The Greatness Paradox

great ɡreɪt/ adjective 1. of an extent, amount, or intensity considerably above average.

1. of an extent, amount, or intensity considerably above average.
2. this picture I drew when I was ten.


Once someone does more than you, that’s proof that you could never be as great as them, right?


As an educator, I fear becoming great. Not because greatness will weaken me in some way, but because of how greatness is perceived.

To Japanese people, greatness is attained. You work your butt off for it. You probably fail lots of times. Even if you’re the “fated hero”, you’d better do your best or else you’re gonna get wrecked. The “Hero of Time” doesn’t mean he’ll win, it just means that he has to do this task. Failure is very possible.

To Americans however, we are born great. Predestination. Maybe we’re great, but we don’t yet know it. Not to worry, because once we find out that we’re great, we’ll succeed without effort. And to those not born great: they’ll always struggle. Life won’t be great. Greatness is, after all, the exception. And since life is hard, only a few people get an easy way out.

We shouldn’t look to those people—the exceptions. Their advice is for other great people, not plebeians like us.

The greater one gets, the further away they appear to the common person. As an educator though, the goal is to make sure students can attain the knowledge you have. You have to prove to them that it’s possible. If you’re great, maybe they’ll think the reason you were able to acquire the knowledge is because you’re great, not because of hard work.


When I started learning Japanese, I was an everyman. Okay, I came into it from anime. I knew a select few words, accumulated after years of Japanese. Your bakas and otakus and ichi, ni, sans. But if someone asked 「お名前は?」, I wouldn’t have been able to answer.

As an everyman, I “knew my limits”. The teacher was a native Japanese speaker, so I “knew” I’d never be as good as her. No matter. My goal was to be the best I could be. If my fellow students could do it, hopefully I could as well. I had the limits of a learner, but those limits were pretty high, at least to a beginner.

People warned me: “Japanese is really hard.” “No American can speak Japanese well.” “Kanjis are impossible.” “Give up before your dreams crush you.” “Bears attack people that get too close.” “You’ll get the basics, but you’ll never really understand Japanese.” “Don’t go to an interview smelling like fish.” “Unless that interview is for a job as a sushi chef.” “You’ll never be able to break into the sushi world.”

People had a lot of advice. And, for better or for worse, they were trying to help. But because nobody takes an advice class in school, giving advice is not an art most people master. Simply put: there’s a lot of silly advice people throw around.

In my Japanese 101 class, I looked to three students. A lanky computer science kid with glasses. A tall computer science kid with a beard. A half-Japanese, half-American kid. I could see myself in all three. What they could achieve, I could as well. After all, I could see them struggle in class. They were good, but they weren’t “great”. That meant we were all equals at this game.

I took a Japanese 102 class. I knew nobody in that class, but I knew that there were other classes. Those rivals-to-me were out there, learning Japanese, becoming better. I needed to improve.

Japanese 103. Beard and Half were back. They were good. But Beard was starting to look “great” to me. “Damn, he’d improved fast,” I’d thought. “How did I not see his greatness before? I guess I should re-evaluate my rivals.”

Then we went to Japan. Lanky was back, and he’d only gotten up to Japanese 102. He was a class behind, and he looked up to both me and Beard. “Why are you looking up to me?” I thought. “I’m not great.” After that trip, we all went our separate ways. I kept improving. Beard disappeared. Lanky went on a Japanese study binge.

I became a Japanese tutor. Students would say, “Wow, you’re pretty good at Japanese. How’d you do it?” I’d respond, “You know, I studied. A little bit every day.” Some would accept that, and vowed to study as well. But some didn’t. “You’re talented,” they’d say. I was happy with the compliment back then, but it makes me mad now.

Lanky came back much improved after six months of being in California, self-studying. He was definitely better at speaking than I was. He’d found partners online on the website Conversation Exchange. My Japanese teacher even called him on the phone and asked him, “What’s your secret?”

It was around this time, as the pool of Japanese learners around me started to thin, that I wondered, “Is there such a thing as greatness?”

