Start with Your Natural Talent
Countless scholars and books push the virtue of natural ability and propose that the abilities you are born with are the primary determinants of what you achieve. Conversely, just as many intellectuals argue the opposite. They state what you are born with has little impact on your achievements, and some even believe you can take just about any newborn baby and develop them into becoming whatever you want because every skill is a learned skill.
The nature versus nurture debate is an outdated concept. Nature and nurture are both essential in extraordinary skill development. Genes may be predetermined, but the environment shapes the characteristics they convey. Nature and nurture work together to form your progress, your abilities, and the heights you are capable of achieving.
Rather than try to pinpoint the origin of excellence, we need to focus on the methods to create it. And the process is simple: You start in an area where you have a set of skills or a natural gift, and then you support that gift and invest in it until you have developed it into an extraordinary ability. That is how every exceptional has done it, and it is the only way you can do it too.
Refine Your Environment
Being in a high-achievement environment plays a vital role in how you maximize your potential. It certainly is easier for us to influence the physical environment we require for success over the social environment. We can’t go back in time and change our social setting to recreate the culture of striving we should have had in the past. But it is never too late. If you want to achieve excellence in anything, you should put yourself in an environment filled with like-minded people who pull you up and motivate you to excel. “You are only as good as the company you keep” may be an adage, but it is true. Being in an environment or surrounded by people who don’t push you to excel or those who bring you down is not going to help you achieve your aspirations. Life’s too short to hang out with them.
It is not too late for you to create an environment that drives you to perform your best. You may need to revisit the most fundamental questions about what you want to achieve and what you want your legacy to be. Then place yourself in a position that allows you to do your best work. Surround yourself with the people, the ideas, the resources, and the mindset that brings out the very best in you. Only when you are in the environment that promotes sustained excellence will you be able to achieve it.
Believe You Can Do It
Believing in yourself and having the confidence that you can achieve something magnificent is the start of your journey to becoming exceptional. The mission to the top is simply too hard to complete without an ongoing optimism in your abilities. It is only the confidence you have about your success that will let you put in the work and effort to be successful. The belief you have in your capabilities will allow you to stretch and achieve bigger and bigger goals. Your self-efficacy is a form of constructive thinking that will allow you to better cope with the hardships you will endure, continually make improvements, and reach for higher and higher goals.
The most exceptional people show an enormous amount of self-efficacy in their abilities. They view the challenges they face as things they can overcome, not things that will diminish them. Their belief in themselves allows them to stay committed to their goals for years and even decades. They believe failure is simply due to a lack of skills that they can develop, not a reason to give up on their dreams. They express a high degree of commitment to their goals and, as a result, don’t give up.
The Myth of the Solo Superstar
It takes a village to become exceptional. It is not possible to make the trek to the top of the mountain alone. You will need the support of a mentor and a team of experts to guide you and help you navigate the complicated journey. Even if you think you can do it alone, you most likely can’t. The best in the world appear to stand alone, but they don’t. They have the support of a set of people whom they trust and who provide the expert knowledge they need. They have built their community and their village, even if sometimes it needs to be a virtual one.
Every exceptional can point to the people who have influenced them, guided them, and given them the confidence, tools, and knowledge to succeed. Do you have a mentor who serves as a pillar and supports you and is as vested in your success as you are? If not, find someone you can open up to and who will encourage you. The world is complex and is getting more so, and without the power of an improvement community you can rely on, the hard road to greatness will become a lot harder.
Forget about Your Plan B
Joan Benoit Samuelson, the renowned Olympic gold-medal marathoner, did not plan on being a runner. Her dream was to represent the US Olympic team as a skier. When she was fifteen years old, she suffered a ski accident that ended in a broken leg, and as a result, she took up running to help with her rehabilitation.
The accident derailed her dream of becoming an elite skier. But she had learned the qualities of what it takes to become exceptional. Soon, running became her sport, and she was able to apply everything she had learned to become one of the best marathoners the world had ever seen. Just seven years after picking up running, she entered the Boston Marathon as a complete unknown and won the race, shattering the course record by eight minutes.
Paradoxically, the act of being fully committed to something—of not having a plan B—can open up multiple alternative paths—maybe not plan A but something you couldn’t have predicted enough to make into a plan B. Samuelson’s clarity and commitment to becoming a world-class skier opened up avenues she never expected. While she never had a plan B, an exceptional career in running became a new plan A.
Sometimes, things are out of your control. You may try to become the very best in the world at something, and despite your considerable efforts, you may not get there. However, the traits you picked up while you were trying to become the best can help you succeed in other areas because they are transferrable. Many people who did not achieve their dream of becoming professional athletes or musicians, despite their best efforts, have gone on to become successful entrepreneurs, lawyers, doctors, or leaders in the community. Their desire, dedication, discipline, ability to learn and improve, and all of the other desirable qualities they have developed over the years have translated to success in other fields. And despite not achieving their original dream, these people have found happy, fulfilled, productive, and successful lives.
No One Will Outwork Me
We learn from a very young age that the key to success at anything is hard work. As we grow, we see the definitive link between hard work and results. We understand that effort and persistence are essential elements for sustained excellence. Every person who has reached the top has worked harder than most of us can ever imagine.
When you set out to outwork everyone else, your goal should not be to compare your efforts to those of others. You should focus on achieving your possible best every day. That is the only way to improve. It is natural to measure your progress against that of others, and measuring up against others is often a good yardstick and a good motivator, but you can’t control what others do. You can only control yourself, which is why greatness transcends competition and centers on you. Only through intense effort will you see progress and new results. And as you see the results of your efforts, and like what you see, your motivation and ability to work even harder increases.
Joining the Exceptionals
The road to becoming extraordinary is not linear; it is a jumbled, winding journey filled with dead ends, spurts, and restarts. No two paths are ever the same, and every individual trek has its twists and turns. Sometimes it’s not even the things we do that lead to immense success; events outside of our control (such as luck) may contribute to exceptional outcomes. But these instances are rare, and the broad elements of excellence and the sequence of progression are common across most of the exceptionals.
Your unique traits are essential and help determine how far you can go, but when you understand and apply the common factors that are present in every journey to the top, your chances of becoming exceptional increase substantially. While we are enamored by the achievements of exceptional people we read about or see on TV, you will get the same rewards and feel the same sense of gratification when you reach the top of your profession. You don’t have to become a household name to experience that incredible feeling of achievement. You feel it when you become exceptional, or in other words, when you achieve your possible best.