The Three-Part Formula to Becoming Exceptional

Being exceptional is multifaceted and requires the right set of individual and environmental factors working in unison.

Through years of research into exceptional individuals and performance, we can begin to form a picture of what it takes to be the best in any field.

Being exceptional, or among the best in the world in your field, is multifaceted and requires the right set of individual and environmental factors working in unison.

Wouldn’t it be useful to know the formula that can make us exceptional? Can we create an equation that shows us the elements necessary 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 world’s most exceptional people and use them to build a model that we can use to replicate their degree of achievement for ourselves or our children?

The impact of genes and innate abilities on performance has been studied in many disciplines, including sports, music, language, mathematics, and others. In almost all cases, genes contribute to more than 50% of the variability in performance. This means that what you are born with influences, in large part, how exceptional you can become.

Everyone is born with advanced skills in some areas and your chance of becoming exceptional increases when you try to shine in the domain that relies on your natural abilities. Your special gift may be IQ, spatial ability, language ability, musical ability, or athletic attributes. Matching your career to your core 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 natural strength. Through hard work, commitment, and perseverance, you can become good at anything, but to be truly exceptional, you must start in a field where you have a natural advantage.

Although genetics is responsible for a large part of what it takes to become extraordinary, it is only the beginning. You can enhance or reduce the contribution of your natural talent by developing it further or letting it atrophy and waste. Just because you inherit a unique gift from your parents doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily do something with it. Sometimes, you may not even know that you possess a unique talent that you can transform into world-class performance. Being exceptional requires intense effort and hard work to maximize the potential of your abilities.

The connection between practice and performance varies depending on the activities. It is more directly observable in domains such as education, sports or music, where the impact between effort and production is clearly seen. In other words, the harder you work, the better your results will be. While in other professions, such as business or law or medicine or other domains, the link between effort and results is more difficult to observe and measure.

But in all cases, deliberate skill development and practice, or simply hard work and intense effort, have a material impact on performance. As a general rule, up to 25 percent of the variance in exceptional performance can be attributed to skill development and deliberate practice.

Exceptional ones hone their skills through intense effort and hard work, and there is no substitute for that. All exceptional ones have tirelessly dedicated years, even decades, of their lives to becoming better at their craft, no matter how talented they are. Tiger Woods, one of the most talented golfers who 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 a weekend off and reportedly never took a vacation during his twenties.

If, overall, 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 be 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 to become elite. All enablers are essential and cannot be simplified into a single trait, such as motivation, desire, or determination. They need to be understood on an individual level because any one of them can make a big difference to your performance, so it’s essential to understand how they apply to you.

There are five enabling factors that are common to all exceptionals and include:

1. The environment: your environment significantly influences your development. If you are in a supportive environment, surrounded by high-performing people, you will raise the bar for yourself. Children who grow up in a culture of effort, or where excellence is expected in everything they do, are more likely to grow up to become exceptional.

2. Own belief: The exceptional deeply believe that they are capable of performing at the highest level and are confident that they can reach the top. This self-confidence, the unwavering belief that they can be the best, drives the most successful people to achieve their greatness.

3. Ability to learn from others: Exceptional ones are smart about learning. They understand that the body of knowledge required for excellence is vast and growing, and they have built an unrivaled knowledge base, not only of everything they need to know in their field, but of borrowing relevant ideas from other domains and other people. They have mentors and a set of people they can trust to learn and support.

4. Microexcellence: The greatest people, from all walks of life, have achieved their greatness by focusing on the small, seemingly insignificant details, not just by focusing on the big things. The cumulative effect of small changes leads to significant results. The exceptional understand this, and while they set big goals for themselves, they focus on excelling and improving in each individual element of their field.

5. Commitment: Very few people have the discipline and commitment to fulfill a single desire. Most people get distracted or attracted to other opportunities along the way and are unable to demonstrate a singular focus. Exceptionals share an unwavering commitment to the goals they set. Many of them have set exact, specific goals very early in their lives and have stuck to them for decades.

If you strive to become the best at what you do, you must ensure the presence of all the elements discussed above. That’s what has separated the exceptional ones from everyone else. Even though dozens of books push the virtues of one attribute or another, there is no single factor that can make you elite. Being exceptional is multifaceted.

Although the contribution of the three skill sets we discussed above varies from person to person and profession to profession, a good starting point for understanding the formula for becoming exceptional is 50% innate abilities, 25% intense effort. and 25% enabling traits.