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Exceptionalism

June 18, 2009

Excellence, especially exceptional performance, requires not only considerable effort and expertise, but also a combination of continuous commitment and access and openness to opportunities to hone experience.  It seems only reasonable then to hold those who exhibit exceptional talent in high esteem.

In his recent book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell explores the nature of what we might call exceptionalism.  While he concludes that expertise, particularly unique or prodigious ability, is largely derived from concerted and repeated effort to master key skills, he also notes the importance of opportunities to acquire experience applying and perfecting these skills.

Gladwell’s review of well-known examples suggests systemic influences and stochastic variables combine with ability to influence our chances of success.  While this should not disabuse us of the notion that hard work and practice matter, it should dispel any sense of envy we might harbor for high-performers.

Success, Gladwell notes, is neither the exclusive province of elites nor evidence of any particular divine endowment.  The achievement of success is neither an entitlement nor an inevitable byproduct of enterprise.

If we expect intelligence, commitment, hard work, or timing to lead us to any desirable end result, it will only come to pass with the help of others.  The self-made man is a myth, and as with nearly all myths, our heroes triumph only through repeated trials and usually depend on others, if only for emotional support, despite their superior or even supernatural abilities.

We all need to feel special, and should be allowed to experience a sense of that at least once in awhile.  But gaining access to  opportunities to achieve our potential inevitably requires us to abandon any expectation of entitlement.

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