A caution on being exceptional: It’s not what most people think. We tend to associate the word “exceptional” with positive associations, like the student that gets an A+ in a class where the average is B’s or the swimmer from a small town who defies the odds and makes it to the Olympics.
But exceptional doesn’t always mean “great”, it simply means “the exception”. It means out of the norm, different than most or, as exceptional people tend to see it, not like everyone else. It means consistently hearing that something is “impossible” to achieve and routinely achieving it as a matter of course. It means seeing opportunity where no one else does and danger where everyone sees safety. On the positive, it means living on a different path and treading new ground.
If you want to be the exception, here are a few ways that have worked:
1. Listen but don’t always believe. People tend to give advice based on “the rule” rather than the exception. For example, someone who wants to transition from marketing in technology to brand management in CPG will be told it is “impossible”. Why? Because exceptions tend to be less visible and they tend to be, well, exceptions. People don’t give advice on a course of action that does not always succeed, but to a course of action that has the highest probability of success. This creates the illusion of “the impossible” or “never happen”. It’s not always true, so don’t always believe it.
2. The Secret Ingredient. People’s fear of failure wins over the desire to succeed every day. I’ve found that risk adversity wins over imagination all the time. The “habit” of going with the flow and “doing what everyone else does” is prevalent. To overcome this phenomenon, talk about success. Talk about winning. Talk about overcoming. Talk about the underdog. Talk about Rocky, talk about David vs Goliath, talk about your experience, in making the impossible happen. In doing so, you help your audience understand that you are the secret ingredient in making exceptions happen and they are likely to support you in making it happen.
3. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Wayne Gretzky said it, and it’s still true. Apply for the impossible job. Crash the party. Ask the girl. Apply to Harvard. You’d be surprised how far the first step takes you. AND THEN: Pursue with the right amount of relentlessness. Persistent but not overbearing. If she doesn’t call you back, try again; but not every hour of every day. Single is lonely, but jail is no fun either.
4. Avoid the Walking Dead. Have you noticed that, be it in the show or the comic book, when the main characters stop moving and get comfortable, they die? Being the exception is the same; never get comfortable. Keep moving, keep evolving, keep learning, and always be doing something else.
5. People’s opinions aren’t facts. Data is everywhere now and you should use it. Don’t let other people tell you what can or can’t be done; come to your own conclusions using the data that surrounds you. If you want to get into an industry, first find out if it is growing or in decline. If you’re planning to launch a new product, find out if people like it before you go all in. Being an exception isn’t just about being bold, it’s also about being smart. If you don’t use the data, you’ll be an exception… it just may be in the wrong direction.
If you want to be a bit different and tread a new path, the 5 tips above should be helpful. If you look around and see people shaking their head at you in disbelief, it is a sign that you’re on the right track to being the exception. Good work, I say. Keep it up.