What Will Be Your One Great Thing?

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

“Don’t ever tell anybody anything. if you do, you start missing everybody.

— Holden Caulfield, “The Catcher in the Rye”

J.D. Salinger, author of the above quote, died in January 2010 at the age of 91. Not only will next month be the first anniversary of his death but the 60th anniversary of his seminal life’s work, “The Catcher in the Rye.”

That book changed my life and continues to do so decades since I first read it as a young teen (and it still sells more than 250,000 copies a year.) It’s the only book I read again and again — and every time I see something new, not necessarily because I never noticed it before, but because I couldn’t. This is where art crosses into magic, where static pages seem to change to fit whatever you need to hear at that moment in your life.

Salinger reached such rarified air it’s no wonder he found it difficult to breathe once “Catcher” was published in 1951. In the more than five decades that followed, he lived as a recluse in a small New Hampshire town. He created One Great Thing — a novel for the ages — and either couldn’t live with the attention it brought or he was too afraid to create more public art, lest he be unable to match or surpass his One Great Thing.

Author and marketer Seth Godin says it’s important to “ship,” which means you need to continue to put your art into the marketplace. Some will be good, some will be horrible, and if you’re lucky, something you do may be great. It doesn’t need to be “Catcher in the Rye,” but it will be yours — a product or idea that defines you and that impacts those it touches.

Although Godin is right, I would add a caveat — before you continue to ship, take a step back and think, really think, about what you want to be your One Great Thing.

All of us have this ability. For some it’s a calling, a need to create that One Great Thing so that they can live beyond their years. I’m not talking about kids and family, that goes without saying (and as a father, I can attest that there is nothing more important for us to do in this life.)

No, I’m talking about art, about culture, about making something so powerful that it connects you to strangers with such force that it knocks them over. I’m talking about your retirement party, when people asks about your legacy and proudest achievement.

Will you tell them about that marketing plan you wrote, that Tweet you sent or Facebook photos you posted? Will you talk about the money you made? Or will you just smile because you know it’s a rhetorical question — because you both already know the answer.

During a typical moment of depression-induced reflection, Holden Caulfield says that “people never notice anything.” By and large he’s right — we are oblivious to most things in life, even our own lives. We notice the important stuff when it’s too late or no longer relevant.

But he’s also wrong. All of us will, at some point, create and ship One Great Thing. A work of art. A piece of magic.

What will yours be?

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