2009-12-20 Update: Being extraordinary is not necessarily positive, so be careful with this.
Extraordinary is an interesting word. It sounds like “extra” and “ordinary.” That means to be extraordinary, you have to be stereotypically ordinary, to the extreme.
Extraordinary people are usually extremely good or extremely bad. While ordinary folks get B’s, C’s, and D’s, extraordinary folks get A’s and F’s. They’re polarized on both ends of the spectrum. Being at the scary edge of the world is a much more interesting place to be than the safe and secure middle.
It’s not good to be extraordinary merely for the purpose of impressing others, because then you’ll do crazy stuff but have no direction. If you’ve set a mission that your heart loves, then you’ll have to do extraordinary stuff to fulfill that mission. If, however, you can meet your goals with ordinary actions, then the goals you’ve set aren’t your goals at all. They belong to other people. Those people could be your parents, your friends, or your perception of society in general, but they aren’t you.
Extraordinary people are not paralyzed by fear of failure. This is why they either fail or succeed. Failing once usually leads to succeeding—completely—the second time, through hard work and lessons learned in the first misadventure. Sometimes you’ll have to replace “second” with “tenth” or “44th,” but if you’re really trying, it doesn’t matter.
Once you stop fearing failure, you can eliminate excuses that justify your failures. Instead of handing control of your life over incidental circumstances, you take personal responsibility for your situation.
Some common circumstances ordinary people blame:
* Their parents.
* Their friends.
* Their environment.
* Being “ugly.”
* Race / ethnicity.
* Lack of talent.
* Lack of money.
There are many others, but this is enough of an overview. All these are excuses to justify ordinariness. They are all represented with disarming, demeaning beliefs and concepts. When you say that happenstance rules your world, you lose the burden of control. You become safely powerless.
Having an office job is an ordinary thing to do, because most people do it and it requires an ordinary amount of effort, relative to the alternative. The alternative is to be your own boss and pave your own path. You’re making a genuine contribution to your neighbors, and being paid with money, which you can use to convince others to contribute goods and services to you. This requires an extraordinary amount of effort and risk. Many times, what you think should earn money will be of no value to anyone else. You’ll keep learning, building, and improving until you are adding value.
The ordinary path seems secure, but it’s actually even riskier, because you’re not operating at peak efficiency. The bulk of your potential lies dormant. If you operate at 1% capacity for too long, change becomes scarier. If you do manage to unlock your potential while sticking with your ‘secure’ wages, you’ll make the same amount of money while producing far more for your employers. That’s bad, because if you received proper compensation for your efforts, you’d be able to plow that back into contributing more.
As my profits from photography increase, I’ll be able to buy better cameras and lenses which will give me more creative freedom. This will make it even easier for me to produce artistic photographs, which will make more money. A camera won’t make art for me—the best it can do is get out of my way while I create art. But a better camera will get out of my way even more. I’m in an upward spiral of creativity and abundance.
In the long run, it’s far safer to be paid what you’re worth, all the time. For a while, you may feel fine leeching as a government employee, but you’ll come to see that you’ve restricted yourself to ordinariness. It’s far better to contribute directly, even if you go into debt, lose your house, and live in the woods for a while. If you never give up, you’ll be extraordinary, and then you’ll rise far higher than your safe job would ever allow. A life of turbulence and adventure is more exciting than a life of safety and sameness.
Reframing the extraordinary
When I stopped eating animals three weeks ago, a lot of my friends were surprised. Apparently, becoming a vegetarian is an extraordinary thing. Many people want to do it. They see that torturing animals in our factory farming system is completely wrong, but they never take action to change it. Change starts with you. Only 1% of Americans are vegetarians.
Other people try to stop eating animals, but they do it for all the wrong reasons. They’re going along with friends, or following a new trend, or expressing their love of animals. They constantly have to control themselves, because when they see a crisp hamburger or juicy steak, they remember everything they’re “missing” by not eating dead flesh. It takes an extraordinary amount of effort to maintain their new practice, because they’ve chosen it for phony reasons. Usually, they’ll become “semi-vegetarians” (i.e. wimps) by eating meat occasionally, or by deciding that chicken and fish are somehow not animals. These are ordinary people.
