Exceptionalism Is Not a Four Letter Word. Personality Matters.
by Jennifer Munro
Author: Personality Matters. Maintaining the Fire and Passion of Entrepreneurial Thinking.
Exceptionalism is derived from the word Exceptional which is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as: 1 : forming an exception : rare, as an exceptional number of rainy days. 2 : better than average : superior exceptional skill. 3 : deviating from the norm: such as. a : having above average intelligence.
Exceptional behavior, performance, dedication and commitment by definition is demonstrated rarely. In past years, people recognized exceptionalism, the state of being exceptional, as something to be respected, emulated, and appreciated. Perhaps because the Exceptionals in any field or endeavor are outnumbered, the latest trend is to denounce exceptionalism, and demand apologies from those deemed exceptional, to try to embarrass them into hiding their abilities or isolating them to either squelch their exceptionalism or be devoid of friends or supporters.
An example of this is from the Wikipedia “sages” who define exceptionalism as “feeling superior” which is not found in the definition in the dictionary, nor is it common among exceptional people to go about “feeling superior.” I think that people who feel inferior must just assume that because they feel that way, the others who do not act like them therefore must “feel superior.” This is part of an ever growing trend to mediocritize everything so that no one ever feels inferior, to lower expectations so no one fails.
My son and I were discussing this turn of events and he reminded me of the Disney Pixar movie, the Incredibles. In the movie, the family of superheroes has been relocated and given a new identity by the government because their incredible special superhero powers have created resentment and animosity regardless of the world saving feats they have demonstrated. They are warned to keep their powers secret. The superhero children are not allowed to play sports or compete because it is important for them to “fit in.” The kids are sullen and fight with each other because of the stress of holding back on their gifts to be “like everyone else.” They ask why they have superpowers if they are not allowed to use them. Dash, the boy with superhero speed, is told his power is really unfair to others and that he needs to realize everyone is special. He says that means when everyone is special, no one is.
The villain who has no special abilities buys machines and armies to compete with the superheroes and seeks to destroy them, but he fails because he mimics gifts he doesn’t have authentically. My son said there have been no movies lately that have the same message; that the message to kids today is anything but finding their exceptionalism. Mr. Incredible actually draws fire from the Mrs. because he doesn’t want to attend his daughters move from 4th grade to 5th grade. He says it is just a new way to celebrate mediocrity. In the end, just like the real world, when people need a solution and help, they look to those who have exceptional powers to help them.
In real life, in any discipline, function, or activity, there are always a few that clearly stand above the rest of the group in performance, attitude or contribution. This is never a secret. All of the people in the group can identify immediately who those people are. Everyone knows. If I ask the group to write down anonymously who those team members or leaders are, they always pick the same ones.
When management and leadership fail to acknowledge this in how they reward people or treat them, morale suffers primarily among the highest achievers. When they act like they do not notice what everyone in the group knows, they might even look clueless and lose respect for their management. Blamers and complainers, and excuse makers are usually not identified as the exceptional.
The bottom line is every group, team, department, company, family and organization, there are those willing to do the extra effort, who have extra abilities, who will be exceptional. To a large degree this is a matter of choice and belief in oneself and one’s purpose. Personality traits surely play a role as well in determining who is willing to make the extra effort. Corporate “group think,’ mostly generated by Human Resources and legal departments creates an environment where such exceptionalism is discouraged; people who are exceptional have to weigh the satisfaction of achieving and effectiveness with the threat of being unpopular. Crazy, right?
I spoke with a millennial last week. A bright, ambitious, clear thinking millennial. Yes, they do exist. She told me how she believes her generation is way ahead on following their dreams, their purpose, doing what they love instead of what they have been directed to do. I think she is speaking authentically about herself. Then, I asked her how many of her associates and friends are actually in her camp, feeling the same way and making decisions that reflect that philosophy. She got quiet. Then she said, none of them. She is making choices they are not making. They are choosing to “fit in.” She is choosing to be exceptional by being authentic to her skills and abilities and sense of purpose and building a business on her own. She learned from internships in big companies those beliefs are not always welcome.
She is blessed with personality traits that free her up from needing approval from all of her peers and one that has strong beliefs that her skills and abilities, and work ethic, makes the world a better place and will help her through the challenges of building her identity in the marketplace.
No matter how many malcontents resent exceptionalism in work, family, community and country, there will always be a conflict between wanting to erase exceptionalism and depending on it to save them when they are afraid or need rescuing. It is a choice. Please, be exceptional.