Can Men Still Become Great?

Can greatness be defined in the present? Did Cook’s men understand the gravity of the man guiding them? Did Teddy’s friends understand just who it was that led them into battle in Cuba? Did Christ’s followers, though believers, genuinely understand that they were in the midst of true greatness?

In each case I’d say there may have been an inkling, but nothing near to truly understanding what it was that they were in the presence of.

As I read the most unbiased accounts of great men in history it’s apparent that they’re not unlike you or even I. They had insecurities. TR never thought of himself as truly good at anything. In the West he deemed himself and average rider and hunter with no true talent, only the desire to give full effort. In boxing he saw himself as a gateway fighter to those of his friends who did possess talent and natural ability. Yet in each case we know nothing of his friends with talent, we only know the man that would go down as one of history’s greatest Presidents, but also one of its greatest adventurers.

Napoleon rose from obscurity in a time when birth determined opportunity. Cook was the same. It’s Cook and Roosevelt who hold some unique similarities in that they craved more. Cook, specifically, desired greatness. He wanted to explore the world, to put his fingerprint on lands not yet known.

His greatness lay in discovery and adventure. But what of greatness today? Who, in today’s society will go down as being truly great? Chris Kyle comes to mind. The war hero will always hold a place close to our hearts because of what they go through, what they sacrifice, and what they have to endure not just for the ones they love, but also for the freedom of those that despise them.

In past times we, human beings in general but more notably western cultures, understood the true necessity of our warriors. Socrates understood that without braver men than he defending his city at its gates he would not be able to philosophize or theorize or teach. The Romans praised warrior cultures and trained even their richest to discard material things and grow up to be gritty, strong warriors.

Even though many in our society have turned their backs on our warriors, those of us that understand will never forget nor let their sacrifice go unnoticed.

Beyond warriors, though, who among us will be remembered as great? What can a man do beyond political office or even entrepreneurship to become great? What is it that we can chase and conquer?

The Quest for More

I’m trying to wrap my head around a few things as I tackle the list of books I’m aiming to read over the next number of months. (Check this out: 3 Books Every Guy Should Read)

There’s a passage in Farther Than Any Man where Martin Dugard notes that Cook, though he was new to a ship and an entirely new trade, was not a man to be trifled with. There were other qualities that Dugar noted about Cook that caught my attention. There were his few words, though they were powerful. There was his physical presence and his desire to climb the social ranks to the point where he often looked up to those who had more money than him. There was his deep desire for greatness, and his ability to make fast decisions assertively.

Cook was clearly an impressive man, and it’s this term “impressive” that’s been racking my brain as of late. What does it mean to be impressive? And what needs to be added to what it is to be impressive to accomplish greatness?

To Be Impressive

I’ve written about it in my journals a fair bit as of late. And I don’t think that being impressive can be confined to a definition. It’s a persona, something that others can sense, though it does have some characteristics that aid its procurement.

The Physical

There’s a physicality that aids in being impressive although there are examples to the contrary (Ghandi, MLK, a young David). TR started out weak, but it was his gaining of strength that opened up for more doors in his life that would not have existed had he not become strong, tough, even gritty.


No man, no matter what he’s done, can be deemed impressive if his ambitions aren’t far greater than his peers. Ambition isn’t the desire to consume, rather, it’s the desire to accomplish, to bring dreams to the realm of reality. It’s those whose imaginations align with their desire to persist and to work and to risk, that are truly impressively ambitious.

More than any characteristic, it seems, ambition is the driving force not only for greatness, which goes without saying, but also for someone who’d be deemed impressive, who, upon shaking their hand and engaging in conversation you’d see that there’s more to this human than meets the eye.

In conversation with someone who’s audaciously ambitious there’s an energy that can be overt, like in the case of TR, or a quiet and subdued focus, a clarity, found in the case of Cook.

Without ambition it’s hard to be impressed by someone as they’re bound only by what’s in their zone of comfort and not intrigued about what lies beyond it. (Read This: The Beauty of Ambition)


Accomplishment depends on discipline. You cannot exercise one without possessing the other. It’s hard to stand in awe of someone who talks a big game but has little in the way of accomplishment to show for it.


Along with ambition, the role of daring or adventure, guts and grit, comes into play.

Robert E. Lee was incredibly aggressive on the battlefield, and though he was given less than the opposing general, he did far more with it.

Cook longed for adventure, as did TR. Lewis and Clarke, the same. Alexander wanted to conquer, as did Napoleon.

It isn’t reckless thrill-seeking that took these men to greater heights than their peers, it was the pursuit of more, the exploration of the new, and the call of things that cannot be tamed that brought them above and beyond.

To Be Great

There’s a fine line between sharing your dreams and just being downright arrogant, and it’s a line I’ll walk – hopefully gracefully – here. I, probably very much like yourself, have dreamt of something more, something bigger, something greater since I was a wee one. In a recent article I talked about how I lost that dreaming and have slid into an easy, content mindset.

