I’m good but not great

There is a PBS special running right now on the music of David Foster (Hit Man – David Foster and Friends).  As the hosts asked him about his early years in music, one response jumped out at me.  David said he loved music as a child and his parents allowed him to take lessons in classical music.  But David said:  “I was good, but not great.”  He went on to explain that if he had been a better musician he would likely have ended up as an anonymous face in some orchestra.  Not being great forced him to look for other ways to be involved in music.  So he writes and produces for other musicians.  It has been said that Foster’s songs have made “many famous singers into superstars.”  Many of his songs have become well known through the voices of Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand, Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Micheal Buble, and Boz Scaggs.  And his own fame and fortune has far surpassed what he could have possibly hoped for as a “great” musician. 

In The Millionaire Mind author Thomas Stanley looks at the common characteristics of people who have ended up ended up extremely wealthy.  Their average GPA is 2.7.  Why isn’t it that all 4.0 students become wildly successful?  Maybe their “greatness” came too easily and they missed the benefits of the struggle.  

If “greatness” has not come easily for you have you given up the pursuit and settled for mediocrity?  Or have you looked for alternative approaches for success anyway? 

Maybe “greatness” that comes too easily is itself an obstacle.  We’ve all seen athletes, musicians, writers, and speakers who were so naturally great they never had to exercise the discipline to survive the hard times – and quickly faded into oblivion. 

Maybe not being “great” is your biggest hidden asset.

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12 Responses to “I’m good but not great”

  1. Joe Says:

    Great post, Dan. I think this is exactly what I’ve been going through myself for a very long while. Of all the skills I have, I don’t think I could say I’m great in any of them. Certainly there are some I enjoy more than the others. Those are the ones I’m trying to parlay into “Joe Chavez 2.0,” the “second half” of my life.

    Thanks much for sharing this. Maybe not being great will someday be my biggest asset.

  2. Ruth Says:

    I agree completely, having been able to coast through much of school, cramming or completing projects at the last minute. I became addicted to brinksmanship and improvisation because I got away with it. I still have to fight that impulse, in order to accomplish something bigger, something that takes–and deserves–planning, contingencies, time for reflection and feedback while in development.

    You can put up a barn overnight. But cathedrals take time: I just visited Barcelona, where Antonio Gaudi’s amazing cathedral La Sagrada Familia has taken 100 years and will need a few more to be completed.

    How does one learn to work hard? Am I too late to discover grit?

  3. Christen Says:

    I was a 4.0 student in high school and a fairly high achiever in college. It may be that things that come easily get to be boring eventually. It may be why many people are on the “3 year plan” like Dan. For someone to get very good at something, they need to have to spend the time to get very good, and that can’t be something they think is boring. I’m thinking about taking up golf. I’m probably just approaching mediocre at it, but it’s challengining, so I’m enjoying it. LPGA? Probably not, but you never know.

  4. Andy Traub Says:

    When I was young greatness was defined as the person who knew the most or could achieve the most ALONE. Now I define greatness as the person who can bring the most success not to themselves, but to OTHERS.

  5. Jami J Says:

    Wow, this is so on target it’s painful. Everything academic came easy to me growing up. This also led to the “perfection” syndrome that shaped my choices as I became an adult. I was and still am afraid of failure and therefore, afraid of risk. I always took the safe route — whatever route that would continue my perfect GPA and my “success” in the eyes of others. I chose my career based on just that — if other areas or courses would be too challenging then I might do poorly or even fail, so I avoided those unknowns. I’m 44 years old and have tried many other “careers” but have just recently realized that I am totally risk-averse and will only take the jobs that assure an instant success. These jobs have all also had very, very limited ceilings and lead no where. My internally defined “greatness” has indeed led me to a life of mediocrity. Be good and go for it.

  6. Joe Chavez Says:


    Wow, I’m right there with you, 100%. I fell into my current industry profession back when I was 19 years old. It was my first real office job and so I stayed with it, now for about 20 years. I would get frustrated that I wasn’t moving up the ladder, but in reality, just like Stephen Covey says, the ladder was against the wrong wall anyway!

    Now as I approach 40, I don’t want the “second half” of my life to be marked by the years of not doing what I was created to do and to be. It’s a struggle because it’s like being born again. You get so used to doing the same things for 20 something years that it’s hard to think outside of that paradigm, even if it was a terribly painful one.

  7. L. Says:

    There are all sorts of potential problems associated with being “great,” especially early on in life. When I was a kid, I was known to be “great” at quite a lot of things. I was a great writer, a great learner in general, great at being organized and managing my time, and basically all this made me a very pleasant, easy-to-manage child of whom nearly everyone was quite proud and approving. I was “great.” Everyone said I had a “great” future.

