You can choose greatness or glory. You can’t have both at the same time. That’s the hard truth of doing something that matters.
Getting started, it feels like you need glory to propel you towards greatness.
If you just have enough attention. If more people just knew about what you are doing. If you had more time, money and notoriety, you would be so much more ahead in your conquest for getting to that next level.
Greatness comes without glory.
It has to because what you need to do to become great isn’t glorious. It’s gory. And gritty And flat out hard work.
Remember that moment in the valley of Thermopylae when 300 Spartans stood against the powerful army of Xerxes? That moment when 2 million soldiers decided that the few hundred soldiers fighting for King Leonidas were too much for them.?
That moment wasn’t the result of more social media attention. It didn’t come about because people all over the world were cheering for the Spartans.
It was simply because of the decades of training those soldiers had endured.
It was about the way of life their parents had instilled within them.
The Spartans of old spent years developing skills for combat that many of those warriors would never actually use in a real battle. They trained, prepared, ate right, and sacrificed entertainment in pursuit of their ideals.
According to historians of the day, their focus and hard work seemed like overkill to the rest of the Grecian Empire who openly mocked them: “Why put in so much work when life is so good?”
- While everyone else in the world was getting drunk, they were getting strong.
- While everyone else was goofing around, they were getting smart.
It sounded cruel to rest of the world when they would send a 12-year-old boy out in the wild on his own. Some of them never came home.
But in that valley — on that day — those 300 men who had been battle-tested every day of their life thus far created a story so great we tell it thousands of years later.
Their greatness did not come from glory.
It came from intentional activity and a daily routine that was focused on building the strengths and courage it would take to win — despite the number of opponents against them.
But it wasn’t just the spirit of hard work and discipline that made the Spartans great. It was their mindset. It was how they viewed the world around them.
We see that illustrated clearly almost 130 years after the Battle of Thermopylae and those 3 days of epic conquest.
It was 346 B.C. and Philip II of Macedon, better known as the father of Alexander the Great, invaded Greece with a powerful army. Dozens of key city-states immediately submitted to his conquest without putting up a fight — knowing that the Macedonian army would destroy their lands, kill their sons and their women if they didn’t surrender before the fight began.
And that strategy worked perfectly.
They were promised life and peace if they submitted and sent yearly tribute to the empire. To spare their people destruction, the leaders wisely pledged their loyalty to the invading king.
All of them except Sparta. Sparta refused to submit.
There was no discussion. No persuading. No compromise. No nothing.
They simply refused to be ruled by anyone else. And it was about to turn into a potentially epic mistake.
The enraged invaders sent a warning to the Spartan leaders: “Surrender. If I conquer your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”
It was a clear message: “We are going to crush you like we have crushed everyone else.”
Except the Spartans didn’t read the message that way. They didn’t see the same threat that had stopped every other leader in Greece in their tracks.
The Spartans replied with a single word.
They didn’t overthink it. They didn’t stammer. They weren’t confused or frightened.
They said: “If’.
The “IF” in their reply was the result of the greatness in their mind and discipline of their lifestyle.
It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Philip of Macedon with his much larger army would actually win. And so they asked back to him a serious question: “Are you sure that you can actually beat us?
- Are you willing to lose everything to try to beat us?
- How much are you willing to do to try to win?
- What happens if you try and fail?
- Who else will rebel against you?
- What if you end up with nothing?
Their message was clear. And the outcome proved it.
Neither Philip II nor his son Alexander the Great ever attempted to capture the city. Sparta remained the only spot int he known world that was not crushed under the dynasty of Philip and his son.
They didn’t chase glory. They were mocked. They were scolded.
They looked foolish and overly obsessive.
But when trouble came — and it always does — they were the only ones left standing.
Maybe that sort of living is good enough for you too.