Do You Suffer from Exceptionalism Disorder?
The hidden condition that can make or break your life
I do. I suffer from Exceptionalism Disorder.
You might too, but not know it.
What is Exceptionalism Disorder?
A condition where the sufferer has a pressing need that everything he or she creates must be exceptional, unique and better than anything else done in that area.
Note: this is my definition. This disorder does not exist in any medical or psychology manuals as far as I know. But I believe it’s a real issue and giving it a name helps. Naming things is the first step for us to deal with them. Also it is different from entitlement (which can also be called exceptionalism). It's about seeing yourself as special because of what you do, not because of who you are.
Examples of Exceptionalism Disorder in real life:
A student suffers from Exceptionalism Disorder. She has to write a book report. Instead of just writing it in two hours, she spends two weeks obsessively researching the book, what constitutes great literature critique and how one can disrupt conventional storytelling. She will turn in a half-finished unique report that gets a C because the teacher finds it chaotic and unstructured.
A knowledge worker suffers from Exceptionalism Disorder. He has to prepare a report on Q1 performance for this bosses. Someone without the condition would have taken the previous report and updated the data. He does not. He works day and night to create the best Q1 performance report ever, merging the usual data with macroeconomic context, business theory, consumer trends and disruptive ideas how the company could exceed all KPIs in the next quarter. His boss tells him the board does not have time for all of this, and only shows them two slides with the basic data.
A regular person just starting Cross-fit suffers from Exceptionalism Disorder. Regular people learn as they participate in the group classes. Not him. He does private training to learn the technical movements years ahead of the curve. He goes to the group training classes, and then spends as much time working out alone on strength and aerobic capacity. He either skyrockets to the top 10% in the box or fails from over exhaustion in the first year.
Is this perfectionism?
No. Although they are related.
“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.” – Salvador Dali
Perfectionism definition per dictionary.com:
1. any of various doctrines holding that religious, moral, social, or political perfection is attainable.
2. a personal standard, attitude, or philosophy that demands perfection and rejects anything less.
Perfectionists work to make things perfect, to make them conform to an imaginary norm of how they should be.
Exceptionalists work to make things exceptional, to make them stand out, unique and different than the norm.
Perfectionism is about perfect adherence to the norms, while exceptionalism is about extraordinary breaking of the norms.
In a sense perfectionism is the extreme of conformism, while exceptionalism implies unconformity. But it does not completely reject the norms, so it’s not actually the opposite of perfectionism.
“If you look for perfection, you'll never be content.” ― Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
That being said, there is a big commonality between the two. Both seek validation from others. Perfectionists through perfect conformity. Exceptionalists through what they consider is more value than anyone.
Because they seek social validation by following ideals, they tend to create anxiety. Can you ever make anything perfect? No. Can you make anything exceptional? Yes, but it’s a subjective evaluation with standards that can always increase.
Is Exceptionalism Disorder bad?
On one hand obviously yes. It’s easy to push your standard for what is exceptional higher and higher, and never reach it. And because the standard is by definition high, there is always anxiety about not reaching it.
On top of that, it often leads to never finishing. It’s easy to try to always improve. You can search forever for an even better, brilliant, innovative way to do anything.
On top of that, it’s getting harder to be exceptional. When the world was local because we did not have Internet and mass communication, being exceptional meant standing out compared to people in your physical proximity. You could be exceptional by being the best at something in your small town. Or in your school, or company.
Now that the world is connected, it is not enough to be locally exceptional.
You might be worlds better at basketball than anyone in your school, but you are mediocre at best against the best in the country or the world. The same applies to any skill or activity. It’s incredibly hard to be exceptional at anything when you compare yourself with all the people in the world. But that does not meant that you are not exceptional at it.
On the other hand, Exceptionalism Disorder can be beneficial.
You are much more motivated than non-sufferers to create exceptional things. Most of the most successful people in the world probably suffered from Exceptionalism Disorder. Rarely can you achieve extraordinary results without investing unreasonably large amounts of time and effort.
What causes Exceptionalism Disorder?
Need for status meets Creator Economy & Hustler Culture
At the core is a need for social status. We are social animals, we all need belonging and status in our tribes. What differs is how we go about achieving them. Exceptionalism sufferers’ approach is to gain social validation by creating more value than others. They try to do this by creating exceptional things or doing activities at an exceptional level.
In Exceptionalism Disorder, admiration is the path to social belonging and status.
This is often dependent on others’ validation. You want other people to read the exceptional novel you write.
