Becoming exceptional, or among the best in the world, in your field is multi-faceted and requires the right set of individual and environmental factors working in unison. Wouldn’t it be helpful if we knew the formula that can make us exceptional? Can we create one equation that shows us the elements required for sustained excellence? Can we quantify the specific traits that contributed to making Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods or Bill Gates who they are? Can we understand and analyze the characteristics of the most exceptional people in the world and use them to build a model that we can use to replicate their degree of achievements for ourselves or our children?
When we study how the most exceptional people became who they are, we see patterns emerge, common traits that all of them share. We know that remarkable individuals don’t have a single characteristic that we can emulate. If that were the case, depending on who you believe, all it would take is the right set of genes, or 10,000 hours of effort, or grit. We know it isn’t that simple
But in a general sense, there is enough data to know what goes into becoming exceptional. There is a formula that serves as a starting point for understanding what it takes to become the best of the best.
The formula is quite simple: Fifty percent of what it takes to become exceptional is genetic and comes from the innate abilities you are born with. Twenty-five percent comes from intense effort or the hard work you put into improving your abilities. The final twenty-five percent comes from a set of enabling factors that drive extreme success.
Let’s examine each of these three components.
The impact of genes and innate abilities on performance has been studied across many disciplines, including sports, music, language, mathematics, and others. In nearly all cases, genes contribute to over 50% of the variability in performance. This means that what you are born with influences, in no small part, how exceptional you can become.
Your genes or your natural talent largely determine skill. Everyone is born with advanced skills in some areas and your likelihood of becoming exceptional increases when you try to shine in the domain that builds upon your natural abilities. Your special gift may be IQ, spatial ability, linguistic ability, musical ability, or athletic attributes. Matching your career to your fundamental strengths is the best way to get on the path to becoming exceptional.
Everyone who has reached an elite level in any field has done so by building on a natural strength. Through hard work, commitment, and perseverance, you can become good at anything, but to be truly exceptional, you need to start in a field where you have a natural advantage.
Although genetics is responsible for a large portion of what it takes to become extraordinary, it is just the start. You can enhance or reduce the contribution of your natural talent by developing it further or letting it atrophy and waste away. Just because you inherit a unique gift from your parents does not mean you will necessarily do something with it. Sometimes, you may not even know you possess a unique talent that you can morph into world-class performance. Becoming exceptional requires putting in intense effort and hard work to maximize the potential of your abilities.
The connection between practice and performance varies across activities. It is more directly observable in domains such as education, sport, or music, where you clearly see the impact between effort and output. In other words, the harder you work, the better your results. Whereas in other professions, such as business or law or medicine or other domains, the link between effort and outcomes is harder to observe and measure.
But in all cases, deliberate skill development and practice—or quite simply, hard work and intense effort—have a material impact on performance. As a general rule, up to 25 percent of the variance of exceptional performance can be attributed to deliberate skill development and practice.
The exceptionals hone their skills through intense effort and hard work, and there is no substitute for that. Every exceptional has tirelessly devoted years, even decades, of their lives to getting better at their craft, regardless of how gifted they are. Tiger Woods, one of the most talented golfers ever reportedly worked on his game for thirteen hours a day. Tennis star Novak Djokovic trained for fourteen hours a day. While building Microsoft, Bill Gates never believed in the concept of taking weekends off and reportedly never took a vacation during his twenties.
If, in general, natural abilities account for 50 percent of exceptional performance and intense effort accounts for another 25 percent, there is still 25 percent of unexplained variance. Just having the right genes and working hard can make you very good, but to become truly outstanding, you need a set of enabling skills that allow you to fully unleash your potential.
The missing piece, the enablers, are a collection of characteristics that are necessary for becoming elite. All of the enablers are essential and can’t be simplified into a single trait such as motivation, or desire, or grit. They need to be understood at an individual level because any single one of them can make a world of difference to your performance, so it is critical to understand how they apply to you.
There are five enabling factors that are common to every exceptional and they include:
1. The Environment: Your environment significantly influences how you develop. If you are in a supportive environment, surrounded by high-achieving people, you will raise the bar for yourself. Kids who grow up in a culture of striving, or where excellence is expected in everything they do, are more likely to grow up to become exceptional.
2. Self Belief: The exceptionals deeply believe they are capable of performing at the highest level and have the confidence that they can rise to the top. This self-assuredness—the unwavering belief that they can be the best —drives the most accomplished people to achieve their greatness.
3. Ability to learn from others: The exceptionals are smart about learning. They understand that the body of knowledge required for excellence is vast and increasing, and they have built an unmatched knowledge base not only of everything they need to know in their field but borrowing relevant ideas from other domains and other people. They have mentors and a set of people they can rely on for learning and support.
4. Microexcellence: The most outstanding individuals, from all walks of life, have attained their greatness by focusing on the small, seemingly insignificant details, not just by focusing on the big stuff. The cumulative effect of small changes leads to significant outcomes. The exceptionals understand this, and while they set out with big goals, they focus on excelling and improving in every individual element of their field.
5. Commitment: Very few people have the discipline and commitment to follow through on a single desire. Most people get distracted or drawn to other opportunities along the way and are unable to demonstrate a singular focus. The exceptionals share an unwavering commitment to the targets they set. Many of them have established exact and specific goals very early on in their lives and have stuck to them for decades.
All three elements are necessary:
If you are striving to become the very best at what you do, you need to ensure the presence of all of the elements discussed above. That is what has separated the exceptionals from everyone else. Despite scores of books pushing the virtues of one attribute or another, there is no single factor that can make you elite. Becoming exceptional is multi-faceted.
Although the contribution of the three sets of skills we discussed above varies from person to person and from profession to profession, a good starting point to understand the formula for becoming exceptional is 50% innate abilities, 25% intense effort and 25% enabling traits.