Great or Good?

‘Great’ is all well and good, but ‘good’ . . .  now we’re talking!

Gavin English, Deputy Head Pastoral at Alleyn’s School in London, considers whether the pursuit of ‘greatness’  is overrated.Could good be better?

The measure of greatness

Greatness can be overrated – bear with me…

There are to my mind, many ways to be great.

One might have a particularly high level of ability in a defined area: ‘Wow – they’re great at (insert activity here)’.

Maybe you’re successful against a particular metric: ‘Wow . . . they must be great – look how much money they have/how big their house is/how fast their car is/how many books they’ve had published/how many people they’re in charge of/at how many certificates they have.’

Perhaps someone has a particular skill that sets them apart: ‘Woohoo . . . they’re great at keeping all those balls (metaphorical or literal, you choose) in the air at once.’

Or is it the case that the stars and fates align for that perfect moment of pure peak performance that sees the seemingly impossible made possible and allow us a glimpse of greatness? Brazil’s Robert Carlos’ incredible free kick against France in 1997 is a fine example.

The internet and bookshops (remember those?) is/are full of guidance and direction on how to be great, better or the best. The worst of these espouse the value of simplified and often deliberately misinterpreted research such as the popularised version of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours that leads you to expert/extraordinary proficiency, but saw so many children falling out of love with their once beloved pianos, footballs and crayons.

Other ideas about greatness point to the habits or attributes in apparently high achieving ‘de-rigueur’ individuals who, by whatever standards used by the author, are apparently worthy of our aspirations.

A different kind of good

The best ideas about greatness move the goalposts. People speak about ‘great’ in a different way and allude to greatness not as something to be achieved or arrived at but as something deeper. They speak about positive actions and attitudes that make an impact on those around them, on society and even on the world! It may not sound that exciting, which is probably why they dress it up a bit. But what I think they are reaching for is ‘good’ – not good on the sliding scale of achievement or recognition but ‘Good’ as in being ‘of positive character’.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with great. Great is memorable, great is magic moments and iconic images – it’s electrifying, powerful and at Alleyn’s achievable but we must be careful that our children aren’t too preoccupied with whether they are great or not in any given context, but more concerned with whether they feel they are on the path to becoming a good person.

Dr Tara Porter in her quite extraordinary book You don’t understand me speaks about the number of levels that adolescents, especially teenage girls, are judged and judge themselves on.

She highlights that a young person’s desire to be the best, compelled to live up to unrealistic expectations or the feeling that they must better themselves at every turn, with extraordinary performance or greatness as the goal can be incredibly damaging.

As Albus Dumbledore says in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,

“It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”


The irony is of course, that if we can inculcate in young people the desire to be ‘good’, to model and live values such as those that we set out in school as ‘ROCCK’ (Respect, Opportunity, Curiosity, Courage, Kindness), then greatness will come. And when it does, we can celebrate not only its arrival, but the individual, who, for however fleetingly, achieved it, and after the euphoria, the path by which they arrived. Alleyn’s being the remarkable place that it is, greatness shows up on a pretty regular basis.

Magic moments

It’s always interesting to observe those that genuinely deserve their moment and the reaction of those around them. Joyful admiration is quite something to experience. To see a friend who you respect and care for deeply, achieve the extraordinary, is a special moment that can stay with us as much as our own glories.

Basketballer Ed Sayeeng is a friend and teammate (and rival actually) of many years. As a point guard by trade, he is a facilitator, a distributor, shunning the limelight, driving the offence and making everyone else look good whilst doing all the running on defence.

One of my most memorable ‘magic moments’ – if not the most memorable – in what was a long and modestly decorated basketball career, was in fact Ed’s. He had two free throws to make after the final buzzer with his team one down in the London Senior Men’s Basketball final. One point to draw. Another to win . . .

Why it was memorable

This instant is something of legend amongst the London and in fact, national basketball fraternity. Yes, it’s obviously an impressive ‘clutch’ (under pressure) play but it’s not extraordinary. There are loads of them and the level of competition, although elite is modest. However, his example sustains me, year on year. From time-to-time, the video resurfaces on my screen. Comments and ‘likes’ are chucked about and the reason for that is Ed. He is admittedly a ‘baller’ (really good at basketball) but quite frankly, you could not meet a kinder, more accommodating and genuine person. This was his moment of greatness, on the court where he spent his formative years (Brixton) and we love him, so we share in that joy.

The Good

So where am I going with this? Greatness?  Revel in it when it happens to you, recognise and cheer it in others but be careful that you don’t chase it so hard that it comes at the expense of happiness or that when you get there, there’s no one to enjoy it with.

‘Great’ is . . . er . . . great, but ‘good’ sustains and when ‘The Good’ achieve it, no matter how fleetingly, we all get to join the party.


“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou


Gavin English is Deputy Head Pastoral of Alleyn’s School in London

This blog was originally published on the Alleyn’s School website on 17 January 2023, and is reproduced with kind permission of Alleyn’s School.

Full link to blog:


FEATURE IMAGE: with kind permission from Alleyn’s School

(Alleyn’s team with the winner’s trophy at the London School’s FA Under 19 Final!)

Support image:   by Umair Sharif from Pixabay


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