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.

A behind-the-scenes take on Warren Buffett's greatest wisdom
Warren Buffett has made billions through his investing and he wants you to be able to invest like him. Through the years, Buffett has offered up investing tips to shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway. Now you can tap into the best of Warren Buffett's wisdom in a new special report from The Motley Fool. Click here now for a free copy of this invaluable report.

John Maxfield has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Nike. The Motley Fool owns shares of Nike. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.