An irony when someone’s creative work becomes recognized after many years of toil and advertising: their work that was previously ignored did not change. It did not suddenly “become” great simultaneously with its rise to notoriety. Therefore, it was previously great but just not recognized.
With the idea for this blog post, naturally I searched online and found articles citing such people as Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, and Johann Bach (for musical compositions) as people who were only acclaimed posthumously. While Kafka did not make an effort to publish his writing (and even wanted it destroyed upon his death), others do publish and advertise their work. We would think that great works would generate a “word of mouth” effect where the initial small audience is so impressed that they share it with others. It seems logical that great work is timeless and will naturally be recognized in concordant magnitude and expediency with its worth. Yet, in practice this is so genuinely uncommon that unrecognized greatness (and lauded trash) might be proposed as a general rule rather than exception.
Search on unrecognized greatness, hidden genius, etc. and you will naturally find a lot of platitudes about perseverance, fortitude, and personal worth. These platitudes may do more harm than good. It’s easy to assure ourselves that others simply do not recognize the great work we are doing. Yet, what is great work for one might be mere child’s play for another. The former individual is not discredited; she may have unique and ingenious creations to make, from a different perspective than the latter. However, frequent, conscious consideration of how she should use her time and focus her energy is necessary to make these contributions. The 10,000 hour rule comes to mind. You cannot get good at most things by daydreaming, sporadic bursts of effort, or endless deferment.
Compare Franz Liszt to the local piano teacher, and we could definitely conclude the piano teacher should just stop trying. Yet, while what is peak performance for a hard-working muggle might barely be a blip on the radar for a masterful wizard, that does not mean individuals of lesser talent are anywhere close to their personal bests. Albeit, the value we place on being recognized and reaching peak performance varies across individuals and cultures. Like an attraction to redheads or a hatred of celery, we may even be unable to rationalize or counteract our desire for fame. Recognizing and dealing with it might be a worthier course than suppression.
People experiencing unrecognized greatness naturally get a lot of really horrible feedback encouraging them to destroy the aspects that make their work quirky, tantalizing, or otherwise useful. “I really couldn’t relate to your [story / photograph / song] at all” is possibly more of an admission of the reviewer’s divergent taste (or ineptitude) than useful feedback. However, hearing enough garbage without commensurate uplifting testimonials is bound to hurt one’s self-image and might be discouraging or prompt changes that turn unrecognized greatness into mainstream trash. In a marriage and relationships workshop at University of Central Florida, I learned from Yamille Aponte that it takes 5 or possibly even 25 nice comments to make up for just 1 disparaging comment to your partner. Hearing a lot of so-called “constructive” criticism can really do more harm than good. As much as we humans like to think we are continuously objective, is our objectivity continuously foiled by elementary psychological experiments. Worse still is the person critiquing you thinks they are doing you a “favor” and walks away with a dose of good feelings. Even benevolent feedback frequently stymies unrecognized greatness. For instance, requests to simplify and streamline a work are common. Editors love to cut out the best parts of stories. Consider that trying to appeal to a larger audience may backfire and make you appealing to no one.
There are many ways we can operationally define greatness. We could say a work is great if it immune to criticism, i.e. performing a musical piece with complete technical accuracy (let’s say a lot of complex emotions are included so it cannot be criticized as robotic or some other drivel). We could define a work’s greatness based on how many man-months of attention it commands: Candy Crush Saga is really great because look how much time people spend on it. We can define a work’s greatness based on the opinions of “experts” in the field. We can define a work’s greatness based on revenues generated, popularity among its target audience, dedication of its fans, or comparative analysis with similar works.
In American culture, greatness is probably mostly commonly defined merely by quantity of recognition. If a lot of people have something to say about what you do, whether positive or negative, then you are great. In a recent psychology course at University of Central Florida, I learned from Valerie Sims that children who are “isolates” (completed ignored) in 5th grade are far more likely to be depressed and suicidal in later life, compared even to peers who are universally hated (but acknowledged). Thus, one might conclude that “recognized badness” is universally superior to unrecognized greatness. Motivational figures encourage us to “fail” big—repeatedly, without fear or shame. Yet “trying too hard” versus “not trying hard enough” remains a delicate balance. If we are to optimally use our time, clearly we must fail “right”—in a way that helps us learn and improve. Unfortunately, failures can also lead to type II errors (false negatives), where we erroneously believe we have eliminated a fruitless path. These variables and more can morph future iterations of our work from unrecognized greatness to unrecognized mediocrity. Therefore, what we “learn” from failures is damaging if we tag something as a dead end when it would actually work if we tried a different approach. Sadly, our time is highly limited (350,000 waking hours in a typical adult life) and we do not have time to comprehensively manipulate every variable.
As an aside, what I dub as unrecognized greatness can also be under-recognized greatness. Once again, we are encountering one of the shortcomings of the English language where it is impossible to present nuanced yet compelling vernacular. For example, I have been annoyed lately when people say things such as “not all people do [some bad behavior].” With a semblance of objectivity, such phraseology is completely meaningless! It literally means the range of people who do not do [some bad behavior] is from zero to N minus one (where N is all people). Similarly, “unrecognized” greatness implies no one sees it—yet more often, we are looking at situations where a few people recognize an individual’s greatness at least partially, but they are significantly under-appreciated compared to matched peers. However, writing it as such does not make for a compelling essay title, nor does it piss enough people off to provoke attention or thought. More accurately, statements such as “not all people” or “unrecognized greatness” should be rephrased in terms of speculated percentages or proportions. Example: “while many childless Central Floridians under 30 dislike cantaloupe, I think at least 7.5% love cantaloupe but have only tried it in assorted fruit bowls.”
People often encourage us to take personal responsibility for our successes, failures, and circumstances of our lives. Unwittingly, this is better than its polar opposite. Our locus of control truly defines (or results from) how we look at our world. Doing whatever we can to achieve the type, quality, and quantity of success we desire is vital in our pursuit of happiness. Some people have little interest in being recognized for their greatness but just want meaningful personal relationships; they may even be married to people who think their artistic works are of little consequence. Others are desirous of widespread public acclaim and may pursue it at the detriment of other fulfilling paths, with regret or relish. Truly, identifying what is right for us, or what we seek to make become right for us, is of substantial importance. It is even more important than any external markers of greatness, because it justifies our behaviors and beliefs.
Recognition might be icing on the cake, or the cake itself. Desire of recognition is easily derided, but perhaps deserves more respect. “If you really love [some craft], you shouldn’t care about what people think” is a deleterious mantra. Yes, we care about what people think, and we are tired of hearing that it makes us shallow and inferior. The call to action here is to recognize and honor the greatness in both yourself and others, by devoting time and energy to it, and by calling it out in others. At opposite ends of the spectrum, we have the realists who told Elvis Presley he should not quit his day job, and the dreamers who say we should follow our most passionate interests with reckless abandon. In fields where substantial equipment and supplies are required, the path to greatness might entail accumulating funds through unrelated work. Giving up on our dreams is not the answer, nor is pursuing them in a short-sighted manner that leaves us exhausted and destitute.
The best antidote for unrecognized greatness is self-discipline. When you get noticed, there will be a long history of tenacity and perseverance that will basically be ignored. Expect to be told that you “lucked out,” in both getting noticed and being born with a gift. Those who attribute your success to luck will remain in their blissful fairytale world where they struggle without really doing anything. You can try to help them, but you’ll just get laughed at.