The following is an excerpt from The Exceptionals: How the Best Become the Best and How You Can Too by Kumar Mehta, PhD. Available everywhere books are sold, January 2021.
Praise for The Exceptionals
“Dr. Mehta is a brilliant researcher and writer. For years, he has been studying the integrated nature of how talent manifests itself in people and how to reach that possible best. The Exceptionals gives us a clear pathway to achieve greatness.
–Gabe Jaramillo, coach to 11 world #1 tennis players and 27 world top 10 players
“The Exceptionals is a comprehensive guide to the intangibles that help make the 1% of the 1% exactly that. The Exceptionals will serve as a great inspiration to those just beginning the path towards exceptionalism. Through inspiring anecdotes and a well-mapped guide to achieving one’s goals, The Exceptionals helps spring the motivated individual into action–‘because lost time is the only thing you cannot make up.'”
–Jacob Nissly, principal percussionist, San Francisco Symphony
The 1% of the 1%
Humans are not equal. There are a few individuals who have achieved an unparalleled mastery in their field, and they are what I call the exceptionals. They are the people who have succeeded in being able to draw out the best talents they have within themselves. They are the ones who have raised the bar so high that very few can achieve what they have achieved. In short, they have maximized the physical, mental, and social potential available to them.
Being exceptional is rare. We often talk about the top 1 per- cent, which translates to about 3.3 million people in the United States. And while being in the top 1 percent in anything is a fantastic accomplishment that most of us never achieve, being exceptional means being closer to the 1 percent of the 1 percent; it is far more selective. This is the permyriad—the one in ten thousand. The permyriad includes approximately thirty thou- sand especially spectacular individuals in the country who have scaled the peak in every profession.
The reason for a focus on this small and exclusive group of individuals is to be able to get a deep understanding of the foundational elements of excellence that are common across the most elite individuals. If we understand the traits that are common across the exceptionals, we can apply them to our lives. We all start with varying levels of natural abilities and talent, so even if everything else is the same, different outcomes are to be expected. But if we apply the universal principles of sustained excellence to our lives, we will be able to achieve our possible best all the time. When we attain our possible best, we, too, have the potential to become exceptional and reach the top of our profession, whatever it may be.
Achieving your possible best gives you the satisfaction of knowing you gave it your all. There are no regrets, and you live up to the wise words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead, or the unborn couldn’t do it any better.” Only when you live up to this ethos can you hope to become exceptional.
The road to sustained excellence varies for everyone. It is not linear, and there is no direct path that can get you there. It is created and shaped by raw abilities, individual experiences, environments, and unique moments. The first thing I wish to communicate through The Exceptionalsis that becoming exceptional is multifaceted. It is a combination of several different dimensions that we will discuss. All of them are necessary to achieve extraordinary results.
The Path to Excellence
The Exceptionals is intended to give you a roadmap or a blueprint for you to achieve sustained excellence. The effort to develop this blueprint has been three years in the making. The process started with a series of conversations and interviews with many exceptionals in a variety of fields, including Nobel laureates, world-class athletes and musicians, and people in other professions who reached the very elite levels in their fields. I tried to understand their lives and their stories and how they were able to scale the pyramid when many others could not. As I spoke with more people, themes started emerging. Exceptional individuals from all walks of life were using the same concepts, and sometimes even the same words, as they described what got them to the top.
Additionally, I studied the growth and development of many people who have reached the top rungs in their fields. Some of these people are household names, while others come from areas that often don’t make the headlines but require the same qualities of extreme success. I have studied a vast number of interviews to understand the factors that helped them develop into the most extraordinary individuals the world has seen.
Finally, the field of what it takes to become exceptional has been researched extensively by scholars around the world for decades. I have studied countless research papers and articles on what other researchers have learned, all of which have further shaped my thinking.
The themes shared in this The Exceptionals have come from my deep immersion into the topic and from synthesizing information from all possible sources. I am confident that the essential ele- ments for developing a blueprint for becoming exceptional are covered inThe Exceptionals.
There are many books available that attempt to explain the traits required to become exceptional. I have learned from them, but invariably these books rest on a single principle, and often that unique principle conflicts with the beliefs offered in other books.
Some books may tell you that extraordinary performance is genetic, whereas others say your genes are mostly irrelevant, and through hard work and dedication, you can attain anything. In my opinion, both points of view are oversimplifications of what becoming exceptional is all about. Some writers may tell you that you need to put the time and effort into a single activity, whereas others say you become excellent by focusing on multi- ple things. I believe both these points of view are valid, but they don’t go far enough, because achieving excellence requires so much more.
There is a vast body of work done on this topic by many smart people. I hope to add to that discussion.
