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What you can learn from the greatest men in history. (4 lessons)

We know we are only on this earth temporarily, but the why remains unclear. Why are we here, what is the reason for our existence, and what are we meant to do with the time we receive?

These questions linger in everyone's head, and rightfully so. We would like to believe that we have been put on this earth for a reason, that our existence means something. To find this meaning, we go above and beyond: we believe in god, and that he made us in his image, we believe in atheism and think we are just animals roaming a planet, or we believe we are here to make an impact, to change things and leave a legacy.

In this blog, we’re going to talk about the latter. Why would you want to be great, make an impact, improve people's lives, and leave a legacy? Can’t we just accept that what we do doesn’t matter?

Well, yes. We can’t accept that idea because it makes us purposeless. We need to feel like we are here on this earth for a great cause. To help people, build something, and leave a legacy for others. To become great.

There have been people throughout history who had this belief in a strong way: Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Winston Churchill.

They all had a profound sense of destiny, they felt that they were destined to make a mark on this earth, to do something no one else could do, and they did. So what can you learn from these great people? What did they believe, and what did they do to become such great figures, make an incredible impact on the world, and leave their mark on history? Let’s find out.

“Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.” ~ Napoleon

Why learn from the greats?

So why learn from the greatest figures in our history? What do they have to teach you? Weren’t they all different anyway? Well, the greatest figures in history have a lot to teach you, and this seems apparent only by looking at the way they learned from each other. The one thing every great figure in history has in common is that they’ve studied the greats that came before them.

Julius Caesar learned from Alexander the Great and used a lot of his war principles in his own war-making; Napoleon Bonaparte learned from Julius Caesar, he even wrote a book about Caesar's wars and absolutely studied the guy, he also studied Alexander the Great as well; and Winston Churchill studied Napoleon, who was one of his greatest heroes.

What this shows you is that every great man has studied those great men who came before him. They learned from them, from their mistakes, their successes, and applied their principles. To become great, you must know what a great person does, how he became great, and apply this to your own life.

Learning from them makes you able to avoid their mistakes, immediately implement their methods, and copy some of their successes. This massively speeds up the process for you and thus saves you an awful lot of time. These greats already went through some of the things you will go through in a fundamental way. The context right now may be different, the 21st century doesn’t look like the 19th century at all, but the fundamentals of human nature, work ethic, purpose, and mindset have always been the same, and will always remain the same. Learning from the people who have mastered the fundamentals provides you at least with a solid foundation, on which you can build further in your context.

What do you need to do to become great? (Lessons from the greats)

So what did these greats do, what mistakes did they make, what did they get right, and what fundamental principles can you learn from them that you can directly apply to your own life? To answer those questions, we need to look at what the fundamentals were for their success. What was the foundation on which they built everything, why did they become great when 99,9% of people didn’t? To find this out, we need to look for patterns between these great figures. What did all of these great people have in common, what fundamentals were the same in their own different contexts? What principles did Winston Churchill for example copy from Napoleon, and Napoleon from Julius Caesar, etc?

We find these fundamentals by researching these great figures, comparing them, and looking for patterns. Here are four of those fundamentals that every great person applied:

1-Find your uniqueness:

To be a great figure and make history, you need to do something no one else has done before. This is not possible if you are like everyone else, because everyone else only accomplishes what everyone else accomplished. If you are like most people, you will do what most people do, which is not much. So to make a real impact and do things no one else has ever done or would think of doing, you have to separate yourself from the herd. The way you do this is by finding your uniqueness and finding what truly makes you, you. This means not paying attention too much to social norms, or even societal expectations and rules. What everybody else does, and what behavior is common doesn’t matter to you, that only brings average results anyway. You need to find your own way, regardless of what anybody else thinks.

Napoleon was an outsider at school, he wasn’t like anybody else. When the kids would play during school breaks, he would sit somewhere and read. When school was out and other kids were playing with each other, he would go to the library and read about historic figures like Caesar and Alexander the Great. He didn’t fit in in school, he didn’t abide by social norms or pressure, he just did what felt right for him, what he was attracted to.

How you find your uniqueness is by doing that which you have a unique pull towards. Everybody is different in this regard, everyone is unique and has something that they are inclined to like. The difference between average people, and great people, is that average people have let society make them believe that they shouldn’t listen to this voice, that they should just go along with what everybody else is doing because that is normal and safe.