    Well the problem with all of this was that I was so focused on being “great” in the way that it was defined at that time, I developed some other “great” qualities that weren’t so nice. By the time I was 7, I was great-ly quiet – the easiest way to please people was to stay out of the way and go largely unnoticed while silently doing work of incredible quality, which I would turn in when asked for it; people would say how “great” it was and then turn around and give me something else to do. By the time I was 9, I was great-ly anxious – the experience of forgetting a daily English assignment in the second grade impressed upon me that one forgotten to-do item, even among hundreds done on time and very well, could very easily take me from “great” to “careless and irresponsible” in a matter of seconds, so I became known to wake up in the middle of the night checking and double-checking everything in my backpack to be sure it was all done and present for the next day. Looking back I don’t think that was a great sign for a kid, but I was basically seen as a miniature adult mentally, so folks decided I was “extremely conscientious” and that of course was “great.”

    Well, guess what sort of challenges I faced by the time I entered the work world at 24? I was so used to going unnoticed that getting attention – say for the purposes of getting a job or advertising a business – was nearly impossible. I’m now 30 and still trying to figure out how not to be the invisible woman. I’ve uncovered a lot of “great” capabilities in myself over the years – I am a great massage therapist, a great writer, a great musician, and a great teacher – but nearly nobody knows because I still don’t know how to get attention. And I don’t suppose I have to tell you that someone who at nine years old is up at 1am double-checking the contents of her backpack is not really the calmest person at 30! The dear, sweet “great” student that everyone called “a joy to have in class” during the eighties and nineties is now struggling to survive because being “great” as a kid taught the exact opposite attitudes and behaviors that I would have needed to be “great” in an actual career – assertiveness, calm under pressure, and going easy on myself when all is not perfect. I haven’t given up, but I sure do get tired some days. I think I could’ve stood to grow up “good, but not great.”

  8. Mike Larkin Says:

    Thank goodness, since I was a 4.0. I now have an excuse for not being successful. Thanks Dan, LOL!

  9. John Says:

    I have been fed up with the traditional “pay exchanged for time” mentality that holds us captive in corporate society. I get out of work later and later. People tell me all the time, “Wow! You can do a lot.” Now I need to find a way to excel at doing that out on my own. I always dreamed in high school that I would be hosting my own fishing show or a strong tournament fisherman, but my love for my family and spending time together has put a hold on that dream. However, I love engineering and designing fishing tackle, so I have hopes for that avenue as well , at least until the kids grow up and move away.

    Daily I am having an overwhelming feeling that I have been struggling with my career search for far too long. Being the firstborn and knowing my tendencies makes me wish I were more like my younger brother. He fishes constantly, has a fun life, and little bothers him. Being firstborn I want to over analyze everything and have solutions for the worst possible scenarios, and it is draining me daily. I want to let go and fly by the seat of my pants for once. I feel like I am destined to succeed at whatever I choose. For the first time in my working life, I don’t care if I fail, because I know God has given me exceptional skills, patience, and determination. August 2008, I was laid off from mechanical engineering for the second time since 2000. I felt horrible not having a job for almost three months. I took a job as a technical manager for a children’s entertainment restaurant and enjoy the job and the guests. However, the overtime does not give me any opportunities for hobbies, interests, or family time during the week and I hear the clock ticking. I am ready for some sunshine in my work life and a way to loosen the chain from the time clock that obviously benefits no one but the company.

  10. dallonc Says:

    John, it must be something about being the firstborn that brings the overanalytical out of us. I have spent a lot of my life doing the “safe” thing. I worked for the local manufacturing company because I did not want to move to a big city and felt like it was what I was supposed to do. Now that I’m older and wiser, I realize that the only really good thing that has come out of my career has been my wonderful wife (we met at work). Otherwise, the company is a terrible fit with my skills and interest. I am a strong “I” (Influencer), while my company values Steadies and Compliants.

    Now all I need to do is find the right opportunity to take advantage of my skills and interests. It will happen, but it will be on my time and not the time of anyone else who thinks they know what is best for me.

  11. Jami J Says:


    Girl, could we ever talk! To have realized where you are at 30 years old puts you years ahead of me, though. I’m just getting there and trying to figure out my perfection, man-pleaser syndrome that dominates all my memories. Remember, no matter if you are good or great, if you please or displease anyone or everyone, God is always pleased in who we are because He loves us unconditionally. He is perfect, therefore we are made perfect in Him. Find who you are and be happy being you (I’m working on this!).

  12. Brian O'Keefe Says:

    I’ll throw in the example of Lance Armstrong. He was a runner, and a good triathlete. And he was a very good cyclist. But it wasn’t until he fought through the adversity of cancer that he became a first-name-only legend. And after a record seven Tour de France victories in a row, he is now making the most profound difference in the world with his “Livestrong” campaign to raise money for cancer research. I seriously doubt that any of this would have happened without the catalyst of testicular cancer in his life.

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