I believe there is a specific area where each and every one of you can excel, so the first thing you should do to achieve sustained excellence is to find the domain that allows your innate abilities to shine through. Once you are in the right field, you will need to put in an incredible amount of effort to become exceptional. Finally, you will need to adopt the set of enabling factors that have been present on every journey to the top. These three elements (innate abilities, intense effort, and enabling factors) make up the formula for sustained excellence.
The Exceptionals not only discusses these three elements, but it also brings forward ways (rooted in research and science) you can apply these elements to your life. This book is not purely an academic discussion or a thought-provoking piece on the attributes of excellence; it shows you how you can do it. It pro- vides you with your blueprint to achieve whatever you dream of attaining.
The qualities that allow you to reach your possible best in one field translate well to other domains. I have come across many people who were up-and-coming musicians or athletes, and at one point, they all shared a dream of becoming the very best in the world at their craft.
For any of several reasons, they did not quite make it to the world stage. But their quest to achieve their possible best led them to have immensely successful, fulfilling, and rewarding careers in other professions, with many becoming successful lawyers, physicians, or leaders in business. Today, they attribute much of their current success to the lessons learned while on their journey to achieving their possible best at their initial craft. The qualities that are required to make you exceptional cut across disciplines, and they are transferable. This means the things you learn as you develop in one area are relevant to attaining success in another field. The domains may be different, and the specific expertise required to excel may be different. But the process of honing your skills and maximizing the potential of your abilities translates well across disciplines.
Why Strive To Be the Best of the Best?
If the ultimate goal of life is to be happy, should you strive to become exceptional? Will it make you happier? Humans, by nature, are driven. That is why we strive to get better, run faster, jump higher, create more value, save more lives, and excel in every way imaginable. Achieving goals and fulfilling our potential is what we all strive for. Most people want to be the best at what they do. Every parent wants their children to achieve their full potential, and every leader wants their team to operate at its peak capability.
In our society, being exceptional is outstandingly rewarded. Take financial rewards, for example. If you are the best of the best, you don’t just earn five times the average; you earn fifty times or a hundred times the average. Whether right or wrong, our society has developed a system where exceptional performance has disproportionately high rewards.
Being the best often means earning a lot of money, but the question is: Will it make you happy? While we live by the common refrain that money can’t buy happiness, research in the area has shown that achieving great wealth does in fact tend to make you happier. The caveat is that great wealth can make you happy only if you have earned it yourself (as opposed to inheriting it or coming into a windfall). People with a net worth of greater than $10 million appear to be happier than others (as long as they earned the wealth themselves). And to earn such a significant amount of wealth, you usually have to be pretty remarkable in whatever field you are in.
Being exceptional generates both financial and emotional rewards. You should strive to be exceptional not only because you are good at what you do, but also because you want to be the very best at what you do. Being the best brings benefits like wealth, pride in yourself and your work, and general happiness. Being exceptional also gives you the positive feeling of knowing that you left a mark on the world. If your journey to excellence doesn’t result in you becoming one of the very best in the world, you will still have achieved your possible best. And, along with that you will not only have happiness, satisfaction, and material rewards, but you will also have the incomparable feeling of knowing that you gave it your all and left nothing to chance.
Maximize Your Potential
Most people, regardless of their age, can look back and think about how they could have made different choices or done things differently. When I was young, I didn’t think about being the best I could be. I didn’t have an awareness of what it meant to maximize my potential or be exceptional. I simply didn’t think about it. And as I got older, my goals were to do reasonably well in every aspect of my life and to achieve balance—something I believe I have attained so far.
But I do wonder now: Did I take away the potential for my children to become exceptional? Could I have behaved differently as a parent to help vault my children into becoming world changers? Did I inadvertently inhibit their potential and their contributions to the world? I don’t know. I am pleased with how my children’s lives are playing out. My wife and I have always tried to be good parents, and our children are doing well in their lives and their careers, but I wonder if, as a parent, we could have done things differently so that they maximized their potential and left an indelible mark on the world stage. As an example: Many exceptionals come from an environment where pursuing excellence and pushing the boundaries were always expected, not merely desired. I am not sure I set that expec- tation. Is our “participation trophy” culture taking away the potential from our children to strive to become exceptional?
As I learned more about becoming exceptional, I realized that it means fully maximizing your potential to achieve your possible best, a concept I will discuss in more detail. Being your very best applies to everyone. It could be kids on a sports team or adults in business or a profession. Your stage of life does not matter; your state of mind does. The Exceptionals is for you as long as your state of mind is about being the best you can be.
Excelling at something requires practice, repetition, and volume, and this only happens with time. You have to log the hours to achieve a high degree of proficiency in anything. This is why the sooner you start, the better you can be. So, if you desire to become exceptional, you need to start today, because lost time is the only thing you cannot make up.