Greatness: Bill Dorris’s The Arrival of The Fittest: How The Great Become Great

Bill Dorris’s book, The Arrival of The Fittest: How The Great Become Great (2009), address the role of chance over the course of development, the importance of the development of unique personal characteristics to achieving greatness, and the influence of changes in the wider worlds surrounding the person–from interpersonal to societal–on an individual’s development.

Dorris argues that those who attain ‘greatness’ are credited with solving a key generational problem in a field and/or society. Albert Einstein resolving the conflict between Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell in physics at the outset of the 20th century. Woody Guthrie providing a voice for the outcasts of the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Dorris argues that those who become ‘great’ start out with sufficient genetic potential and then are able, over two or more decades, to obtain matches/fits with “the right kind of problems” to extend the development of these genetic biases into what Dorris terms, “key characteristics.” These intellectual, personality, and self characteristics eventually turn out to be required to solve a key generational problem in their field and/or society.

There are four types of matching processes which occur over the course of such development. These refer to matches between the developmental needs of the person and the opportunities and resources essential to engaging in problem solving activities that stimulate further development of those aspects of intelligence, personality, and self which eventually become key characteristics.

Two of these matching processes are covered extensively in the existing research literature: continuous matching and cumulative matching. The other two of the matching processes are new to this book: catalytic matching and chaotic matching.

Catalytic matching: anyone who eventually becomes a ‘great’ will have experienced one or more sustained periods of exceptionally accelerated development of their key characteristics, accelerations which serve massively to differentiate them from their former peers in terms of both development and visibility within the field. This acceleration occurs because the person becomes the focal point (star) of a self-reinforcing system of expertise and resources (catalytic system) which thrives off this person’s accelerated development and visibility.

Chaotic matching is that access to the resources and learning opportunities essential to the development of key characteristics of an eventual ‘great’ often occurs not due to the efforts/planning of the individual, but simply due to chance events in the interpersonal, institutional or societal worlds around the person, who (unlike perhaps millions of equally capable peers) becomes the beneficiary of these chance events, events which can change a person’s entire future in much the same way as a lottery jackpot or a Titanic ticket.

Dorris documents his theoretical arguments with extensive case studies of a wide range of individuals, including Einstein, Elvis, Monet, Mozart, da Vinci, Abraham Lincoln, Watson and Crick, basketball great Bill Russell, Louis Armstrong, Bill Gates, Alfred Hitchcock, Woody Guthrie, and Norma Jeane/Marilyn Monroe.

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