With his recent New York Times editorial, Russian president Vladimir Putin reignited debate on American exceptionalism. He said that it is blasphemous to think one group of humans to be exceptional and that we are created equal under God. He is right. We are created equal before God, but some do more with what they have. They are exceptional.
Every parent will recognize this phrase or some variation of it: “But, my friends don’t have to do that!” My kids used that at the beginning of this last summer when Lynda and I introduced our summer academic plan for them. It wasn’t particularly intense – some reading and writing, and math workbooks – two hours per day, tops. To kids anxious to leave the classroom for the pool, however, doing academic work in the summer months was about as attractive as a movie party featuring a PBS documentary on economics. And, because their friends didn’t have to do anything of the sort, it was unfair to ask them to do it.
That’s when we discussed exceptionalism, starting with a review of the meaning of the word, exception. When it’s nice enough to drive with the windows down in January in Nebraska, that’s an exception. When a student does extra reading not assigned by her teacher, that’s an exception. When a gym member faithfully exercises, rarely missing workouts, that’s an exception. An exception is anything that is clearly different from the norm.
If my kids want to have exceptional lives – lives with abnormal amounts of happiness, success and freedom – they must extend exceptional effort. Doing just what their friends do or what the teacher requires isn’t going to lead them to their goals. That thinking will lead them to where most people live – somewhere between near contentment and frustration – because most people do only what they have to do or want to do.
To get exceptional results, you need exceptional behavior, habits and effort. My son can tell you about this, because we discuss it often. He wants to go to medical school to be a plastic surgeon. I asked him how many plastic surgeons he knows. He knows none. I told him that it sounds like a pretty good career and that I heard that plastic surgeons make some pretty good money. “So,” I asked. “Why aren’t more people plastic surgeons?” “Because most people can’t make it through the school part,” he told me. Precisely!
Just getting into medical school is a tremendous task for most people. It requires not only intelligence, but also a discipline applied to academics that very few possess, and that’s just to gain acceptance to medical school. Once you are in medical school, that discipline and focus is continually tested. The process is strenuous, and thank God for that. When I need a physician, I want the absolute best.
My friend Jeff is an example of that. Jeff paid his way through college with summer work in his dad’s landscape business and scholarships. During that four-year journey, he received only one grade that wasn’t an A – in an English composition class, even after rewriting his final paper. His hard work and dedication in medical school earned him a post-MD fellowship in interventional radiology. Shortly after graduation, Jeff started his own practice, turning down the instant gratification of signing bonuses with steady employers.
Jeff dedicated more than 12 years of his life to studying for a medical career. While his friends were out in the bars and chasing girls, he was studying. In fact, at the end of his educational odyssey, I was sitting with him in a blind hunting turkeys the week before his board examination. He had a book with him to study, and he left after lunch.
That’s exceptional, and if we hope to have exceptional lives, we have to be the exception.