Were Remarkable People Ordinary? Yes – They Were.

Do you believe that success is for other people? People who are wired for success? That you are stuck because you didn’t go to college? You’re poor, or overweight, or you aren’t as pretty as the beautiful people, or you don’t have an IQ of 170?

Do you believe that only people with special gifts can succeed in business and in life?

If you read this blog, I’d guess you don’t believe any of that garbage. But just in case, I am going to remind you.

Josh Kaufman recently wrote a post titled There Are No Magic Businesspeople in which a commenter named Robert wrote that he didn’t like the post, and believed that successful business people are “magic” or “special.” I must disagree.

One day, decades ago, two very ordinary, kinda ugly, New York Public School teachers, Eugene Klein and Stanley Eisen, decided to create a rock band which they hoped would be as big as the Beatles. These guys had very little musical talent (and still don’t). They could have done 30 years in the New York Public Schools and collected a fat union pension, but instead they choose a different path, and after many years of hard work, they became the biggest selling American rock band of the 1970s, KISS. They started life as ordinary people, what made them extraordinary were the goals they choose to pursue. Are they different? Special? Yes they are, today. But they weren’t in 1970. They were just like the thousands of other school teachers. What made them different? The power of decision. The decision to follow their dreams.

The goals you choose to pursue will determine your future. Why do the two tiny countries of Sweden and Finland produce an astounding number of professional hockey players while their neighbors Norway and Denmark produce almost none? Is it because the Swedes and Finns are genetically gifted hockey players while the Norwegians and Danes are not? Is there “magic” hockey dust in Sweden and Finland which doesn’t exist in Norway and Denmark? Of course not. The Swedes and Finns produce more professional hockey players because they choose to focus more time and energy playing competitive hockey. They choose to develop a talent which the Danes and Norwegians do not.

Am I saying anyone in Norway and Denmark could become a professional hockey player if he choose the focus on that outcome? No. I’m not even saying they should.

Am I saying that a group 60 year old men from outer Mongolia could form the biggest rock band in history if they simply decided to? No.

Am I saying someone riddled with rheumatoid arthritis and confined to a wheel chair could play golf like Tiger Woods if he simply decided to? No I am not.

What I am saying, is that you have the power of decision, the power to follow your dreams, and the power to make them come true, within reason. What is reasonable depends on your situation. Only you can decide what is reasonable for you. No one else can. And if you fail to develop your talent, you’ll never know what you are capable of.

One thing I can say with certainty, is that the younger you are, the easier it is to create the future of your dreams. As Paul Graham said, “the time to take insane career risks is in your early 20s. Once you have a marriage, kids, and a mortgage, it is much harder.” It isn’t impossible, but the trade offs are bigger, so you are less likely to take risks.

If you know what you love, see your talents, and hone them to razor sharpness, your odds of being successful and happy increase exponentially. If Tiger Woods had gone into law or medicine instead of golf because it was the safe bet, we wouldn’t be watching the greatest golfer to ever play the game. On the flip side if Einstein had pursued Football instead of astrophysics, he probably wouldn’t be a household name either.

I am not saying any of this is easy, and that it takes only a decision and nothing more. What I am saying is that your future is created by the decisions you make today, and if those decisions are always the safe choices, your life is likely to become routine and boring. If you start making the safe choices early in life, the odds that you will accomplish something remarkable decreases with each successive safe decision. Also, if your decisions are irrational and delusional and have no reasonable possibility of success, you’ll likely be poor and miserable. But that is the trick, because only you can determine what is possible and what is delusional for your life.

If there is anything remarkable about remarkable people it is that they appear to know the difference.

10 thoughts on “Were Remarkable People Ordinary? Yes – They Were.”

  1. Ordinary people – many people who do great things (either in a very public or very private way) — are remarkable because they had the guts and tenacity to go after something they wanted. Excellent article reminding all of us that we ALL have the ability to be remarkable!

  2. Steve,

    I subscribe to a lot of blogs via RSS. This article is one of only about 5 that I have ‘starred’ in google reader. But, re-reading it today, I think I prefer your comment on Josh’s page @ http://personalmba.com/observations/there-are-no-magic-businesspeople/#comment-4015


    If you focus your energy on getting good grades and getting a good job, that is probably what you will get.

    If you focus your energy on becoming an entrepreneur that is probably what you will get.

    If you focus your energy on drinking and doing dope, well I think you know where that will lead.

    If focus your time trying to get something for nothing…

    I think you get the point.

    Successful people do the things they need to do to get what they want and they do them habitually. There is nothing which makes them inherently different than anyone else, they just make different choices.

  3. certainly , most are just plain … ordinary ( unless they have it made and are born into luxury) you just gotta fight , and then fight some more .. or get lucky in the process!

  4. Found this post very much what I needed to hear at the moment. I can have a tendency to make safe choices and need to really think about some decisions I am about to make.

  5. nice post…

    a really good wake up call for those who are down.
    now a days you only need gut and determinations to succeed.
    from the internet alone there are countless business opportunities available online.(advertising, call centers, administrative assistant, among others)
    and there are tools, programs available to aid you in the pursuit of your goals.

    one that i personally like is the advertising tool glyphius 2008. a statistical program that aids you in the creation of tag phrases and headlines. even art ends advertising now a days are being challenge by programs that are at par or even at times better than the skill that is naturally embedded.

  6. Steve, the problem with all this is that the time it takes to develop one’s gifts is usually wasted in the modern jail for youth known as school. One’s entire childhood and adolescence is wasted in what Thomas Armstrong correctly calls “the worksheet wasteland.” You’re not given any choice in the matter, you’re just forced to waste all day, every day on pointless, tedious, banal busy work. It’s impossible to develop your God-given talents in this tedious, mind-rotting, soul-destroying context.

    I had dreams, lots of them. But they were unachievable, because I spent almost my entire twenties playing catch-up. I had to learn all the things I didn’t learn before. I’m perfectly aware of the need to take risks, but talents are not something you’re just born with. They have to be honed & developed. Yet they CANT be developed unless you had the good fortune to be home-schooled, or realized early enough how pointless school is and opted out. If you don’t realize that soon enough, by the time you’re in your twenties it’s almost too late.

    I did not make a series of “safe” decisions, because I did not make any “decisions” at all until the time I needed to hone my talents had passed me by. Everything in my life was mapped out for me. Life just isn’t the way you describe it in this post. Most parents are fearful & timid and project their fears onto their children. They don’t have confidence & will make their lack of confidence in their child clear. The only thing that makes them confident about their child’s abilities is As on a report card: but if a child is compliant and gets lots of A’s, chances are they’ve already sacrificed their own interests and hobbies and talents to comply with other people’s wishes. The very time needed to find out what you’re good at, and “hone them to razor sharpness,” is completely monopolized in youth. I never had the opportunity to find out what I was truly good at, and neither did most people I know. If I’d been home-schooled, or if I’d dropped out of school, it would’ve been different.

    People are not miracle workers. They cannot just magically discover what they’re good at unless they have some time to themselves. But to take that time is usually a trade-off resulting in poor marks in school, the very thing that throws most parents into a panic (at least, my parents were that way: extremely over-controlling and over-protective – only it didn’t seem that way to them because their friends are the same way). Most people are never given that time. Most kids today are even more over-controlled, having every waking hour restricted and constricted, than they were in my day. Their parents, teachers, and all the adults in their lives are control freaks. Remarkable people may have been ordinary in most ways, but in one way at least – the chance for self-discovery granted to them – they were extraordinary.

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