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The Proximity of Extraordinary Performance

We don’t have to look far for examples of people who have achieved extraordinary things. It is the “ordinary” person, often right in front of your nose, who may be your greatest teacher.



The middle weeks of August are for many parents the time of back-to-school shopping and the return to the more structured rhythms of school life. For some parents, this is the time of year where students start college. If you’re a parent of an incoming college freshman, it may mean numerous trips to the local Walmart or Target and hours helping with the dorm room move-in. If it’s your first to go to college, it likely means the high of watching your student experience the first taste of independence and the low of realizing that you and your child have moved into a new and very different phase of life.


I study and write a lot about extraordinary performance. I typically draw lessons from exceptional business leaders, elite athletes, or historical figures. But it dawned on me this past weekend that there are likely people right now – the first in their families to go to college or the parents who have overcome significant hardship to help make going to college a reality – who are the perfect case studies.


There is one woman I know who falls into the latter category. She is a single mother of three boys. She helped her oldest son move into his dorm room at the University of Utah where he will be a freshman. This woman managed to overcome a difficult childhood, dropping out of school at age fifteen as she lacked the support of a stable parent and the comfort of a safe home. This woman is raising three wonderful, kind boys. She is role modeling to them what it looks like to survive and thrive in this world despite adverse circumstances. This woman is my younger sister.


I didn’t have the easiest of childhoods. But I was given two advantages that my sister didn’t have. First, I was born male and grew up in a culture where being male conferred (and still confers) meaningful advantages. Second, unlike my sister who grew up with our mother, I was raised by a father who, despite his shortcomings, loved me unconditionally. These gifts weren’t sufficient of course. I had to work hard to squeeze every ounce of advantage out of them, and I’m incredibly proud of that. But I didn’t have to overcome what my sister did. She is the real story of extraordinary performance in my family.


We don’t have to look far for examples of people who have achieved extraordinary things. Yes, there are the elite performers who can teach us a lot about achieving the impossible. But it is the “ordinary” person, often right in front of your nose, who may be your greatest teacher.

Tuesday Tips

  1. This Daily Stoic post talks about the living example of Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs. It is a great example of the notion of congruent leadership that I wrote about a few weeks ago.

  2. Every once in a while, I read something and think, “Man, I wish I would have written that.” This was the case with this article on optimism by Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired Magazine. Here’s a great excerpt: “To imagine is really the first step in creating anything. Therefore an essential chore for making a future we want to live in, is to imagine what it is like and how we get there. That plausible path is a form of optimism. Believing it is possible makes it more likely to happen. When hurdles and setbacks arise – and they will – the belief in its possibility serves as motivation. History is filled with accounts of people who held an optimistic belief others thought unlikely, or even impossible. This optimistic previsualization is a necessary component of change. Since we cannot be certain of the future, optimism is only a belief – a stance that could be incorrect. On the surface, an optimistic belief might seem no more valid than the stance of pessimism. But the deep history of new ideas makes it very clear that the optimistic stance of believing something is possible is a requirement to make anything new real, and is thus more powerful than pessimism. In the long run, optimists shape the future.”

  3. Here’s a good Psyche article that argues generational categories, like millennials, are at best scientifically flawed heuristics and at worst misleading and counterproductive.

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