I think all of my clients want to be exceptional at what they do. I know I do. Being exceptional and pursuing mastery are how we are able to create change in the world, and there are definitely changes I want to see in the world!
Being exceptional seems like an unmitigated positive, but nothing is ever really completely positive or completely negative. So I want to take a few minutes to address the costs of being exceptional. These are all costs I consider worth paying, but it’s important to recognise them and to make a considered judgement.
When I was a kid, I always wondered why the superheroes all had their alter egos. I couldn’t really get my head around it. If I was Superman, why would I ever want to spend time as Clark Kent? I mean, Batman at least gets to be the pretty exceptional Bruce Wayne, so I could forgive it in his case, but Peter Parker? Really? I would never have taken off the spidey costume (though after years of running in lycra, my views on this are VERY different now). Honestly, it all makes a lot more sense now.
Exceptional people have high expectations put on them.
When you’re exceptional, there is a tendency for the people around you to ask you to solve problems or to take over situations that they absolutely could handle alone. Imagine living next door to the actual Superman. How easy would it be to ask him to rearrange your furniture, to quickly seal a leaking copper pipe or even to just freeze some water into ice for an impromptu cocktail party?
And each of these tasks would take him just seconds. The trouble is, the sheer volume of requests would become overwhelming, even for him. Also, it wouldn’t be healthy for the people asking for the help.
All of the examples I gave were of tasks that they really could have sorted themselves, either by hiring someone to help them move furniture, calling a plumber or remembering to keep their freezer well stocked with ice. If there’s always someone to take over, the people around them stop needing to take responsibility or to think ahead.
When you’re the exceptional person, it can be utterly exhausting and you’re also left with the nagging feeling that you might be holding the people who rely on you back. Making sure that the people around you continue to develop their skills and sense of self-sufficiency whilst also being supportive is a huge leadership task that really deserves a blog post of its own.
No matter what, being exceptional can mean that you need to have a much firmer sense of your own boundaries and, ironically, that you leave people feeling let down more often than if you were average.
The world is not designed for exceptional people.
Almost by definition, the world is set up to be optimised for the average. Classes at school are taught to the average ability, cars are designed to an average height (to the annoyance of the very tall or the very short) and policies and schemes are designed for those who follow the common path.
Being exceptional means stepping off of this smooth, clear path and making your own way and (if you’ll allow me to extend the analogy), brambles and stinging nettles abound. I was recently talking to a client who is pursuing her second Masters degree, and she expressed her profound sense of frustration at the fact that the work provided wasn’t remotely taxing for someone of her abilities. There’s a sense of real frustration that her classmates were all learning and she was expected to constantly adapt and accept that she would learn nothing over the course of the two years.
The compensation for this is that, by going off the beaten path, exceptional people get to see and experience new and fascinating things, that most people would never even think to wonder about. But it’s important to understand that whether you are exceptional through genetics or willpower and really hard work, the world won’t make it easy for you to keep getting better.
Exceptional people can feel isolated.
This is more a transient stage than a life-long effect, but many exceptional people can spend at least a period of time feeling isolated. Very few of my superhero idols were able to maintain close relationships for long, because their strengths set them apart. By making the decision to approach things differently, to take the steps that others are loathe to take, by making the additional effort or taking the unknown path, you are setting yourself apart from the people around you.
Sometimes, this can create conflict or lead to the loss of friendships. Other times, there is just a low-key sense of being a little different. The good news here is that most exceptional people will start to find their own tribe, to steal a rather overused phrase.
My personal example for this will always be the men and women I served with in the Army. The bonds I have with those exceptional people are stronger than my childhood self could ever have imagined.
Being exceptional does have a cost, but it’s one I’m happy to pay.