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Being Exceptional Is Easier Than You Think

Think about somebody in your life, or perhaps a historical figure, that you consider to be an exceptional human being.

Say, for example, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, or Hellen Keller.

What is it about people like this that makes them exceptional? Is it a unique combination of qualities like honesty, kindness, and generosity? Or is it a distinct and separate trait altogether, such that one could even be exceptional yet dishonest and unkind?

More to the point, is being exceptional something that a normal person can realistically aspire to? Can I learn to be exceptional? Can you? Or is it something that's ingrained only in a select and fortunate few at birth?

The answers to these questions might surprise you. Indeed, not only is exceptionalism its own distinct quality, but it's also something that a person can acquire through deliberate effort. In fact, becoming an exceptional human being is a lot easier than it sounds.

The paradox of exceptionalism
I began thinking about these questions two weekends ago after watching, of all things, the NFC championship game between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers.

With less than a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, and down by six points, San Francisco's quarterback threw an 18-yard pass to the corner of the end zone. The pass was intercepted by Seattle's Malcolm Smith after being batted away by cornerback Richard Sherman.

What happened next will go down in the annals of unsportsmanlike conduct. Sherman flashed a "choke" gesture at San Francisco's quarterback, called the targeted receiver "mediocre" in multiple post-game interviews, and exchanged sophomoric barbs about the incident over Twitter.

Indeed, it was the furthest one could get from being exceptional. Yet -- and here's what piqued my interest -- that's exactly what Sherman is.

By all accounts, the 25-year-old was dealt a rough hand in life. Raised in the city of Compton, a violent and gang-infested enclave within the Los Angeles metropolitan area, few would have expected him to make it anywhere in life outside of the California penal system.

But he beat the odds, graduated second in his high-school class with a 4.2 grade-point average, received a scholarship to attend Stanford University, earned a degree in communication, and has gone on to become arguably the best cornerback in the NFL today.

Say what you will about his unfortunate hand gesture and post-game comments -- and I, for the record, am a lifelong Denver Broncos fan -- there's simply no denying the fact that Richard Sherman is an exceptional human being.

Exceptionalism as a distinct quality
The possibility that a person can do something foolish (small "f") -- or, in Sherman's case, a succession of foolish things -- but still be considered exceptional is a powerful insight.

It shows that exceptionalism can be isolated from qualities like honesty, humility, kindness, and generosity. In other words, it shows that exceptionalism is its own unique trait.

An interesting consequence of this is that a person can be both exceptional and dishonest. Or exceptional and miserly. Or even generous yet unexceptional.

Perhaps no single individual illustrates this apparent contradiction better than Phil Knight, the co-founder and current chairman of Nike (NYSE: NKE  ) .

If portrayals of Knight are to be believed, he's undermined friends and business partners, employed trickery and deceit in dealings with suppliers, contributed to the proliferation of sweatshops throughout Asia, violated rules against paying amateur athletes, and used the legal system as a bully pulpit to intimidate adversaries.

Yet, despite these things, and much like Sherman, there's simply no question that Knight is an exceptional human being.

While Nike's rise may seem inevitable in hindsight, nothing could have been further from the truth when Knight co-founded it in 1964. At the time, the athletic shoe industry was dominated by Adidas. Waging war against it was crazy, akin to battling against Wal-Mart  (NYSE: WMT  ) today. Yet, Knight did so and prevailed.

What it takes to be exceptional
At this point, you'd be excused for wondering what it takes -- or, for that matter, doesn't take -- to be exceptional. If people like Sherman and Knight fit the bill, even with these transgressions, then what exactly is it?

To a certain extent, of course, the answer lies in the word itself. Its definition is "unusual; not typical." That is, to be exceptional, you have to go against the grain. You have to be a rule-breaker. An individual.

But, and this is a critical point to appreciate, merely separating oneself from the pack isn't enough. It also matters both how and when you do so.

Victor Frankl spoke about this in the context of suffering in "Man's Search for Meaning," a memoir recounting his two and a half years in a German concentration camp during World War II (emphasis added):

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.

Suffice it to say, Frankl's experience represents the extremity of exceptionalism. But it nevertheless captures the essence.

That is, to be exceptional, one has to approach challenges and adversity not with a sense of lamentation, as many of us do, but with open and eager arms. To appreciate them, in Frankl's words, as "hidden opportunities for achievement."

How to become exceptional
This brings me to the most important point: How can people like you and I can become exceptional in our own right -- both in terms of investing (as The Motley Fool is an investing site) and in life more generally?

As I promised at the beginning, the answer to this is much simpler and easier to implement than one might think. This is because each day presents you with a series of otherwise infinitesimal challenges -- i.e., opportunities -- that can be used to differentiate yourself from the pack.

Giving up your seat on the subway for the older woman who just boarded. Not retaliating when you're cut off on the freeway. Not yelling at your children in those inevitable moments when chaos ensues. Or, in the case of investing, not succumbing to the urge to check your brokerage account when the market is down.

Are these small and arguably meaningless examples? Absolutely. But that's the point.

Becoming exceptional, while not necessarily complicated, is a process. Small tests steel you for bigger ones. They elevate your consciousness in the face of adversity and fuel your willingness to seek out and conquer new challenges.

