Beethoven, Roosevelt (FDR), and VanGogh

By the title, you may think this is some kind of bad joke, "Beethoven, FDR, and VanGogh walk into a bar..." Today, we will briefly explore the notion of greatness and legacy in light of affliction and mortality. 

While many people think greatness is reserved for individuals with great talent AND great health, we all know someone who has done something great while overcoming tremendous adversity...sometimes even to the point of death. 

It seems that mortality and the notion of being mortal and acknowledging that may even help individuals to strive for more than they thought possible. Look at Beethoven. Although it is unclear exactly what he suffered from, it was clear that he was in miserable health most of his adult life.

In Diagnosing Genius,  François Martin Mai writes, "By the time he was 28 years old, Beethoven had already become profoundly deaf, a circumstance that damaged his self-esteem and jeopardized his professional and artistic future. His life was also made miserable by chronic diarrhea, abdominal pain, chronic respiratory illness, depression, and alcohol abuse." Book Review, New England Journal of Medicine.

The point of this book and many other authors chronicling the lives of great historical figures is that many of these individuals lived and died in great discomfort, both physical and psychological. 

Yet, while they were alive, they fought hard to complete work and to live productive and even extraordinary lives in spite of their afflictions...or maybe even because of those afflictions.

Fast forward to today, and we wonder where greatness comes from. Does greatness come through adversity or by overcoming it? 

The answer may seem disappointing...It depends.

The reality is when you look at these three figures. Their differences probably outweigh their similarities. You probably thought that this piece would argue that greatness comes from the struggle. Well, it does, but that struggle does not have to be a physical or mental illness. That struggle may just be ordinary perseverance.

Our popular culture may want to argue that everyone who succeeds has overcome tremendous physical constraints to be great. Well, that is a Hollywood story more than anything else.

Look at three major titans of our current world - Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerburg. Their lives are public knowledge and we do not see any of them overcoming a great physical or mental illness to become great. Sure, Steve Jobs died of a terrible illness, but he was physically fit when he made Apple what it is today.

Now, fast forward one more generation. Millennials are described are described as slackers or entitled, or whatever. In a compelling article in USA Today, The malignant myth of the Millennialthe author points out that generational stereotypes at best miss the mark and at worse are damaging and bigoted.

The reality is greatness can and does exist in every generation (so does laziness). It also exists with those who are incredibly gifted and healthy and well positioned as well as with those who are not.

One thing that American Culture attempts to promote, generally, is that merit is worth a great deal. You can do amazing things from adverse or entitled backgrounds. There is an opportunity in many places, in diverse people, and from all walks of life.

Go out and grab your future from where you are and make the most of it.

Oak Valley College is a Christian liberal arts college in Colton, California, providing a debt-free Bachelor of Arts in Business, which students complete in three years. The costs of attendance next year is $1,580 per semester or $12,640 to earn the degree (less than what it costs to attend one semester at most Christian colleges or universities). For more information, visit