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What does it take to be exceptional? And is it worth it?

Sarah McGill | Articles

“If you want to be exceptional… at anything… you have to get very good at resisting socialisation.” I call that a blinding flash of the obvious. A good friend of mine said that to me years ago; no doubt because I was lamenting (a.k.a. whining about) the energy it took to drive myself, my team and my clients to produce top quality results. As this friend happens to be a wickedly talented sports psychologist working with elite athletes, I thought I’d best swallow my pride and really think about his comment. Fifteen years later, I am still thinking…

What does it take to be exceptional? And is it worth it? It is a mathematical truism that most people, most organizations and most results are average. There’s no way around it. It follows, then, that if you aspire to be anything other than average you need to think and do some things differently than most of the people around you. In other words, thinking and behaving differently is a prerequisite to being distinctive.

Looking at public figures who are reaping the benefits of being exceptional, it is easy to imagine that being different is all upside. My personal experience, however, is that being in a room of people who think differently than I do is often not that much fun. It requires more effort to be understood. It requires more skill in empathy to integrate others’ thinking. It requires discipline to stay focused. And – here’s the kicker – in any given situation it is likely that some of the input you get will be lowering the quality of your aspirations and output.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am a dyed-in-the-wool diversity advocate. Having been raised all around the world and experienced from a young age what it is like to be the minority in language, faith and custom, I have a deep appreciation of both the human joys and the cold, hard business benefits of diversity. That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about what it takes to resist the cosy comforts of mediocre thinking, habits and aspirations (which are present in all faiths and cultures around the world!) to give yourself a chance to achieve something exceptional. To realise the potential inside you and let it out. To do and be in a way that makes you immensely proud and fulfilled.

So – why is it so hard to be different even when you know what you’re striving for? Being human is a team sport. Among the most fundamental unconscious human motivators are the need to ‘be right’, ‘be included’ and ‘look good’. When everyone thinks the same way, behaves the same way and produces the same ideas, we all get to be right or to feel included. And if we’re all right and feel included, then we all look good! And that feels warm and safe… until it doesn’t. Because someone else with distinctive ideas and execution bursts our bubble.

Exceptional usually isn’t the popular kid in the playground. It doesn’t always feel fun and inviting to people around it. It often looks like hard work. It can look and feel like it is judging others, even if it is not. It usually takes a long time for exceptional thinking and habits to blossom into an exceptional result. Exceptional is a lonely journey. It requires sustained focus on your goal or aspiration. It requires believing in yourself even when the results are not yet apparent and others are saying you have it wrong. Or even more insidiously that it just isn’t worth the effort and you should “knock off and come for drinks instead.” It requires discipline to keep at the habits daily that have the potential to add up to an amazing result. It requires the confidence to believe in yourself when you are the sole divergent agent in your system. It requires the wisdom to filter out mediocre input while remaining open to truly useful insight when it is offered.

Ok. That sounds horrendous! How can that possibly be worth it? That last question, dear readers, I am going to leave to you to answer for yourself. For me the answer is a resounding YES!!! Yes on the days when I am making the same mistake again for the twentieth time. Yes on the days when there’s a small breakthrough. Yes when it makes me feel so alone I wonder how I’ll make it through to my end of day glass of wine (judge if you must, but it is medicinal and necessary). Yes because it is the only way that I feel like I am giving it my best shot for the one chance I get at this life. What’s your answer?


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