But it can become internalized. You can strive for admiration while never showing your work to anyone. It’s the admiration you imagine when what you create meets the standards you set for exceptional.
I don’t know for sure what causes Exceptionalism Disorder in some people and not others.
If I were to guess, I would say it has to do with the models of social validation one is exposed to as a child. Children who did well in school and got validated for it by both teachers and parents are more susceptible. But I think it also needs an element of rebelliousness, of non-conformity, however it may arise. Otherwise you only get perfectionism.
How do you treat Exceptionalism Disorder
First, I don’t think you should aim to eliminate it if you have it. It’s a critical part of actually doing extraordinary things.
Take that with a grain of salt. I am biased. I clearly suffer from Exceptionalism Disorder which influences my value system.
You can and should manage Exceptionalism Disorder. The key is to avoid the most negative effects: failure to meet deadlines, workaholism, chronic anxiety, inferiority complex/ superiority complex, avoidance of challenges.
Strategies to manage Exceptionalism Disorder:
Do some things at a mediocre level or even badly
A big problem is when you try to be exceptional at everything. You cannot and you exhaust yourself trying.
What you can do is be exceptional at one or two things. If you focus on those, it’s realistic to be great.
This does not mean you have to be awful at everything else. It just means you should not care that much how good you are.
I want to be an exceptional writer. But I find myself getting drawn into trying to be exceptional in everything else I do also. I get swept up in wanting to be the best at Crossfit, trail running, marketing strategy, board games with friends, and so on. Investing time in improving in these will detract from my ability to write exceptionally. A common example is if I push exceptionally hard in my morning Crossfit workout, I am too tired throughout the day to write exceptionally.
A characteristics of Exceptionalism Disorder is you find yourself competing in everything with high involvement.
Make yourself be mediocre at some things. And sit with that feeling. Don’t try to justify it away or vow to do better or anything like that. Just wait it out. This builds into acceptance of not being exceptional at everything.
Set deadlines for projects
Another risk with this disorder is to never finish. You can prevent this by setting hard deadlines for any project at the start.
Say you take on knitting because you want to knit a sweater to your grandma as a present. Set a hard deadline when this sweater has to be finished. Otherwise you might find yourself restarting it over and over as you get ideas how to make it even more exceptional.
Set clear conscious realistic expectations
For things where you do want to be exceptional, it helps to set realistic expectations from the start. Otherwise you will unconsciously compare yourself with everybody else doing that activity, including the best in the world.
If you start Crossfit for example, you should talk with your coach about what you should realistically expect to achieve in a year. Otherwise you will compare yourself with people at the box who might have been doing it for a decade. And even with athletes at the Crossfit games. You will not match those people as a beginner. You will fail and injure yourself in the process.
Importance matrix for big undertakings
When you take on a big project that is important to you, you want to make it exceptional. The problem is that the more important the project, the more likely it is you never finish because you get bogged down in trying to achieve everything.
For example say you are preparing a big presentation at work. It’s easy to try to make it exceptional from all regards: have all the data, the best aesthetics, innovative visuals, mind-blowing insights, and so on. However this is impossible. You cannot do everything.
In such cases you need to prioritize. Determine what are the aspects which matter most and which are less important. For example for the presentation maybe the mind-blowing insights matter more than the visuals and having absolutely all the data.
You can use an importance matrix to determine which are these aspects. Simple make a table with four columns:
First column has each aspect or feature of the project
Second column has a score of importance from 1 to 10
Third column has a score of difficulty from 10 (easiest) to 1 (hardest)
Fourth column has an average of the scores for importance and difficulty. This can be a simple average or it can be weighted (if you have a lot of time for example you can put higher weight on the importance)
You prioritize the items with the highest score on the fourth column. Those are important and achievable.
I have struggled with Exceptionalism Disorder my whole life. I did not know what it was until I made up the name for it, but this did not mean it was not affecting me. In my first serious job it led to me becoming a workaholic. In sports, it got me both doing excessive efforts and struggling to find motivation when I failed to live up to my expectations. In my personal projects it’s a devil on my shoulder telling me what I create is not good enough to show the world and that I have to make it better, and better, and better.
I would never have published this article if I had not gotten this disorder under control. Even so, this article is a procrastination of a bigger project where I fear I have not made it exceptional enough. So I should end this and get back to confronting that demon head-on.
Parting thought: be mediocre at most things to have the chance to be exceptional at one thing
Exceptionalism definition according to dictionary.com:
the condition of being exceptional; uniqueness
the study of the unique and exceptional.
a theory that a nation, region, or political system is exceptional and does not conform to the norm.