In Richard Sherman's case, this was prevailing in the face of Compton's ubiquitous culture of violence. In Phil Knight's case, it was prevailing over a deeply entrenched and well-financed industry.

What's it going to be in your case? That's impossible to say, but you'd better start preparing now.

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Read/Post Comments (7) | Recommend This Article (14)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 04, 2014, at 6:37 PM, cmalek wrote:

    "By all accounts, the 25-year-old was dealt a rough hand in life."

    Hand me a violin!

    "While Nike's rise may seem inevitable in hindsight, nothing could have been further from the truth when Knight co-founded it in 1964."

    It wasn't as bad as you make it sound. Nike saw a need for good running shoes and filled it. Addidas was concentrating on soccer shoes and their running shoes left a lot to be desired. So the competition was not as lopsided as you portray it.

    The paradox of exceptionalism is not that you can be jerk and still be exceptional. It is that, upon closer examination, every one has exceptional qualities of one kind or another. Exceptionalism is not that exceptional.

  • Report this Comment On February 07, 2014, at 2:29 PM, famulla wrote:

    The war on poverty, do I have to go on??? The whole subject is disgusting, time to clean house in congress, well that can't be done, but the public can vote against the election of any republican running by voting for someone else.Why is it that EVERY white country is forced to be multicultural/multiracial?

    Why is it that EVERY white country is told to end its own race/culture?

    No one asks that of -ANY- non-White country.

    Immigration/assimilation is FORCED upon ONLY White countries

    Anti-whites call themselves “anti-racists” but their actions lead to the elimination of only one race, the White race.

    The purpose of “anti-racism” is to genocide White children.

    Anti-racist is a code for anti-White

  • Report this Comment On February 07, 2014, at 2:32 PM, famulla wrote:

    Bosnia-Herzegovina: Bosnian protesters stormed and set ablaze local government buildings in three Bosnian cities on Friday in fury over unemployment and rampant corruption. At least 90 people were injured.

    The anti-government protests that began two days ago in the northern city of Tuzla spread throughout Bosnia, with thousands taking their discontent over the almost 40% unemployment rate onto the streets of a dozen cities.

    In Tuzla, the crowd stormed the local government building, throwing furniture, files and papers out of the windows and then setting the building on fire.

    Protesters also set local government buildings ablaze in Sarajevo and Zenica, and the building of the Bosnian presidency was also burning. Those fires were promptly put out but almost all the windows were broken.

    At least 80 people were injured in Sarajevo and 10 in Zenica, authorities said. There were no immediate casualty figures from Tuzla, where the worst of the fighting was.

  • Report this Comment On February 07, 2014, at 2:44 PM, famulla wrote:

    WE lack security Corporations do realize strong security is essential. When asked about their organization's top security priorities in the immediate and intermediate future, a 55 percent majority indicated "ensuring robust and adequate security," followed by 44 percent who cited the need to obtain security training for "IT staff and end users." Forty-three percent of respondents said their companies must "update and enforce security policies."

    There is no such thing as a 100-percent secure environment. Security is a process and an ongoing work in progress. Organizations must be ever-vigilant and assume responsibility for their system and network security.

    The joint ITIC/KnowBe4 2013 -2014 Security Deployment Trends Survey findings emphasize the need for corporations, C-level executives, IT and security administrators, and end users to be aware of, proactively identify, and thwart the innumerable potential security risks.

    Cooperation among all parties -- including upper management, IT and security administrators, and most of all, the end users -- is crucial. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. As the hacks grow more pernicious and the hackers more proficient, they almost invariably will find a way to exploit even the smallest vulnerability

  • Report this Comment On February 07, 2014, at 3:04 PM, CaddyKen wrote:

    <i> "If portrayals of Knight are to be believed, he's undermined friends and business partners, employed trickery and deceit in dealings with suppliers, contributed to the proliferation of sweatshops throughout Asia, violated rules against paying amateur athletes, and used the legal system as a bully pulpit to intimidate adversaries.

    Yet, despite these things, and much like Sherman, there's simply no question that Knight is an exceptional human being." </i>

    maybe I missed something- what was it that made him exceptional?

    I guess exceptional jerk is a possibility too.

  • Report this Comment On February 08, 2014, at 2:07 PM, crca99 wrote:

    A kid who gets a scholarship to Stanford doesn't need a violin or an excuse for poor sportsmanship.

    Why Phil Knight? You could have mentioned Steve Jobs, Vanderbilt, JP Morgan, JFK, FDR, Ghandi, and hundreds more for exceptional and flawed. Let's not put one football interception in their company.

    And what really was your point...because it reads as though you wanted to pad your paycheck with imperfectly themed article.

  • Report this Comment On March 04, 2014, at 3:34 PM, wildeweasel wrote:

    Being exceptional is as simple as working hard at something you have an innate aptitude at already. You can work hard at something you are not good at and become proficient, or you can waste ability by not putting in the effort, but you can not learn to be exceptional without both. Being a jerk has no connection to either that is just a choice not to think about how your actions will affect others.

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John Maxfield

John is The Motley Fool's senior banking specialist. If you're interested in banking and/or finance, you should follow him on Twitter.

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