Proactivity is Greatness

by Juan F. Lam

Mar 22, 2021

#proactivity #greatness #musings

Lately I've been overexposed to the world of Web 3.0 technologies. Blockchains, Virtual Reality, all that nerd stuff. It's been great fun, but it's distracted me from sitting down and doing some proper writing, both creative and non-creative. Last week I finally got around to writing a short story for my Sci-Fi story collection, and I thought that was pretty nifty, so while I'm on a role I figured "why not do that other thing?" and that other thing is this!

Over the past three years I've been pondering the question of greatness. It started in my senior year of high school as I wondered what I would make of my life. How would I direct it? Back then it manifested in questions like: "What will my major be? What career will I pursue?" But now I'm a Junior in college. Exactly one year from the end of this semester, I'll have graduated university and be forced to ask more questions. "What will I do next? Where will I work? How will I pay the bills?"

While those are important questions, I've come to realize over the past few years that they're not the questions I should be spending time thinking about in the shower, or in the brief moments before I fall asleep -- no, those questions aren't so important. What I do next, where I will work, what direction my life will take is not so important as the question of how I will direct my life.

I suppose it's the difference between worrying what route the river will take me and worrying about how I will swim in the first place.

I began to think of people who have directed their lives in ways we might consider excellent. Here's a list of people I am interested in as representative of human excellence: Jesus Christ, Benjamin Franklin, Nikola Tesla, Ada Lovelace, Shakespeare, Newton, Tolkien, da Vinci. They're all great, but what makes them great?

The inklings of an idea began to form as I read through all sorts of material across various genres. However, Angela Duckworth's Grit was definitive. Grit is a book about what makes the world's best different from your every day Joe. It's not talent. It's Grit. Perseverance. But there's some caveats to that. Perseverance on its own is insufficient, it's about having perseverance plus purpose. Shooting hoops for hours on end won't inherently improve your performance in basketball, even if you have the perseverance and the will. You have to practice deliberately.

The word deliberate is key, because it implies intent. Likewise does purpose. But that is an incomplete picture of greatness, by my estimations, because there are plenty of people who are perseverant, and who have purpose, but do not reach greatness. Duckworth's ideas are foundational, and accurate, but I think that greatness is about something more. There is an attitude that lurks in the actions of great people. Not a methodology, or a personality trait, but a perspective.

I found it in a guide on writing. Here's a quote from William Zinsser's On Writing Well:

"The difference between an active verb style and a passive-verb style--- in clarity and vigor --- is the difference between life and death for a writer. "Joe saw him" is strong. "He was seen by Joe" is weak. The first is short and precise; it leaves no doubt about who did what."

The difference between a great sentence and a bad one is simple: one is active, the other passive. I think that, perhaps, the same applies to people. It's an obvious conclusion: people who sit at a couch all day clearly won't accomplish as much as people who are out and about, working. But even active people could be passive in their activity -- because while action is important, it's about the intent with which those actions are directed. Being active, in the sense of having a job as opposed to not having one, is not worth much if those actions amount to busy work and checking emails.

As such I think that being active as opposed to passive is a good starting grounds for being great, but it's not enough. And besides, I've found that any goal which is defined principally by it's not being X or Y is typically weak.

Going back to that quote about great sentences, I think it's interesting Zinsser uses the idea of "vigor," because I found it again in this article titled "In Praise of the Old Gods":

"Religion is active, you must practice wonder and observe mystery. To learn a creed and a mythology is to begin to produce a vigorous life, and any vigorous, embodied life will produce creeds and mythologies. The mythos we create is the opposite of nihilism, it is the definite optimism of the power of the world waiting be lured back by us."

There's an interesting correlation that starts to appear with activeness and vigor. It applies not only to sentence structure but also to the act of belief in higher powers. Perhaps this unique combination leads to so many religious people being counted among the greatest of humans in history (think: Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, various saints and martyrs, philosophers, Mohammed, etc...)

I've combined the two ideas of activeness and vigor into what I call proactivity, and I've spent a long time tracking it through various books and articles I've read, carefully awaiting moments when it jumps out at me. Here's a map of the content I've studied that is linked to, or mentions, Proactivity:

Proactivity is the perfect word for the trait or behavior I'm trying to describe because it encapsulates every facet of the greatness paradigm.

Proactivity = Intention + Vigor (Passion) + Activeness + Purpose. It is a recurring element throughout various texts I have read, and it might just be the key to greatness.

All of the separate components of proactivity are worth exploring on their own, and among these intentionality (or mindfulness) is particularly vital because it is the gateway to proper proactivity. After all, you can't act with intent if you don't learn how to be intentful in the first place. To these ends, it might be worth considering that the process of self-reflection, or discernment, is critical to any measure of success.

That said, if I had to summarize this discovery of proactivity, it'd be like this:

Proactivity is a vital, purposeful, and mindful engagement with the world, as well as the context of individual moments. Proactivity is achieved, not only in action, but also in the direction of our thoughts, and even the direction of our spirits. Thus, to be proactive is about engaging with the world, and not being a passive subject of it. To be a conscious enactor of change in the context in which one exists.

So, when you're thinking about why some people accomplish great things and others don't, consider this note I took from Duckworth's Grit:

"Great things are accomplished by those people whose thinking is active in one direction, who employ everything as material, who always zealously observe their own inner life and that of others, who perceive everywhere models and incentives, who never tire of combining together the means available to them.”

That is the essence of Proactivity.

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