Having woken the fuck up from that nap, I’m back to dreaming with a heavy dose of audacity, and reading about James Cook has helped. I don’t think it’s wrong for guys like us to dream about becoming great. We want to be a Cook or a TR or a Lee, a Napoleon, Alexander, or a Churchill. I think that’s natural, but how is greatness actually achieved?

Cook actually wrote about his desires to become great. It’s the word “great” that stands out. It’s a view that’s often only given to the subject after death – often years after death – when their accomplishments are truly understood and appreciated, and yet he still yearned for it. He thought it his life’s mission to become someone of great importance and to accomplish something of great value to society. He saw exploration as his means to such an end.

What’s interesting about Cook’s life is that he had some incredibly un-unique choices he had to make. They’re choices that many of us face on our path in life and it’s only the few great ones we later read about that ended up making the right choices at the right time.

I like using Cook and Napoleon as examples because both men were born into poverty and a low social status when it was social status that determined your position in life, and yet both of these men rose to prominence and greatness bucking the trends and the systems that were created to hold them in their place.

Here’s what you must remember, since capitalism was born and since talent and effort has dictated value, we’ve never seen more opportunity. There is no cast system, no social class that keeps another down. If Cook and Napoleon were born today they’d face little opposition to their rise, and yet we – the people living in these relatively (they could be far more so) free markets see our journey in life as pre-determined. The fact is that it isn’t, and NEVER in the history of the world has a man been able to rise without friction like he can today.

You must appreciate where you are in time and understand that whatever your goal may be, never before has it been more attainable. With Communism and Socialism falling, and free market economies continually rising, even the poorer countries of the world are sharing in this once western reality.

So where Cook dreamed of greatness, the social statuses and structures of the day would deem it impossible. But did he see the obstacles or the opportunity?

He made the choice to see what he could do rather than focus on what he couldn’t.

There were two particular choices he made that shaped the great man that he’d eventually be known as, and these decisions have nothing to do with the skills he acquired or money earned or status won. Actually, the first decision made him poorer.

Early on in his life Cook left his home to become a seaman. He had the idea of exploration, of visiting new places and he saw the ship as the only way to get that accomplished. The thing about becoming a merchant seaman in those times was the life expectancy was well below 40 years of age, men drank away their money because of that fact, and it was far from a glamorous life. It was the most dangerous profession and the men who partook in said profession lived lives that reflected their lives frailty.

To leave home at a young age and join a merchant class where life was short and joys were few took guts. The second choice he made was even more impressive.

Having risen the ranks through hard work, constant studying, and initiative, Cook was offered command of one of the ships. This would mean big money, especially for a man of Cook’s beginnings. However, after having visited with men on the King’s ships – who were paid far less, lived in far worse conditions, and had very little chance of rising in their ranks – he saw that as a merchant his routes would be pre-determined for life, and no amount of money could confine him to a life without the adventure that could possibly exist aboard a ship in the King’s Navy.

So, he quit. He quit and started from the bottom of the Navy as a ship’s hand and eventually worked his way up to, again, commanding his own ship.

He was so aware of where his life should be that he risked life and limb and disregarded wealth in the pursuit of greatness. And he found it.

Going From Average to Impressive to Great

Life is a puzzle, a simple one that needs to be solved. The solutions to the problems, however, are always right in front of us, we just have to be present and aware and always working hard enough to take advantage of them, and to make the right choices, as Cook did.

To be great it isn’t so much what you pursue, but the audacity with which you attack it. It isn’t so much what you work your ass off at, but the persistent openness to opportunity, the awareness of when and where it may come into your life.

It’s the attributes that make great men, not moments in time that seem to find them.

Had Cook not worked tirelessly studying and perfecting his craft he would have never been fit to rise so quickly in the Navy.

Had Ben Franklin not been so disciplined he would not have gone down as one of America’s most important men.

Had Alexander not sought to conquer the entire world we’d be reading about just another king.

Had Napoleon not made books his best friends, and the acquiring of knowledge his nightly date, he would not have had an incredible rolodex of information and formations to fall back on come battle time. Had he not matched that knowledge with an incredible and impossible to feed audacity, there’s no way in hell he would have become emperor.

Therefore, if greatness is something you want then discipline is something you must possess. You must work tirelessly and endlessly, but work alone won’t do it. You also need to think bigger, dream bigger than anyone in your circle. You need to work while they sleep, to keep your cards close to your chest and not be a blowhard. You need to train your body for war, and your mind for it as well.

It’s the combination of daily and persistent work and grit combined with audacity and imagination that makes men great. It will be interesting to see who, in our time, will be remembered as great men, truly great men, not just rich or successful men, but men touched by fortune’s hand and equipped to make the most of such a gift.

Captain James Cook Statue Image Provided By: Guavon-Stock