What does it mean to be extraordinary?

I was struck by an Elon Musk quote: “I think it is possible for ordinary people to be extraordinary.” Sure, that sounds right… anyone can be extraordinary if they are just willing to do what it takes. All it takes is a bit of extra effort, right?

Let’s start by looking at the definition of extraordinary. A quick Google search says that extraordinary is very unusual, remarkable; going beyond what is usual, customary, or regular. In short, extraordinary means to be exceptional; above and beyond; outside the norm. It means not being content with just doing what it takes to meet minimal expectations.

So, how would I define extraordinary? What are some examples of extraordinary?

  • In the fall semester at a midwestern university, 11,653 students made the Dean’s List for academic achievement. That is almost 52% of all undergraduate students! That either means that the school is full of academically outstanding students or that high grades are so easy to attain that it is almost a failure if you do NOT attain the Dean’s List. Do not expect any special recognition, awards, or recognition for merely doing what is expected or what everyone should be achieving. Certainly, it is a good thing to make the Dean’s List, but when 52% of all students achieve it, it is no longer considered special.
  • Don’t expect a pat on the back when you show up for work on time or do the “ordinary.” At each of my former employers, we all developed an annual list of objectives for the new year. We tracked our performance against these objectives which were specifically discussed at the year-end performance review. I recall numerous conversations with individuals that I managed in which, because they achieved their objectives, they felt their rating should be “exceptional” or “above expectations.” Yes, they may have achieved or exceeded results on these few objectives, but they failed to excel in their ordinary, base job functions. In essence, their overall performance was merely average, though their objectives were met. Extraordinary means that you accomplish something few others can do. It means your performance was greater than 90% of all others doing similar work.
  • I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a hiring manager that said, “I just want to hire an ordinary candidate for this key position. It would be nice to do better than that, but I’ll just take what I get and hope for the best.” NO! Any legitimate leader will always seek to bring aboard the very best individual possible. So, what do you look for to find an extraordinary candidate? What differentiates an extraordinary candidate from an ordinary one? Let me provide a few examples. An extraordinary candidate:
    • Can provide a portfolio of demonstrated competence in prior jobs – Simply “holding” a position does not necessarily equate to competence. When I was looking to hire an exceptional candidate, I looked for evidence that the individual performed at a high level AND worked to pass that competence on to others. An exceptional candidate makes others around him/her better.
    • Can provide a list of specific accomplishments – The best predictor of success in a new position is to observe value in past positions. Accomplishments are more than simply performing a task or job… it is providing value to the organization that is measurable and specific.
    • Is one that does more than the minimum – I usually look for examples of how the candidate volunteered or assumed project or outside assignments. A candidate that gets personally involved in making the organization better is an individual that I expect will do the same in our organization.
    • Is independent and will help us avoid “group think” – The ordinary person often merely hopes to get through the day without creating waves, issues, or questions. The extraordinary person is not afraid to speak up, to offer a new perspective, and will challenge the status quo.
    • Will represent your values and the values of your organization to others well – An extraordinary individual will always represent the organization well and will demonstrate loyalty and trustworthiness. I usually looked for how the candidate spoke of prior leaders and organizations for clues regarding their integrity.

Being extraordinary is typically a matter of choices. An ordinary person chooses to accept mediocracy. An extraordinary person will make the choices and sacrifices necessary to go above and beyond. It doesn’t merely fall into your lap. So, is it possible for an ordinary person to be extraordinary? I believe the answer is “yes”… but becoming extraordinary means that we often do more than is expected, give more than we thought possible, and serve others even when we don’t have the energy. Being extraordinary means that we choose to make a difference in the organization and people we serve.

How are you viewed by others? Do they speak of you as being extraordinary? Will your children and grandchildren think of you as an extraordinary parent or grandparent? Would your spouse call you extraordinary? Today might be a good day to pause and consider the choices we make and how we hope to make better choices tomorrow.

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