Finding what makes you ‘exceptional’ key to success

Those of you as addicted to National Public Radio as I am have doubtless heard the News from Lake Wobegon, a segment of long-running radio series A Prairie Home Companion. The segment describes life in a fictional town (Lake Wobegon, pronounced woe-be-gone), where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.”

Thanks to this famous quote, this fictional Minnesota town has loaned its name to a well-studied psychological occurrence: the better-than-average (Lake Wobegon) effect. In essence, it claims that a significant majority of people say they are above average in a wide variety of categories like driving skills, writing skills and leadership. That, of course, is a mathematical impossibility.

This failure to accurately appraise ourselves is a common trait of American society, which almost universally teaches children to feel like they are “above average” from a young age. This is particularly prevalent in athletics, where even the most ill-suited children are encouraged to keep participating in a sport just to avoid hurting their feelings.

Likewise, the assumption that you are above average at picking a house to flip, being able to hold on to a job (and thereby keep paying your overinflated mortgage) or getting awesome profits on some newfangled financial instrument called a Collateralized Debt Obligation have all played a role in the current financial crisis.

The fascinating fact is that despite how bad most people are at figuring out what they are good at, being able to accurately identify those areas where you truly are above average is tremendously advantageous.

In countless aspects of life, success comes to the person who is only a little bit above average, in everything from grades, which are often distributed on a curve, to job interviews, to running your own business. At some point your success will be determined by the tiniest advantage you hold over your competition. Being outstanding, though, is far from easy: chances are that your competitors think they are better than you, too. At the same time, one can never be all things to all people.

So what is a person or company that can’t afford to spend the time or money to be outstanding to do? There is a vastly lower barrier to entry for a different adjective: exceptional.

Authors like Seth Godin have picked up on the need to be exceptional over the course of the past decade, with Godin publishing the book Purple Cow on the topic. Godin explains this concept, explaining that “something remarkable is worth talking about. Worth noticing. Exceptional. New. Interesting.”

In my mind, I define “exceptional” in a somewhat different way: an exceptional person, product, company or group is one that is at least a little bit above average in an interesting combination of ways. The word exceptional, after all, comes from the same root as exception, something that is, for whatever reason, omitted from a group. Would it not be preferable to exclude yourself from a group entirely and have people evaluate you on a unique scale, rather than finding yourself mired down in the morass of competition?

With it being well established that people are rather awful at evaluating themselves, however, the best way to identify and accentuate what you are exceptional at remains an unsolved problem. I, unfortunately, have not solved it either (or I’d have a job by now), but I do have two thoughts on how to go about it.

First, you cannot be exceptional if you are not focusing on the things that truly matter to you. A person can easily become adequate at a subject they don’t care about, and in some disciplines perhaps that will even get them a modicum of success. But people, clients and customers can tell when a person is—and is not—truly passionate about something, and it affects the ability to be exceptional in that field.

The second is that if you are trying to stand out, it might be best to pick an area that everyone else isn’t trying to stand out in at the same time. One should try to be ahead of the curve, not following it—all of the people who decided they could be exceptional real estate agents a few years ago would vouch for that.

In the end, though, the most important thing you can do is to just keep the exceptional question in mind.