You Are Not Special – It’s about what you do, not who you are

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As a younger person, my friends and I thought we were special, as most young people do. I remember, during our most narcissistic, “aren’t we the best in the world” post-college years, a friend of mine would answer his telephone, “Center of the universe!”. We believed it, too – we were special, the only ones like us in the world. The coolest, smartest, most interesting people known to man. It makes me sick to think about it now.

I don’t remember the exact moment of my comeuppance. But before long I realized there were lots of people like us. And anything that I had felt was unique and special about me was, well, not so unique or special. As a matter of fact, as David McCullouch Jr. said in his famous commencement speech, even if you are “one-in-a-million”, there are nearly 7,000 people exactly like you, worldwide. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. It just is. And at the end of the day, it’s really only about what you do, not who you are. It’s about behavior and action.

I say this now because there seem to be so many people who either haven’t learned this lesson, or have somehow re-built the feeling of specialness into their behaviors. They act as if their title, their background, their expertise, or their connections has made them entitled. Has given them the power to act a certain way. To expect preferential treatment. To treat people poorly. To phone in their work. To posture and pontificate. To control or micromanage. In a word, to act special.

Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s better to realize you aren’t special. Practice the below behaviors and you’ll earn your “specialness” the right way.

Firstly, recognize that luck is as much a cause of success as anything. People who feel special often falsely believe their achievements are solely due to their own excellence. But any fool knows that luck, context, and situation play at least as much of a role.

Be appreciative for what you have. For the above reason alone, you should be thankful for what you have achieved and what you have in life. As Oprah Winfrey said, “if you’re thankful for what you have, you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” However, that doesn’t mean you should ever be satisfied with it, or not continue to strive for more or better.

Forget about titles and hierarchy when dealing with people. Sure, we all wish to move up the corporate hierarchy, and we end up being peoples’ bosses. But that doesn’t make us special. And it doesn’t allow anyone to treat those direct reports as if they’re lesser.

You are not owed anything. Despite your background, your years at such-and-such company, your having worked for the CEO in the past, or your time plying this category or industry, you’re no better than the many others with different, interesting histories. You’ll have to earn what you think you deserve by your efforts, too.

No matter what you’ve done before, you still have to earn it every day. Getting to where you are does, of course, depend on what you’ve done in the past (and a lot of luck). But having done good work before only earns you the right to do good work again today. Nothing more.

Be humble. People who believe they are special also act that way. And they tend to be smug and arrogant. There is nothing worse than smugness. Literally. It’s the worst thing ever. Don’t be smug.

At the end of the day, everyone should be defined by what they do – not who they are, where they’ve been, or who they’re connected to. Or, as John F. Kennedy said, “we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” Isn’t that special?


  1. Well put Michael, I couldn’t agree more. To me this is the best part: There is nothing worse than smugness. Literally. It’s the worst thing ever. Don’t be smug.

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