The greats never let society suppress their individuality and simply followed their heart and ambition.

If you truly want to become great, you have to be you. Not the version of yourself that other people would want you to be, not the version that looks like everybody else. You are a unique individual, listen to the voice inside of you, and let it guide you to where you truly want to go. This is the only path to greatness.

2-Develop a strong work ethic:

Every great person in history had the same thing in common and it’s something you hear all the time, but most of the time it doesn’t get this specific, so buckle up.

All the greats had a very strong work ethic. Napoleon sometimes worked entire days, barely getting any sleep, but still, he said that he got enormous joy out of working. Winston Churchill would be working constantly during his premiership in the Second World War, his secretary later even stated that during this time, 120-hour work weeks were nothing out of the ordinary. We can name numerous examples of this, great figures in history who were constantly at work. But this amazing work ethic isn’t just the result of discipline and willpower as most people tend to believe. It is actually way simpler than that, and it makes working much easier. Discipline and willpower surely play a part in this, but it’s only an addition, not the foundation.

What these people had, was a purpose. They had a goal they were working towards, a huge goal, and one that was uniquely fitted to them. The combination of an extremely ambitious goal, the unique personality to be able to attain it, and the belief that they could achieve this, naturally results in a strong work ethic. When your work is your purpose, the thing you feel like you are made to do, you tend to get tremendous joy out of it, and work is really only hard when you don’t enjoy it. Of course, sometimes these greats also had periods where they didn’t want to work but still worked because of discipline, but this is only useful in addition to working on your purpose. When you have to do everything out of discipline and willpower, it won’t last. To work hard consistently, you cannot rely on discipline, because once it runs out, you’re lazy again.

Hard work can only consistently take place with the knowledge that what you’re doing is your purpose, it’s what you’ve been put on this earth to do, then discipline can take over in the times when you don’t really feel like it.

When you find your uniqueness, and you find what you’re put on this earth to do, then hard work is just natural and easy, and even becomes fun.

“To be able to make your work your pleasure is the one class distinction in the world worth striving for.” ~ Winston Churchill...

3-Seize opportunities:

Another thing all of the greats have had in common is that they were giant opportunists. They sought out opportunities and made the most of them. Napoleon became a general during the most tumultuous and chaotic period in French history. Chaos always provides opportunity, and so it was with Napoleon. Generals were very low because they all fled during the chaos of the revolution. Suddenly, a young general named Napoleon was pushed forward and got the chance to prove himself. He made the most of this chance by overperforming on his tasks, and after multiple conquests, he gained a reputation in France as a very competent general.

Opportunities will always cross your path, but you need to have an eye for them to be able to seize them. Opportunities are fleeting, they disappear in a moment, never to return again. You have to grab them when they come, or else you'll miss them. What you need is to have an eye for opportunity, to keenly await when one comes, always observant, always ready to seize it. But besides simply seeing when an opportunity may have arrived, you need to be able to take advantage of it. You’re only able to do that once you’ve prepared yourself for them.

What you must do is work your ass off on what’s unique to you, and then look for opportunities that would match your qualities. You can also try and predict what opportunities could come your way that would fit you, and what you would need to do to take full advantage of them.

Success can’t exist without opportunities, but opportunity is nothing without having the means to take advantage of them. Prepare yourself for when these opportunities may come, because it could be the one that changes your life.

This was a summarized version of how you can become a great opportunist. If you want to learn more about this you should read this blog I’ve made about Napoleon, how he became such a great opportunist, and how you can become one too.

"Ability is nothing without opportunity.” ~ Napoleon

4-Become a Great Communicator:

What every great man in history has in common, is that they were all brilliant communicators and very good marketers. They were excellent at inspiring people, whether it be their troops or everyday citizens, and they knew how to stir people's emotions through the power of words and make them feel what they were saying. They could make people believe that they were doing it for a higher purpose, that they had a true cause that they were fighting for, and that everyone who was working for it was equally important. This is for example what George S. Patton told his army in his most famous speech:

"Every single man in the army plays a vital role. So don't ever let up. Don't ever think that your job is unimportant. What if every truck driver decided that he didn't like the whine of the shells and turned yellow and jumped headlong into a ditch? That cowardly bastard could say to himself, 'Hell, they won't miss me, just one man in thousands.' What if every man said that? Where in the hell would we be then?"

