Demystifying Greatness – From what is special to what is significant

Imagine you are part of a panel meant to choose astronauts who can fly space missions and land on Mars.

An astronaut you have chosen is on a space mission. Things don’t go by the plan and the spacecraft threatens to spiral out of control. Somehow, this astronaut along with his buddy manages to scramble things around and regain control! When back on earth, the astronaut is disappointed with himself. In his own eyes, he has failed in letting things go out of control. A thorough probe rules out human error, but his initial response was to think he goofed up! He wasn’t sure.

Would you put him on the first flight to Mars? Let us say, you still do. After all, he did manage to regain control.

Fast forward to the Mars landing moment, and on a private line, this astronaut says to Mission control even as he is manoeuvring the craft, that in his estimation, there is a 50-50 chance of the landing being successful. Just 50-50. With so much at stake! How would you as the decision-maker who had bet on him feel? Not so good, right?!


Well, come back from this exercise of imagination and let us visit the real past.

The things we imagined about did happen! An astronaut was self-critical about almost losing control over his spacecraft on an earlier mission. And he did think – while landing – that there was a 50-50 chance of successfully landing on the ….moon. Though he did not express that thought, that time.

Who are we talking about?

Neil Armstrong, of course!

We create a halo of greatness about icons and super-achievers. We build a knowledge-base for others on how to identify such people. These revelatory bits, from a 44 minute documentary, ‘The Armstrong tapes’, help us think again.

Great people have their all too human moments interspersed throughout their lives. We do not want to highlight that. We love to create a halo or an aura around their achievements. To make their feats extra-special, and ironically, out of reach for ordinary people. Worse still, we then equip ourselves with the know-how on how to identify, develop and celebrate such greatness. Create a mythology of our own and then labour to turn it into a fact!

Instead, how about we look at the details, the side-stories, the back-stories, the ones that are never going to leap out of the collection.

How much more can we resonate with Armstrong’s moment of self-doubt after an almost failure?

How much more reassured do we feel on knowing that even while he was landing on the moon, Armstrong was just 50-50 on the chances for success?! It has happened to us. We have had doubts during our biggest moments. 

That he did not let this pragmatic calculation interfere with his ‘self-efficacy’, is something to be inspired by and learn from. This feat is so much more relatable and accessible!

Am I saying there is nothing special about Neil Armstrong? Not at all.

I am saying, what is special, is a matter of interpretation. We can choose well and let our choice serve us. And our choice begins with the very word ‘special’ and probing what it conditions us to look out for. What if we change the word from ‘special’ to ‘significant’?

Let me share other significant bits from the documentary.


Armstrong had a flight accident in his training. He just managed to eject out of his crashing flying machine in the nick of time and landed safely. An hour or two, his office colleague turned up at the office, not knowing what had happened. He found Armstrong at his desk going through the usual routine, studying something at the desk. After some time, this colleague went to the coffee machine and found that people were talking about how Neil had just escaped death an hour back.  Not believing the talk, he went to see Armstrong at his desk and found him simply poring over pages and doing the usual routine!

What does that convey about Neil Armstrong?


Neil Armstrong and his wife, Janet, had a 2 year old daughter who died from cancer on their wedding anniversary. How did he cope? He was not big on talking anyway. He became more withdrawn and spoke even less. He couldn’t grieve in a way that would have comforted his wife. He couldn’t express his sorrow. He just immersed himself into his work even more and his family members coped with that. Neil and Janet separated after 38 years of marriage.


Neil felt guilty about all the acclaim he received as an individual.


He wanted to go to space again. But, he had now become a precious icon that America and the world could not lose. He was not allowed. The adventure meant more to him than the glory. He was so fed up with the celebrity treatment that he left the work and got into teaching. In fact, Neil was chosen to be the first to walk on the moon because he was modest with no ego. Buzz Aldrin had a larger than life personality, and there was no telling how he would be if he had been the first.


When asked about whether he felt he was an explorer, Armstrong replied in the negative. He said, ” I assisted in the development of flight machinery”! The fact is that Armstrong was more excited about the landing of the lunar module on the moon than being the first human being to walk on the moon. He said that the landing meant that humankind now had all the elements for a successful space flight and further space exploration.









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