True vegetarians, on the other hand, don’t have to exercise any self control. When they see a meatball or a collection of pork chops, they don’t feel hungry at all. Even though it’s a disgusting thing, they don’t feel disgust either. To a true vegetarian, a steak is the same as a rock or a pencil or a violin or a doorknob. It’s not something you eat. It doesn’t inspire fear or hunger or doubt or repression. It’s completely ordinary.
To be extraordinary, you have to believe the extraordinary is ordinary.
Not eating animals is completely ordinary to me. I can’t ever think I’m special or extraordinary for being a vegetarian. If my 14-year-old self met my 17-year-old self, he would think I’m extraordinary, but I hold no such opinions about myself. This way, I can continue to rise, instead of stagnating in narcissism.
In one of my college courses this semester (physics), I completely failed the first test. I thought I was prepared because all my other teachers make the exams far easier than the in-class work, but this one was just as difficult. We had to do six multi-step problems in fifty minutes, which is as fast as my teacher presents them.
Much of the class failed it—I got 43%, while the average was 60%. The tempting thing to do right away is to blame the teacher for not teaching properly, or for making the test too hard. “No one else did well, so it’s fine that I did the same.” If I was so bold, I could even drop out of college or give up on computer science, and I could go through life telling people that it’s not my fault because I had a really bad teacher. People do this often. College is supposed to be really hard and lots of people are supposed to fail. It’s completely ordinary to fail, but what isn’t ordinary is to accept personal responsibility for failure.
So after two days I accepted personal responsibility, worked hard, and got a 93% on the last test. I probably deserved a B, but my teacher went easy on me. I could consider this an extraordinary accomplishment, but the fact is this is the way it’s supposed to be. This is ordinary. My first grade was just way below average; far worse than ordinary.
We’ve had a cat for about a year, but she was a stray that just started loitering in our yard. We never came up with a proper name for her. I called her “cat,” my Mom named her “Vanilla,” and my Dad named her “Asparagus.” Those names are all fairly ordinary. Recently, we came to a consensus on a new moniker for her: “The United Federation of Cats.” She’s already enjoying and responding to her new title. It’s a completely extraordinary name. I bet no one has ever named a cat that, in the thousands of years that cats have existed.
“The United Federation of Cats” doesn’t even make sense, because she’s not a federation. She’s just one cat, and I don’t see how she’s more united than any other cat. Most names are short and arbitrary, but hers is lengthy and declarative. I think most cats wouldn’t even agree that she represents the feline community. It doesn’t matter, because extraordinary things don’t have to make sense.
You can bring the extraordinary into your life by doing unexpected things like this. Go sit in the woods and look around for a couple hours. Go to a store but don’t buy anything. Eat breakfast in the evening and dinner in the morning. Wear crazy clothes. Write stuff like this. Change your name. Do you think I got this crazy “Thripp” name by happenstance? We were the Parrishes, but my Dad was done with that name and picked out Thripp in 1986. A lot of people told him he couldn’t or shouldn’t change his name, but he did it anyway and proved them wrong. That was extraordinary.
Make sure that you don’t do heartless extraordinary things. You can murder a bunch of people, and that’s quite extraordinary, but it’s not what I mean here. It’s evil. Evil can only destroy, while good can only create or convert, and when it converts, it converts evil to good. If you’re not sure if something’s good, it’s evil, because good is always readily apparent. Choose the path with a heart.
Excuses of the ordinary
Instead of saying “I have no motivation,” most people say “I have no time.” You go to a businessman’s office, and he says he doesn’t have “time” to speak with you. What if he just said you weren’t interesting / impressive enough? At first, a lot of people would be shocked by his bluntness, even considering it extraordinary. But shortly, it would become a hallmark trait that, while abnormal as compared to others, is completely normal in terms of him. While others lie about not having time, he tells the truth about not having motivation.
When you have a lack of time, you actually have a lack of motivation, because you have 24 hours per day just like everyone else. Whatever is important to you can certainly fit within those constraints. What isn’t important falls by the wayside.
If you have a hobby you don’t have time for, you either have to drop it, drop something else, or do everything more efficiently to accommodate your new hobby. It’s really quite simple, but most people never apply it and remain ordinary. I don’t even apply it well. It’s harder to do than it is to type.
I did a few pencil-sketch portraits in 2006. They weren’t particularly good, but I enjoyed the hobby for a few weeks. Modeling reality in sketch-form helped me to see interesting compositions in photography. But I’ve dropped sketching now, because photography is so much more empowering for me. I could claim that I don’t sketch because I don’t have time, but I’d be lying to myself and you. I just don’t want to.
