This morning, in between fetching my kids glasses of milk and trying to schedule a doctor’s appointment for Ella, I took a few minutes to read an interesting email exchange between the writers Malcolm Gladwell and Bill Simmons. The exchange was part of an article for the website Grantland, and it was ostensibly about how the world has changed with the advent of non-stop, always available media.
But as any good discussion does (whether spoken or in print) this one turned towards other matters, and Gladwell – in a tangential paragraph – related a story from his own personal experience: that once, while waiting in an airport security line, he watched a professional football player get escorted to the front of the queue for an expedited clearance. And Gladwell points out that the crowd – full of “teachers, salesmen, nurses, working moms, and hack writers” – instead of getting irate at the special treatment for the player, collectively said, “Cool. There’s [Player X].”
The author’s grand point: “Standing in line in airports and other everyday rituals of modern life are the kinds of things that civilize us: As annoying as they are, they remind us that we are all equal and they teach us patience, and they grant us a kind of ultimately useful anonymity. [Player X] and celebrities of his ilk never have the privilege of those moments.”
By now you’ve most likely stopped reading, but given the week I’ve been having, this small anecdote fascinated me because it made me realize that the only thing that makes people exceptional is the fact that we make exceptions for them.
And everyone, whether they’ll be honest about it or not, wants to be exceptional.
I know I do. Whether it’s regarding my writing, or my daughter’s health, or my finances, or some other non-important exception that only becomes important when it would benefit me in some way, I want to be exceptional. Because exceptional is just that – allowed to bend the rules that normally apply. Granted special privileges. Bestowed with particular honor for some mutually accepted and appreciated reason.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to get escorted to the front of the line, eat in the finest restaurants, have their personality flaws overlooked and their gifts embraced by the general populace? Who doesn’t want to be able to flaunt the rules or completely circumvent them, all while being adored by people to whom the rules apply?
Nobody, that’s who. Which is why our culture has created entire niches for people to develop skills that allow them to become exceptional. Football players. Baseball players. Basketball players. Musicians. Actors. Writers. Politicians. CEOs. People who are famous for being famous. Reality TV. Blogs. Podcasts.
In fact, if you look at popular culture today, it’s become a race to see who can become exceptional; and the irony is, there’s nothing exceptional about them at all, other than the fact that the collective public is willing to cede them that status.
Sure, there are only a handful of men who can say they are professional athletes. But that doesn’t mean they are the only ones possessed of that type of athletic giftedness – it only means they were the ones who possessed that gift and good fortune. Becoming exceptional, as much as we may argue otherwise, is as much about luck and timing than it is about skill or personal drive. If it were purely about ability, then we would be overrun with exceptional people because there are scads of folks who excel at football or baseball or singing or dancing or acting who just never catch a break that propels them to better circumstances.
Or, as someone once said to me, “There’s a lot of wasted talent in prison.”
Why am I bringing this up? Because for me, this week has been frustrating because of its ordinary-ness. My daughter’s been sick, which has meant time spent within the bowels of our health care system, and if you’ve ever had to deal with that then you know why being exceptional – having access to instant care, the best doctors, the most cutting edge treatment, all without having to worry about the cost – is desirable. If I could choose just one area to be granted exceptional status – the ability to cut to the front and get special treatment – it would be the health care field.
And I say that fully aware that there are cases far worse than my own.
Everyone wants to be exceptional, but only few get there, and they get there on the arms of our approval. But what if we quit granting exceptional status to football stars and actors and other folks, and started granting it to a different classs of people.
Like wounded veterans. Or the chronically ill. Or students in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Sure, we occasionally make exceptions for folks like that, but nowhere near as frequently and certainly with far less fuss. We elevate people who don’t necessarily need it and miss out on the ones that do because we are inured to suffering. We’re conditioned to it. It’s our daily life, and there’s nothing exceptional about our daily life. It’s common.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we were to choose, we could flip the script and make the ordinary, extraordinary; we could make the plain, exceptional, and in doing so we would all get our chance to shine. We could learn to celebrate life and it’s imperfections, instead of holding up a standard of perfection that so few can possibly hope to attain and torturing ourselves for our inability to meet it. We could, as an ancient piece of wisdom goes, “Think of others as better than ourselves.”
To do so would be exceptional.