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Think how cool the Navy Seals had to be to chopper into Pakistan to take out Osama bin Laden. The good among the great I’ve encountered are also cool, calm and collected. They have highly objective, even detached personalities. When you first meet them, they can come across as a little bit cool or aloof. But they are also deeply connected to the rest of humanity, especially those they love. It’s simply a paradox.

The best among us don’t gush or demand attention. They’re a bit reserved about their assessments and opinions. Their judgments are thought through and always their own. Wisely, they tend to let others speak first. And they’re always objective. They simply don’t have a lot of emotional baggage that makes their thinking subjective. For instance, they don’t turn a conversation around and make it about them. They’re like good mediators in that they have some distance from their thoughts and their selves.

Strong psyches remain unruffled by the events that rattle the average person. This ability to remain centered makes the good among the great resilient. Detachment is a key reason; in truth, they simply don’t suffer emotionally from setbacks the way the rest of us do.

They are not superhuman, and in moments of extreme stress, they also can panic. But their reactions to danger, extreme excitement, and terrible news are muted, if not explicitly controlled. Steve Case of AOL told me that he felt a bit like a shock absorber–being purposely upbeat to encourage employees when, early in AOL’s history, there were a few well-publicized service failures. Alternately, he tamped down expectations and excitement when AOL was racking up huge subscriber gains.

To quash her own panic when she fell into a crevasse while skiing across Antarctica, Liv Arnesen, the Norwegian polar explorer whom you’ll meet in Chapter 5 of my book, forced herself to recollect a prior summer’s vacation, right down the games she played with her children. That ability to detach oneself from one’s emotions kept Arnesen calm enough to avoid a deadly fall deep into the glacier.

Whether they are born with exceptionally calm demeanors or they learn to have some distance from their emotions, the good among the great I’ve profiled develop a true, whole sense of themselves and are both aware of and a bit detached from their feelings and reactions.

Maslow’s Take

In his analysis of self-actualizing individuals, Abraham Maslow described people who are so independent from their environments that they stay calm “in the face of hard knocks, blows, deprivations, frustrations, and the like.”

In Motivation and Personality, he describes the apparent paradox of detached but loving people. These people, he writes, “maintain a degree of individuality, detachment, and autonomy that seems at first glance to be incompatible with the kind of identification and love that I have been describing.” Take my other mother when I was a boy. To protect her privacy, let’s call her Mary Cunningham. She is an example of a good and great person leading a quiet and private life. Cunningham is very loving to her family and many, many others, though she doesn’t express it in an overt or demonstrative way. She can even come across as a bit cool.

“But this is only an apparent paradox,” Maslow continues. “As we have seen, the tendencies to detachment and to profound inter-relationships with another person can coexist in healthy people. The fact is that self-actualizing people are simultaneously the most individualistic and the most altruistic and social and loving of all human beings.”

Maslow argues that our culture has made a mistake by putting these qualities at opposite ends of a single continuum. We assume that detached and objective people cannot be warm, loving people at the same time, but in reality, they can. “These qualities go together,” Maslow explains, “and that dichotomy is resolved in self-actualizing people.”

How to Cultivate Detachment

Meditation is one way to develop more separateness from your own thoughts, and thereby help you develop the calm objectivity that the good among the great share. There are other ways: a good, long walk in nature will help, and aerobic exercise does it as well. I have no doubt that all those long distance cyclists, runners and swimmers are enjoying these benefits, whether they realize it or not.

There are a number of other ways to distract ourselves from our own nagging and niggling minds. Engaging in hobbies, particularly those that require use of our hands, as well as listening to music, are classic ways that we relax. Working and playing with animals are two more ways to turn your focus outward.

Our reasoning mind is a marvel of evolution–the most developed part of the human brain, it’s how we build and manage our modern civilizations. But for high-achievers it’s in hyperdrive every day. Shutting it off and reconnecting with our physical, sensory, creative, and spiritual selves refreshes our whole being and allows us to tap into a deeper, older wisdom–the kind that spared Mary Cunningham so much pain when she encountered trauma in her life. (More on this in Chapter 5 of The Good Among the Great.)

Cheers from Sonoma,
Donald Van de Mark


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About the author

Donald Van de Mark
Donald Van de Mark is the author of The Good Among the Great: 19 Traits of the Most Admirable, Creative and Joyous People.

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