Here he is stating the importance of every single soldier in his army. He lets them know that every job they have, no matter how large or small, matters. That how they do their job will have an impact on the entire operation, and that they are essential gears in his machine.

This is also what Napoleon did when he went into Italy with his army. He told them that they were all working towards a great cause, and that history would remember their courage for it. He promised his soldiers glory and a place in the history books, what more could you desire as a soldier?

Another very important point is that you can strike people's emotions through the power of words. You need to be able to make them feel something because logic and arguments only make people think, but only emotion will make them act. If you want them to do something, you need to hit them in an emotional way. There are multiple tactics and techniques that you can use to stir up and amplify the emotions your audience feels, such as the use of rhythm, extravagant language, building up tension, etc. These are all points that I went over in a previous blog about Churchill's 5 principles of Oratory, which all have the sole purpose of stirring people's emotions.

But the most important part of being able to stir the emotions of your audience, is being honest. You can't make your team feel inspired if you are hopeless and depressed yourself. If you don't feel the emotion you're trying to convey, people will notice, and the message won't come across. You have to feel the emotion first, you need to genuinely believe in what you're saying. Only then can you transfer that belief over to other people and make them do what you want.

Another important aspect of communication is the one you do on a large scale: Marketing. Since the first printing press came out, every great figure has made excellent use of marketing, the marketing through propaganda and semi-false or extremely positive information, and the marketing of themselves.

When Napoleon won battle after battle in Italy, he realized something. 'Why would I just win these battles without anyone knowing?' He saw that he could turn these battles into a political power for him, people could see what he had done in largely exaggerated newspapers and believe him to be a great man. So to do this, he bought two newspapers that citizens and his own army would see and acquired great connections with other newspapers. This way he could control his public image, he could amplify the positive things that happened, neglect the negatives, and make sure his image was just the way he wanted it to be.

Another part is self-marketing. Napoleon was excellent at this by spreading stories of him and his victories, and portraying himself with beautiful paintings that made him almost look like a mythical creature. Winston Churchill was also very thoughtful about the way he marketed himself. His look was absolutely iconic, even for the time. His extravagant hats, a big cigar in his mouth at all times, the suit with the bow tie. Perhaps you may think that this was just his style, and partly it was, but it was also very conscious self-marketing. He knew that with a unique image, he would stand out, and that people would remember him more for that than when he would just blend in.

Of course, the most iconic thing about Winston Churchill are the huge Cuban cigars he always had in his mouth. He knew this as well, so when he was aware that there was press present on the occasion, he would deliberately light up his cigar at the right time so that it was big enough that everyone could see him with his iconic cigar. He knew that how he looked mattered and consciously crafted his image until it was perfect.

What every great person thus had in common was that they were excellent at communicating. They knew how to stir people's emotions, they were excellent at spreading great stories about them and the things they've done, and they were very good at marketing themselves and crafting the perfect public image. What you can learn from this are three things:

You need to learn how you can affect people emotionally, especially through your words. When you have the power to affect people's emotions, you can make them do anything you want them to, and make them feel like how you need them to feel.

There are several tactics you can use for this, Churchill himself names five which you can read here.

What they also used a lot was propaganda, so spreading positive stories about themselves and their achievements. What you can learn from this is that you need to communicate the things you've done, you can do this through social media where you can get the word out yourself and craft your image to your liking. You can tell people what you want them to know about you, and if you're doing it right you can even create a kind of myth around you, just like Napoleon did. The power of propaganda and storytelling is huge, so use it to your full advantage.

Lastly is consciously self-marketing yourself. You need to craft your own unique image. People need to recognize who you are in an instant. You need to stand out, but not in a sore thumb kind of way. Just like Churchill, play around with convention. Everybody in his time wore a suit and tie, so Churchill made the adjustment of wearing a bowtie instead. Everyone was smoking in those days, especially cigarettes and smaller cigars, so to stand out, he smoked the biggest cigars he could find. Like Churchill, you should play around with convention to craft your image. If you stand out too much, you're an outsider and you won't be able to connect with as many people. But if you are too conventional, no one will notice you, and you're just one in thousands. The perfect way to market yourself is by crafting an image that is just a little bit different from everyone else, so that everyone can still relate to you, but they will see you as a little different from everyone else.

You can immediately see that this is supposed to be Churchill just by his silhouette.

Self-marketing at its finest.


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