#200 from R&D Innovator Volume 5, Number 2          February 1996

A Template for Greatness
by Arnold M. Ludwig, M.D.

Dr. Ludwig is the E. A. Edwards professor of psychiatry at the University of Kentucky Medical School.  His book, The Price of Greatness:  Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy (Guilford Press, New York)was published in 1995.

What personal qualities are needed to make original discoveries, create great works of art, achieve superstar status, or achieve what no one has achieved before?  What special circumstances are necessary for the nurturance of genius?  What personal price, if any, do people have to pay to arrive at the upper rungs of eminence?

Over the course of ten years, I studied a representative sample of over 1,000 deceased, 20th century men and women who were prominent in the arts, the sciences, public life, business, the military, exploration, and social activism.  Extensive information was gathered on their childhoods, families, education, careers, physical health, and mental health.  To measure professional eminence, I used a creative achievement scale that correlated highly with the number of lines allotted to a person in the Encyclopedia Americana and Encyclopedia Britannica.  The standards included lifetime fame, reputation after death, innovation, foresight, productivity, and influence on colleagues and on the public.

To find out which personal attributes and circumstances predicted great achievement, I used a logistic regression model to compare 250 of the most eminent and 249 of the least eminent members of my sample on the basis of 30 promising variables.  The results revealed that this model fit the data most exactly, correctly classifying over 90% of the cases.  Rather than any single attribute being identified with greatness, the findings revealed that a special combination of elements comprised a “template” for exceptional achievement.  This combination of elements includes a special talent or ability, the “right” kind of parents, being a loner, physical vulnerability, a “personal seal,” the drive for supremacy, and psychological “unease.”  Under proper social conditions, fortune favors those who possess this template over those who do not, and adversity doesn’t deter them as much.

Special Ability

As children, truly great achievers usually show extraordinary abilities, such as photographic memory, perfect pitch, an ear for languages, a mathematical facility, or a keen, active intelligence.  With a need to hone their skills, high percentages of these people get college degrees or doctorates or attend special schools, such as music conservatories or art academies.  As youths, they are self-learners and do more than their formal training requires them to do.  They read widely, practice incessantly, study under top tutors, attend the best schools, study under the masters, and become increasingly adept in their preferred media of expression.  In a sense, they have become servants to their own talent.

Special Parenting and Mentoring

Parents of the truly great seem to recognize the exceptional qualities of their children and provide them with the necessary tutors, educational opportunities, and other resources.  These parents often have creative talents of their own and are more likely to suffer from emotional problems as well.  During their professional careers, members of the upper elite also are more apt to find influential mentors who recognize their special abilities and aid them in their career.


People destined for greatness tend to have difficulty working within the framework of existing paradigms in their fields.  To create new schools of thought, blaze new trails, make major discoveries, or promote new products, they must show irreverence toward established authority and readiness to discard prevalent views.  They have an attitude set that is oppositional in nature.  This antagonism to traditional beliefs and practices assumes many forms.  They are most likely to be irreligious and to resent authority, including the authority of their parents.

Capacity for Solitude

As children, members of the upper elite are more likely to be loners and regarded as a bit strange.  As adults, they engage in solitary pursuits and avoid social affiliations.  Reluctant to collaborate, they don’t work well in groups or committees, unless they are in charge.  Their work represents an extension of them, and they resist outside demands that detract from it.  This attitude is often advantageous in the arts and certain scientific pursuits in which it is necessary for individuals to spend long periods of time alone.  In fields where teamwork or group effort is required, such as business, politics, or the military, exceptional people may find it more difficult to gain lasting fame when they can’t take full credit for their achievements.

Physical Vulnerability

The truly great individuals are more likely than those less eminent to suffer from physical ailments during their lifetimes.  As children, they are more likely to be sickly or frail, to experience a life-threatening illness, or to have physical disability.  Because of this, they’re more apt to have disruptions in their schooling and spend more time at home in the company of often solicitous parents.  Separated from their peers, they tend to develop solitary interests, like reading, and perhaps begin to feel different from others.  Then, as adults, they are more likely to have serious chronic physical disorders.  Though others may find these illnesses to be daunting and professionally detrimental, these individuals don’t seem to let them get in their way.  Rather, they learn to work around them or find ways to turn them to their advantage.  Their fragile health may also contribute to a sense of urgency in pursuing their creative goals.

A Personal Seal

Almost all creators at the highest level of achievement, especially in the arts and sciences, characterize their works with a personal seal or professional signature.  Whatever they do, their accomplishments have to become specifically identified with them.  History doesn’t accord greatness to people whose personal identities are part of a group or organization.  Like tombstones, the works and products of people tend to serve as ways of personally identifying them.

Drive for Dominance

People at the upper rung of creative eminence have a drive for dominance, supremacy or power that goes beyond professional ambition and influences the scope and nature of their goals.  They act as though they have the need to be the leader, pioneer, master, founder, or originator.  When they meet social resistance, they try to shape and bend their environments to suit them, rather than adapting to their environments.  Naturally, this great drive isn’t likely to be found in people who doubt their abilities or have modest goals.  This drive tends to be found in those with supreme self-confidence and expansive aspirations.

Psychological “Unease”

Extraordinary achievements don’t arise from emotional contentment, nor do they necessarily confer peace of mind.  Members of the upper elite tend to be restless, discontent, driven, and impatient.  Their successes don’t satisfy them for long.  This feeling of being on edge often serves as a source of creative tension, which only becomes relieved when they are busily at work or in the midst of problem solving.  People with great curiosity and intelligence need to keep their brains active solving problems.  Once they seize on a problem, the problem takes possession of them and begins to dominate all aspects of their lives.  When no solution is forthcoming, they may have trouble sleeping, eating, or relaxing and are likely to become irritable and short-tempered.  Often, the source of the creative tension may come from emotional problems, but it need not.  What’s impressive about these individuals is their ability to “turn the power on” in their brains when they’re engaged in problem-solving and to keep the power on for as long as it takes to do the task.

These appear to be the main elements of the template.  All represent integral parts of a whole.  No single element takes on special significance without reference to the other.  Because of this, there’s no simple formula for great achievement.  Precociousness or the right kind of parenting means little without the drive for supremacy.  Contrariness or the capacity for solitude means little without special skills and originality.  Or a chronic sense of psychological unease may mean little without the opportunity, skill, and desire to emblazon one’s work with a personal seal or signature.  Few outstanding individuals have all the elements of this template.  But with the right combination of most elements and under the appropriate circumstances, many individuals manage to make their mark on society and achieve some measure of personal immortality.

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