In life as in writing, demonstration is more powerful than description. Show, don’t tell.
In writing, the technique is simple to understand in general, somewhat harder to apply in specific situations. What is “show, don’t tell?”
It’s two knuckleheads from the Lower East Side talking about 9/11 as they would to each other in a heavy “Nu-Yawwwk” accent, instead of you writing a short essay on 9/11 in language more appropriate for your first year Poli-Sci lecture, and then throwing that into your first chapter.
It’s having your protagonist sneer at his rival and having your reader get that these guys are enemies, all done without the use of the adverb (“He sneered angrily at Philip”) or a redundancy (oddly enough, “He sneered angrily at Philip”, the redundancy being that when one sneers, the anger is implied in the definition of the word itself).
It’s having your fictional composite of Steve Nash or Jeremy Lin sink five three-pointers in a row from the half during practice without once using the sentence “Jeremy Nash was the greatest baller of his time” or words to that effect. Greatness is obvious. If you’ve written the scene clearly, you’ll never need to spell it out for your reader.
You get the idea. The best works of writing always, always show, rather than tell.
That’s writing. What about life? How do you “show” your greatness, rather than just talking about it?
From a personal development standpoint, it’s not always enough to simply “show” your greatness, but it is necessary. Here on the Interwebs, we widely credit Henry Ford as saying that “You can easily judge the character of others by how they treat those who can do nothing for them or to them.” We see this all the time in volunteerism and good deeds of all sorts, in the network of favours and friends that we all have to some degree.
Of course, how do you know when the people you see are just being so great because you can see them? How can you tell the show-offs and photo-op junkies from the authentic people who really do give a damn? Much of the time, you can’t. You just take it on faith that these guys are for real. In the grand scheme, not everyone has to be a saint to do saintly work.
Be that as it may, your gut feeling is always your best indicator of authenticity. Trust it.
The best people I know tend to do their best work behind the scenes, unremarked, unacknowledged. I never see them, but I see their work in the world. That’s where true greatness always starts: the willingness to do what’s right, even if you never get credit. That’s where you must start building or renovating your own identity as a great person.
Although, keep in mind: greatness isn’t only about service. It’s about self-work and expression, too, in equal measure, your own happiness and benefit. Greatness isn’t about martyring yourself for one cause, faith, ideology, or person or group of people.
That being said, we’re nothing without context. At some point, you do have to let your light shine, to show off to others what you have become. If you’re skittish, or have been used to being the “butt monkey” of your circle of closest friends, take a break from them, go and do your work, and then return as the next greatest version of yourself.
That’s how you’ll know, among other things, who your real friends are. The ones who try to lock you back into that old box you just busted out of, ditch them, and move on. The funny thing: those people tend to leave your life on their own the minute you stop caring about what people think of what you show the world of yourself. Don’t sweat the haters.
It’s not lost on me that I just spent over 700 words telling you about greatness than showing it, but this wouldn’t be a personal development blog if it was just about me. This is about my challenge to you.
You keep telling people you’re such a great person with great qualities? That’s wonderful. Then I challenge you: what can you do today to show off, not merely talk about, that greatest version of yourself?
That’s my challenge. Take it for a spin, see where it leads you.