college. Should I be married by now?
He lived in a big city in California. Should I move to a big city in California?
He started a nonprofit. Should I start a nonprofit?
The more I compared, the more I felt overwhelmed. Like I had lost before the game had reached the second quarter.
Turns out I confused his accomplishments for his character.
If you asked me a couple years ago what I’d like to do with my life, I responded with:
“I just want to do something meaningful.”Now I know what I actually meant was:
“I want do something great.”
“I want to be known for some incredible accomplishment.”
“I want to be celebrated and respected and loved by lots of people.”
Falsely, I assumed my story needed to match the stories of people I admired. My measure of greatness was wacked.
In great stories, characters trump context. There are plenty of lawyers and fighter pilots (and even presidents) who fail to inspire because they have immense accomplishments without the character to match.
People who live great stories inspire us no matter their context.
This is the reason we have the same feeling at the end of Forrest Gump that we do at the end of Pursuit of Happyness and Braveheart and Remember the Titans.
Stories like these don’t inspire us to become stock traders or astronauts or Scottish knights or football coaches or even ultrarunning/ping pong champion/army hero/shrimping moguls.
They inspire us to be characters worth rooting for.
Those who are worth admiring in the world operate under an entirely different concept of greatness. Greatness is not about the admiration of the crowd, it’s about being the kind of person who chooses to give their life away to others.
Somebody who—in full view of their flaws and vulnerabilities—chooses to act with courage and love and compassion anyway. The kind of person who lives great stories not to impress everyone, but because they can’t imagine anything else. Unafraid to be completely themselves in the face of a world begging them to fit in.
The truly great choose to be who they were designed to become in the first place.
Jon Acuff once asked a question that I’ll never forget:
If my life were a movie, would I be cheering? Or would I be secretly hoping I got hit by a car?
If you want to be great, redefine greatness.
Quit comparing your story to everybody else’s.
Start becoming the person you’d cheer for on the big screen.