Rhythm Games

Enter my friend Hero. Hero was a master of rhythm games. Also, pretty much every game out there. But especially rhythm games. He could play the hardest songs on Rock Band and Guitar-something-or-other on the hardest difficulties and come close to perfection. He could play games like Super Hexagon and just… keep… going.

When I first met him, I was convinced he was great. But the more I saw of him, the more he played, I came to a new realization: he played a lot of games. And a lot of rhythm games. Where others would stop after a few songs, he’d keep going. He kept getting better.

Science Genius Girl

I met her in college. She was smart. Still is. Things seemed to come easily to her. She wouldn’t understand why some people couldn’t understand something. I’d had similar friends in grade school. They’d been the ones that convinced me some people were great, without ever saying anything about it.

But I started to see that her way of thinking was different. It wasn’t that things necessarily came easily to her. It’s that she looked at it with a different eye. Instead of memorizing formulas, she could see how things connected. Every moment, her mind was working. In essence, she got practice out of doing anything at all. It was all practice. Everything is connected.

10 Year Overnight Success

I stepped into the writing world one evening. One of the first concepts in the writing world is that of the “10 Year Overnight Success”. Basically, when someone becomes famous overnight—their first book is incredibly well-received—it’s a bit misleading. Most people have been writing for about 10 years, failing to get their books published, refining their art. When that first book comes out, people start calling the writers “amazing” and “ahead of their time”. They don’t see the failures. And often, the writer doesn’t want them to see the trail of garbage behind them. It’s embarrassing. It also exists.

The idea of 10,000 hours is the same basic notion. It takes a long time doing something often to become good.

In Language Arts class, all we look at is the final product. We look at a book like Moby Dick and admire (or hate) what it is. But we never look at what it was. We never see the rough draft. We never see the first book that the author writes. We never see the books he doesn’t finish.

We All Suck (At First)

The easiest way to see how bad people are at doing things is to be a teacher (or parent). In the kindergarten, kids can’t even walk, let alone talk. Some of the older kids can, but they make mistakes in their sentences all the time. They use words incorrectly. They mispronounce. They can’t even pronounce.

You see a kid writing for the first time and it looks like…a five-year-old did it. Because that’s exactly what happened. Two years and a whole lot of writing in school later, and their writing starts to resemble something legible. Years of practice.

But in the middle school, they’re finally started to resemble real people. They know things. Turns out that years and years of studying has some effect.

And So…

Someone looks at my Japanese now and they say,

“Yeah, sorry. I can’t learn languages. I don’t have your talent.”
“Talent!?” I say, eyes going wide. “Did you know, that I was at your level of Japanese at one point?”
“Well, sure. But you had the talent. So you could progress.”
“Did I? Can you read this?” I write the kanji 水 on a napkin.
“It means water.”
I write it again, on another piece of paper. “Can you read this?” I’m real fun at parties.
“Water, right?”
“So, you can read it!”
“You just taught me.”
“You just learned.”
“Well, knowing some symbol for water isn’t the whole language.”
“It’s a start.”

Unfortunately, this situation is becoming more common, the further I progress. I start doing things a lot and then people say they could never do them. Maybe if I were a (bigger) narcissist, I’d like this pedestal-putting that other people are doing. But I’m not. I’m a teacher, and I want people to realize that they have the potential to do anything I can do.

I'd like to think my understanding of game design has come a long way since I was an elementary schooler, but maybe it hasn't.

I’d like to think my understanding of game design has come a long way since I was an elementary schooler, but maybe it hasn’t.

I wish they could see me when I was a child. When my pictures of cars were square blocks. But people have an uncanny habit of seeing the present. I guess that’s good for something.

I must become great, so I have something to contribute. But I can’t become too great, or else people will think those contributions aren’t for them.

Or maybe we just need to get over this culture that says that greatness is inherent. We can’t all be Michael Jordan, but we can all play basketball well, if we play enough. (I say this as someone who can now dribble, woo!)

Go and do something now. You’ll get better eventually. And who knows. You might even one day be “great”.


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