Break free from the cult of the average.
Motivation is our innate tendency to seek novelty, challenge, explore and exercise our capacities - allowing us to leave our mark on the world. What motivates me?
The positive outliers; those that escape the cult of the average, the exceptions to the norm who forge their own path relentlessly, live life on the edge and utilise their capacity to positively change the world. They remind us of the human spirit and our tremendous often untapped potential. They overcome the odds and grow from adversity.
- Steve Jobs was fired from his own startup company.
- Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.
- Thomas Edison failed up to 10 000 times before creating the lightbulb.
- Albert Einstein couldn’t read until age 7.
- Michael Phelps was diagnosed with ADHD at age 9.
- Oprah Winfrey gave birth at age 14, later losing this child.
- Stephen King's first novel was rejected 30 times.
- At one stage Jim Carey was homeless.
- Vincent Van Gogh in his lifetime sold only one painting.
- Steven Spielberg was rejected twice from the University of Southern California.
Each overcame tremendous obstacles and pushed the boundaries of so called ‘known’ potential. Positive outliers are the workhorses, innovators, quiet thinkers and humble dreamers. They are exceptional. They exist in businesses as the positive change catalyst, in sport through acts of sportsmanship and in everyday life as the stranger who smiles or the volunteer working relentlessly for a cause to better society. Positive outliers are intriguing, infectious, passionate and purposeful. They act often against the grain. Their presence and drive inspire change.
In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor, lecturer of Psychology at Harvard describes, ‘if we study merely what is average, we will remain merely average’. How often do we hear, how fast does the average child learn to write? What is the average income? Positive Psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar in Happier, calls this the ‘error of the average’, noting two mistakes of conventional psychology.
Traditional psychology ignores the outliers. They are seen as anomalies in statistical analysis, as they don’t fit the average pattern. Ben-Shahar suggests that instead of deleting these outliers, we should instead study them. Shahar’s second criticism of traditional psychology is that it is focused on those that fall to one side of the average. Below. It makes sense that psychologists who traditionally study depression and illness focus on returning those individuals affected to normal.
The key question is, who studies those that exceed the average? Martin Seligman, head of the American Psychological Association, in 1998 announced, ‘it is time to study what works, not just what is broken’. Enter a new and emerging field of Positive Psychology. What if the positive exception became the rule?
What can we learn from those successful outlying individuals? How about some life advice? Most of you have probably heard Steve Jobs Stanford commencement speech of 2005. He shares these stories or lessons:
- All our experiences lead us somewhere, ‘you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future’.
- ‘You've got to find what you love, don’t settle’, in both work and relationships.
- Jobs asked himself daily, ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’
He concluded with a powerful quote; ‘Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish’.
To me that highlights the need for vision, drive, passion and childlike creativity in pursuit of our dreams and aspirations. If you ask a child what they want to be when they grow up it wouldn’t be uncommon to hear astronaut, doctor, pilot or ballerina…but as adults we often filter our ambitions, by building mental walls through fear of failure or to better suit societal norms.
Another success story comes to mind; one you may not be familiar with.
Olympic equestrian showjumper Nick Skelton broke his neck in two places just prior to the Sydney games. He fought for his life for 3 days and was told his career was over.
‘I was off for one and a half years wondering what I was going to do with my life’.
He fought his way back and competed in Athens, nearly medalling in Beijing his 5th Olympic attempt and in London he medalled on home ground in the team event. In Rio 2016, in his 7th Olympics Skelton and Big Star captured gold in the individual mixed jumping event. He became the oldest Olympic medalist for Great Britain in over a century, at age 58.
‘Thank you to all the horses I’ve ridden. You have provided me with opportunities one could never have imagined.’
A truly inspiring story of determination. Had Skelton of let age, injury or past performance shape his perception of his capabilities, he may never have broken through his undoubted mental walls and received that gold.
Go find what you love, dream big and don’t be afraid to fail. If you do - persist. As Mark Twain said, ‘twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do’. Forge your own path, become a positive exception, an outlier. Don’t ever sell yourself short. Don’t settle for a merely average existence. Break free.
By Alex Hardy