On Being Exceptional

A few years ago I did a workshop on digital transformation and what it means for organizations struggling with change. One of the attendees in the workshop was an executive director of an association that supports children with learning disabilities - or children with "exceptionalities". This gentleman was impressed with the workshop and brought me in for ideas on a marketing campaign to launch the association's new membership structure.

As part of the ideation and discovery portion of the engagement I spent a long weekend thinking hard on what it means to be "exceptional" - but as an individual and not just a child with exceptionalities.

I started my own creative exploration that weekend with a dictionary:


This definition got me thinking close to home.

I have two sisters and four nieces (and one nephew). I stared at a picture of two of my nieces. They were at a playground and one had her arm wrapped around the shoulder of the other. The one on the left, Emma, has Down Syndrome and the one on the right, Cammie, leads a "normal" life. 

What struck me is that at some point, in the near future, Emma will realize she is "exceptional" - different from everyone else, unusual, not typical. And, at some point, she will want to be anything but exceptional. She will want to be like all the other children, she will want to be "normal".

Cammie, at some point her life, will want more than anything else to differentiate herself, to stand out, to be atypical. Cammie will spend her life looking for ways to be exceptional.

So, with that, what makes someone truly exceptional? 

First, I determined that being exceptional had nothing to do with physical attributes, though my niece Emma will certainly be defined by hers. As much as our world operates and defines status based on physical, nothing exceptional exists on surface alone.

One can argue that being exceptional is based on skill - the talent(s) a person brings to the world. Very few people can play basketball like Michael Jordan and very few people have a vision like Steve Jobs.

But there are also a lot of really talented, lazy people. So then it becomes about work ethic and what you do with the gifts given to you.

There is a famous Michael Jordan Nike commercial where Jordan apologizes for "making it look easy". The hours of hard work very few witnessed - most people only saw Michael Jordan at game time.

Talent coupled with work ethic does not paint a full picture. Not to many will argue that Steve Jobs had a brilliant mind yet where he fell short came by way of how he went about making his dent in the universe (Jobs was often criticized by how he treated colleagues).

So then it becomes a matter of character and how you choose to carry on in the world.

Are you giving more than you take? Are you operating your life with integrity and acts of kindness and altruism? selflessness?

Every day, every act, every exchange with another human being is within your control. Over a lifetime, these daily interactions, these daily decisions you make, either contribute or take away from living an exceptional life.

The two things that will define exceptionality for Emma and Cammie, and for all of us, are effort and character.

Both of which is in their (and our) control.