When we swallow the idea of exceptionalism, we internalize harm.
Q: I’ve come from a tough upbringing and so have had to fight for near everything in my career. I work in an industry that is incredibly tough to enter, especially for someone like me. Which is to say I’m not white, or thin, or young, or attractive, or married. (oh, and I also don’t have any inherited wealth coming my way). There’s always someone vying to fill my chair. I feel like I have to work every day, gosh darn near every second, to just …hold my own, let alone achieve my many big ambitions. My boss recently said to me that for me to get to the next level (and the related promotion), I needed to be “better than anyone else.” In his words, I need to be exceptional. And while I think I already *am* exceptional, I wonder if the pace of all of this is sustainable over time. How, Nilofer, do I set up my life to be as good as I can be?
Dear Exceptional One,
What does it mean to be exceptional anyways?
I can remember the last time I tussled with this question.
It was January 2015. I was sitting with Ellen McGirt — the gifted journalist who founded the Fortune publication, Race Ahead — lit by a single overhead bulb in the near-dark. We hadn’t noticed the darkness descend within the Paris apartment, nor out the windows, as the hours just scuttered away.
You see, I wanted to write a story of a change agent who was using her difference to make a difference. And yet, this person kept using the word exceptional to characterize her ascent. Saying how she had accomplished something no other Black woman had: she was exceptional.
Exceptional, by definition, means not typical. Unusually good (as if good isn’t already prevalent). Good because it deviates from the crowd. Aberrant, superior.
We wondered aloud, “how do you fête someone who signals they are not ‘typical’ of a group they belong to?” (Which somehow suggests that her blackness is the issue, not the *#&^%! industry that excludes blackness.) “How do you celebrate someone who uses exceptional, as if they are unusual to the female sex when their work is to change the industry for women?”
Ellen said I shouldn’t ignore my concern, but ask, do you hear what you’re saying?
OH, HOLD ON (HOLD ON)
This brings us to your boss and the gauntlet he has laid down for you, Exceptional One.
If you chase that ball your boss has tossed out, where does it take you?
Doesn’t exceptionalism make you seek praise for yourself vs. appreciate your teammates? Doesn’t it lead to asking who is better than another, as if there is a single yardstick? Doesn’t it lead you to believe you’re competing against the very people with whom you work?
Nearly all the data says it’s group power, not individual efforts combined, that create success. When we are aligned with a shared goal, not pitted against one another. So doesn’t you wanting to be exceptional actually diminish your ability to do what you want, good work?
Do you hear what you are saying?
WE THE BEST
Difference is nearly always used against those who don’t fit the existing power structures. But for it to be used against us, we have to buy what they are selling.
To accept it. To value it.
Or, we can do a hard pass.
Know this. You do not need to be “exceptional” to be deserving of a promotion.
In the words of poet and writer Audre Lorde, “tomorrow belongs to those of us who conceive of it as belonging to everyone.”
This quote is especially fascinating because Lorde defied labels when the US defined blackness in stark monolithic terms. Instead, she described herself more fully: black, lesbian, feminist, poet, mother, et al. In her novel “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name,” Lorde talks of how her many different identities shaped her life. To her, personal identity was found within the connections between seemingly different parts of one’s life, based on lived experience. That one’s authority to speak comes from this lived experience.
Not fitting into the room as “the only one” but centering correctly.
Even if “being exceptional” lets you win, she would have said it wasn’t actually a win. She surely would have argued that a win that doesn’t reflect the collective is just a “temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression.”
IT’S ALL SMILING THROUGH ALL FOUR SEASONS
Making a living is not the same thing as making a life.
You asked, “How do I set up my life to be as good as I can be?”
And I want to ask you the question, but with a new spin on the question.
Assuming you don’t want to fetch the ball your boss has thrown out to you, what good do you want to do? Our work is the way we show our connection to the world. That we are needed and useful, valuable and valued. It is our gifts being used well. But we do not get there by asking, “what is it my boss wants?” (The answer lies not in meeting expectations but in being your own expression!)
Instead, we get there by answering the question, what is it that only I can do here?
As Howard Thurman (who counseled MLK and founded the first interracial church) said:
“Don’t ask what the world needs.
Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.
Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
I’ll never forget when the change agent I was worried about tweeted something to another person, effectively saying, “this is what Nilofer asked me about years ago.”
Let’s keep challenging ideas that do more harm than good, shall we?
So that we can each shine, shine shine.