One of the most common questions I get as a teacher and mentor is around being exceptional. People want to be special or they want to be interesting and they don’t know how to get there. There are infinite self-help books on the subject of working hard and tons of marketing schemes on developing a "personal brand," but my personal take is that most of this advice starts with the wrong assumption that setting yourself apart begins with doing something special. I think the simplest first step to being exceptional is in not doing things.
Let’s say you want to be exceptional. How do you achieve that?
What does it mean to be exceptional?
You could say that being exceptional means that you're particularly skilled at something. While that is true, it’s not enough. You also have to be skilled at something that’s valuable or respected. So in order to be exceptional, you have to figure out what’s valuable and respected and then be particularly skilled at it.
"So if the devil wear Prada; Adam, Eve wear nada; I'm in between but way more fresher with way less effort. Cause when you try hard, that's when you die hard." -- Kanye West
Figuring out where to be exceptional can be hard. It’s necessarily subjective since being good at something in a vacuum is pointless. To be exceptional, some set of people need to find you so. But humans are fickle creatures, so understanding what others will find valuable is a challenge. This is especially tough when you’re young don’t have a good judgment for what’s valuable. You can look at all the kids in high school vying to be popular as an example of failure in that judgement. Being popular in high school means you’ve gotten the temporary approval of others, but it’s not really valuable in the long run.
This is also hard when you don’t have your own sets of inclinations or if you’re not creative. If you have no preferences, it becomes too easy to look to the preferences of others. You’ll start to pursue the things that are most obvious, which means that you’ll pursue the things that are most competitive. How many people want to be actors, senators, or professional athletes?
Figuring out where to be exceptional is difficult, and you want to get started on being exceptional today, not while you figure out what to get skilled at. Fortunately, there are more inherent qualities to exceptionalism than simply being good at something.
"I will have a degree. And you'll be servin' my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip."
"That may be, but at least I won't be unoriginal."
-- Good Will Hunting
To be exceptional, not only do you have to be skilled at something, you also have to be different in some way.
What does it mean to be different?
Definitionally, being different means you’re sufficiently not normal. How do you become not normal enough? The obvious thing is to go out and do things that are abnormal. But this can be risky. Being abnormal isn’t necessarily good.
You could be abnormal and be exceptional, like the talented musician who wins the talent show. But it’s more likely that any efforts to be abnormal will just make you weird, like the person stabbing themselves with nails who loses the talent show. Doing abnormal things may not necessarily result in you being exceptional.
If your strategy to excellence is simply to be abnormal, you're stuck figuring out what’s both exceptional and what’s not weird, which leaves you with the same problem as before: it’s hard to determine what others will value.
The easiest path to take, especially when you’re starting off, is a simple one. Just don’t do normal things.
If being exceptional means that you’re abnormal, the least risky way to be abnormal is to simply not do the things that normal people do.
Of course, there are certain things you shouldn’t not do or else you end up in the realm of the weird instead of the exceptional. But the list of the things that you should do to avoid being weird is small, and much of it might be up for debate. Not doing things that normal people do only introduces a small chance that you’ll be weird.
Being More by Doing Less
Not doing the things that normal people do is also really easy. You can look at the way most people spend their time, and not do that. Don’t watch TV. Don’t talk about sports. Don't dick around on the internet. As trivial as it seems, the amount of time most people invest in “normal things” is incredibly large. Just expect to be chastised as pretentious when you don’t want to spend the weekend binge-watching Netflix with your friends.
You don’t have to do a great job to find things to replace not doing normal things. Almost any alternate way you choose to spend your time is better than doing normal things because the act of omission alone makes you at the very least not normal. All you have to concern yourself with is spending that time on an alternative that’s not weird.
What’s more likely to happen than accidentally being weird is that you’ll find a way to spend your not-normal time in a manner that’s actually interesting. You might spend enough time on your interests to become good at them. Or if you don’t have any interests, you can figure out what’s valuable to you and others. This is time that you wouldn’t have spent otherwise. By not doing normal things, you set the floor at being abnormal and open the door to being exceptional.