Most of my research recently has been around what makes certain individuals exceptional. What makes a very small subset of people achieve a rare and elite level of excellence in their field. They may be athletes who are household names, or people you have never heard about who have invented lifesaving medicines or are recognized as Nobel Laureates for making fundamental advances in knowledge. Or they may have changed the world through science or music or business and in the process influenced millions or perhaps billions of lives. Through a series of interviews with these Exceptionals, I am beginning to get a picture of the elements of excellence.

One fundamental attribute that The Exceptionals have in common is that they knew very early on they were good at something. They were able to identify their aptitude, and then build on it. Knowing what we are good at is something most of us fail to do. And while 10,000 hours of deliberate practice and grit and many other characteristics we talk about play an important role in the success of The Exceptionals, it all starts with building upon the foundation of your natural talents.

You may not know what your aptitude is and you might even be in the wrong profession, but you tend to find out early whether or not you have the aptitude for what you do. Gandhi, one of the most exceptional people the world has ever known, studied law. However, he was not particularly good at practicing law and froze in court during his first cross-examination as he had trouble managing the stress and anxiety of being in a courtroom.

However, as soon as he was exposed to social injustice, he very quickly learned that his aptitude was in being a civil rights leader and he had the desire, skill and knack for influencing people. And of course, the rest of his achievements are forever in history.  

You may not know what you are gifted at. If you are fortunate you could recognize your true gifts at an early age, as many of The Exceptionals do. Or if you are like most people you simply fail to recognize your natural talent; but you have to trust that it will appear and you have to learn how to recognize it. Usually it is the thing that comes most easily to you. And when you recognize that gift and it manifests itself in the profession you choose you are on your way to becoming exceptional. If you start in an area that is misaligned with your natural ability it is very hard to reach the top of your field.

Through hard work, grit and perseverance, you could have a successful career in an area that does not mesh with your natural aptitude, but it is the blend of the two that turns success into exceptional success. Take your time to determine what you are truly good at and keep in mind what you are good at could very likely be different from what you enjoy or are passionate about. For example, I will never make a living as a professional golfer, even though I am passionate and have the determination to work hard at it. I simply lack the aptitude. Parents, help your kids understand what their natural gifts are, rather than singularly focusing on what you think they should be good at.

Also, you need to be careful you don’t chase the wrong aptitude markers. For example, manual dexterity and visuospatial ability do not predict better surgeons. Personality traits and decision-making ability are higher predictors of success as a surgeon. Just because you can work better with your hands, does not necessarily mean you have the aptitude for surgery.

So, while there are many elements required to achieving the pinnacle of your profession, building upon an area where you are naturally skilled is the first step towards being exceptional. Despite what conventional wisdom may suggest, aptitude does matter. Find yours.