While reading A Thomas Jefferson Education last night I noticed that I was tense. I told my wife that I felt very anxious, but anxiety only begins to describe what I was feeling. I also felt inspired, humbled, jealous, satisfied, hopeful, hopeless, restless, and so much more. I spent some time trying to figure out why I felt these emotions and what they meant. I’ll attempt to explain my understanding of that experience.
DeMille explains in A Thomas Jefferson Education that greatness is not a spontaneous anomaly, it must be cultivated. He used the following examples to illustrate this powerful lesson:
In 1776 Thomas Jefferson declared the independence of all humankind, but in 1764 he was just a college student trying to mend a broken heart.
In 1780 George Washington almost single-handedly brought down the greatest military force on earth, but in 1764 he was just a farmer struggling to get out of debt.
In 1787 James Madison swayed the entire course of history, but in 1764 he was just a shy twelve-year-old.
It is the ordinary people in our day, just like those in 1764, who have greatness within them, if they decide to develop it.
…The Founders were great men and women of genius and inspiration, but it didn’t just happen to them. They were ordinary people who chose to live good, honest lives and to pay the price of greatness. (Page 134, Bold text added for emphasis)
One lesson that the classics have taught me over the last year is that all great men and women are ordinary. Better said – they start ordinary. Too often we think of great people as diamonds in the rough, plucked by birth out of the ordinary dirt and rocks, destined to shine. We think that greatness happens to them. We excuse ourselves or others, because greatness didn’t happen to us. If that’s what we think, we’re wrong. This means there is no excuse for mediocrity. One is free to choose to be average or great. Average is easy. Greatness demands a price.
As a budding statesman I recognize what I am. Right now I am ordinary. Like a dusty, dull chunk of granite. My studies, discussions with mentors, prayers, and reflection give me glimpses of who and what I should be. There’s a glint of something shiny and precious under all that grit. Oliver DeMille teaches that Leadership Education is the process that facilitates our growth from ordinary to great. I am on that path, but the more one learns, the more one realizes how much one does not know. Greatness gains clarity as we experience the classics. That clarity also sheds light on my current condition, and I am humbled when I compare myself to the model of greatness.
That humility is good. It is not a crushing sense of worthlessness; it is recognition of just how much work it will take to develop greatness and free it from the confines of ordinary thoughts and habits. It is admitting that one cannot do it alone. We need mentors.
I am jealous of people I know who have personal relationships with powerful mentors that I admire. I recognize that jealousy is a negative emotion closely tied to fear, insecurity, and pride. We damage ourselves if we allow jealousy to fester in our hearts or minds. I do a pretty good job of recognizing this jealousy, learning from it, and moving on. I do not harbor ill will toward anyone for their successes or meaningful relationships, but now and then I feel left out. Sometimes I dream of moving to Cedar City to attend GWU on campus. My daydreams of this are filled with picnics and barbeques, groups and co-ops, plays and other cultural events where I get to rub elbows with the TJEd and GWU “celebrities.”
The daydreams and the jealousy are a waste of time. They are somewhat disrespectful of the major impact that TJEd and GWU have had and continue to have on my life. I would love to be in Cedar City, but there is a need where I live now to spread the ideas of a Thomas Jefferson Education and help people implement Leadership Education in their own lives and the lives of their children. That is something my wife and I try to do. I struggle with recognizing how far I have to go, but there is great satisfaction in knowing that I am on the path. I am doing what I can now. If I can free myself from jealousy and other forms of self-defeating behaviors I will become a statesman that shines, polished not by destiny or fate but hard work and perseverance. It’s time to tighten the bootstraps, because here comes one heck of an uphill battle.