Separates the Good from the Great
Jeff Stibel | October 20, 2010
What distinguishes merely successful people from those who are truly great? Often people think of intelligence, passion, knowledge, or education. But none of these have been good predictors of greatness: Intelligence — or its cousin, IQ — hasn't been shown to improve your odds at becoming great. Einstein aside, many individuals considered truly great actually have truly average IQs. Passion seems to help some people succeed, but it also leads many down lonely roads of false confidence (and even to the occasional asylum). To be fair, knowledge and schooling positively correlate to a number of success metrics, but they stop short of predicting greatness.
Maybe these aspects of human dynamics are merely necessary but not sufficient drivers of greatness. So what does distinguish the good from the great? To me, the one distinguishing factor is the ability to constantly think about the future. I am not talking about obsessive worry or concern over the future. Nor am I talking about predicting, forecasting, or fortune telling. I am talking about forethought.
In its simplest form, the ability to predict the future is one of the things that makes us unique. We may not be able to predict the weather next week, but in many other ways, the brain is an excellent prediction machine. Early humans, for instance, didn't need to see their prey to know the animal was ahead. They could predict its progress through its paw prints and droppings. In fact, without being able to forecast the imminent future, early humans would have been consumed by whatever beast was lying in wait in the bushes ahead. The Greeks even had a god of forethought — Prometheus, the Titan who sculpted mankind out of clay and, according to legend, brought us the gift of fire.
But let's be clear: Intuition is different than forethought. Intuition is another one of those necessary but not sufficient traits. Without intuition, the human race would have been finished a long time ago. Intuition rests on the ability of the brain to read patterns, and react accordingly. For instance, you don't need to accumulate hundreds of details about a coiled object in your path to jump out of the way. The brain decides instantly that it's a snake. Now the object may merely have been a coiled rope — and you may have jumped into the air needlessly, to the amusement of passers-by. But that is because the brain is built to react quickly. It doesn't wait for all the details.
Here's how forethought is different from intuition. To have forethought, you need an abundance of details and you must labor over them. There is no right answer when thinking about the future, merely an endless number of scenarios. It is what the Stanford economist Thomas Sowell calls "long-range thinking." Forward thinking is the brain's way to chip away at the edges of uncertainty, to make bets based on past experience. The best of the best do this incessantly.
Do not mistake forethought with rote practice: Greatness is achieved with practice, but only when the labor enables someone to look forward and consider scenarios. Malcolm Gladwell's well-read book argued that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to gain expertise, but practice alone does not make someone great. There are many experts who lack greatness and for every Gates and Lennon, there are countless Johnsons and Smiths who practiced equally hard. It is the difference between a good chess player who studies each move as it is made, and a grandmaster who studies several strategies before the game even begins. It's the difference between a shortstop who only practices taking grounders, and a shortstop who also studies the scouting reports so he knows where to stand for each batter.
Forethought is how good people become great and how great people stay a step ahead.
What do you think makes someone great?
Jeffrey M. Stibel is Chairman and CEO of Dun & Bradstreet Credibility Corp. He is an entrepreneur, a brain scientist, and the author of Wired for Thought: How the Brain Is Shaping the Future of the Internet.