Being exceptional is special. We have all been amazed by the achievements of a special set of incredibly gifted and talented individuals. In every field there are people who have achieved a rare and elite status. Their talents and accomplishments are admired and envied and emulated, all at the same time. These are the individuals that have scaled the top of the pyramid and have achieved seemingly unreachable heights. They may be athletes who have transcended to a “single name” status such as “Tiger,” or “Michael” or “Ronaldo”, or they may be people you have never heard of at all who have invented lifesaving drugs or won the Nobel prize by making fundamental advances in knowledge . Or they may have changed the world through science or music or business by influencing millions or perhaps billions of lives. Every single one of these individuals are special and gifted and talented. And also, hardworking, determined, persistent and lucky and a share a host of other common attributes.

The rest of us very often have the same physical and mental attributes as many of the most exceptional individuals. Yet, there is something, seemingly intangible, that separates the elite few not only from those who are accomplished and skilled and almost as good, but also from the vast majority of people who likely have the fundamental traits and skills and talents to become exceptional, but often under-appreciate and under-utilize these qualities. In other words, they waste their potential.

While we may not achieve the same level of excellence of the most special humans, we can certainly push the boundaries of our own excellence and reach our own personal best.  Maybe it is becoming a successful surgeon, maybe it is creating new value in the world, maybe it’s becoming the CEO of the company you are working for, maybe it is reaching a certain level in music or sport. The principles of being exceptional hold true for all people in all walks of life. When you fulfill your potential and you have reached your personal best, you are exceptional. And in most cases that means you stand out for your outstanding accomplishments.

Imagine if, as a human race, we could all attain a higher level of excellence. We would solve more problems, eliminate more disease, entertain more people with our athletic and artistic prowess and enhance societal value in every way. When more people become exceptional, all of our of our lives get better. 

The search for excellence is nothing new. We have always wanted to strive for excellence. Most of us are smart and motivated and driven. And with the world of information just a click or a tap away, we have access to all the knowledge we need to become leaders in our fields. Yet, most of us squander the opportunity and live in mediocrity, and most of us are tired of being mediocre. In fact, research suggests that only between 2% and 6% of people actually achieve their goals and aspirations.  The vast majority of people end up giving up on their dreams, goals and potential.

We don’t achieve our potential for one of two reasons

(1) We don’t put the effort into it. We hope for something external to come in and make it happen for us, and invariably the odds of that external force transforming us are about as high as the odds of any of us winning the “mega-millions” lottery.

(2) We don’t know how to.  We put the effort in, but the circumstances may not be right for us, or we focus on the wrong things or do things the wrong way and fail. And the reaction to failure has been to give up or try something else.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. What if we knew the road that the most exceptional people have taken? If we knew the common attributes shared by The Exceptionals, we could ensure the presence of those attributes in our own journey to excellence. That would certainly increase our odds of success.

Being the best in the world at something certainly requires talent, but that is not nearly enough.  The 10,000-hour rule, made famous by Malcolm Gladwell may be necessary, but is not sufficient. Being exceptional and achieving excellence requires effort, grit and perseverance and commitment, but individually these are not nearly enough, again each of these are necessary, but not sufficient.

Being exceptional is multi-faceted. 

It would be nice to roll achieving excellence into a single attribute that we can all focus on and work on. Like the brilliant work done behind “Grit,” or the “10,000-hour rule” or a “growth mindset.” But as even the creators of these frameworks surely know, there are multiple attributes necessary for being elite in any endeavor. If you want to achieve the rare level of success and sustain that level of excellence for a long time, you need to understand the components that need to be present for exceptional outcomes to happen. Very often we pick a single approach thinking that will let us achieve our dreams and we relentlessly focus on it, but it rarely leads us to fruition. It is only when you understand and apply the breadth of conditions that are required for excellence to happen, you can increase your chances of becoming exceptional.

There appear to be a few factors that are common across a range of exceptional individuals; and all the people who have attained extraordinary achievements share these traits at either a conscious or subconscious level and have used them to their fullest. I call these factors the “Elements of Excellence.” Each one is essential and all are required to become exceptional in a world that is increasing in complexity.

I have just started working on a new book, (working title: The Exceptionals) that is about the elements of excellence and the foundational attributes around what it takes to become exceptional in any endeavor. The book is designed to help more people achieve their max level of excellence. I have been conducting in-depth interviews with world class athletes, musicians, Nobel Laureates and others to understand the common threads they share in what helped them achieve a level of success that most can only dream of and I am consolidating the common themes into a framework we can all adopt.

If you or people you know are interested in what it takes to become exceptional, I will continue to post updates here. But for now, happy holidays.

Dr. Kumar Mehta is author of The Innovation Biome,