On occasion, people see what I’ve done here and ask me to develop websites for them. It would be a lot easier in the short run to tell them I’m too busy, but that would be an ordinary excuse. What I tell them now is that I don’t design websites for other people. It’s the truth—apart from a funny site for my Dad, I only work on my own projects, and I use far more time writing articles like this than developing Th8.us. Often my response is surprising. I’ll hear “can’t you put me on a list?” or “this is only a little bit of work,” but I don’t budge.
If I said I was too busy, I’d have them believing I’ll get to them eventually. I may think I’m “letting them down easy” or that they’ll “figure it out,” but it’s extraordinary to speak the truth right away rather than hiding from honesty. When you lie about being too busy, you set off a whole chain of events that brings you down progressively. Especially if you do it to ten or twenty people. Everyone you meet keeps asking you when you’ll work for them. You have to keep the busyness charade up even though you never really want to work for anyone. You want to write about working instead of actually working. Why not just say it?
If you don’t speak the truth, many of the people you meet will only know the fake, “too busy” you, and life in general will become depressing. You might even feel guilty that you’re going to the beach or reading a book, because you’ve told so many people how little time you have. If you have so little time, why do you have time to play games or go for a walk? You should be working on something really great.
When you are honest with yourself all the time, you’ll be honest with others, and they’ll be supportive of you. Instead of using busyness as a ploy to keep doors half-way open for you, slam those doors shut. They were never half-open anyway. No one is waiting for you to become less busy. They’re waiting for you to become less of a liar.
This is a foundation for being extraordinary, and it works in dating, hobbies, friendships, finances, work, life, work-life, projects, school, driving. Anything you can think of.
Even though I don’t drive, I see often enough that when you come to an intersection, people who have the right-of-way wave you on. You look at them, and you can’t see what they’re doing through their dark-tinted windows, and for a few seconds you’re confused. Why are they not moving? It looks like they’re waving, but you don’t want to chance it because as soon as you pull out, they’ll gear up and plow into you. It’s their turn. Why would they forfeit their turn? After a few seconds (or minutes), you become tired of waiting and you cross through the intersection anyway.
Wouldn’t it be easier if people just followed the rules of the road, instead of doing you a “favor” by letting you go first? It would be more honest too, and everything would get done quicker.
Applying the extraordinary
At all my classes at college, I give out a 4-by-6 print of one of my photographs to every student each class day. People enjoy seeing what I’ll come up with next, and it only costs me about fifty cents each day thanks to free shipping + referrals from companies like Shutterfly and Snapfish.
At first, I was afraid of doing this. Even though I hand out prints in the five minutes before class begins, I didn’t think my professors would like it. They’re prefer nothing to be handed out. Most students don’t want pictures of roses and sunsets anyway. They’re too busy studying (notice the “too busy” excuse).
Despite this, I went ahead and started giving out prints full-time about a year ago. I didn’t have many separate classes then, but it was a lot of fun and everyone enjoyed it. The program continues to this day. I’d created plenty of reasons not to do it, but none of them came to pass. The voice that tells me to be ordinary gets quieter and quieter in my head, as my true, extraordinary voice comes out.
Many people tell me how impressed they are that I “have the time” to write these articles. “They’re so lengthy and in-depth! It must take you days to write this.” Sometimes it does, but writing 3000 words feels completely ordinary to me. It doesn’t matter how long it takes or how much I write. If you look at a blank screen with the sole purpose of typing 3000 words, you’ll fail completely. You have to have a topic and a purpose.
When you start doing extraordinary stuff, many people will tell you they could do what you do. If you publish a book, friends will tell you they’ve thought about publishing a book. If you make a million dollars, people will say “I should do that.” This is completely irrelevant. It makes no different what other people can do. No man ever reaches the limits of his potential. The purpose of personal growth is to get you closer to the limits of your potential (what you “can” do), but you’ll never actually get there. The journey is what counts. Just because a billion other people can take a picture of a rose, doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t. Only 100 million of them are doing it, only 10 million of them are doing a good job of it, only 1 million of them are broadcasting their work, and only 1 of them is me.
Extraordinary people live below their means rather than going into debt. Then, you can afford to take risks… but you can’t afford to take risks if you have a $3200 / month mortgage over your head and you make barely more than that. On the other hand, if you’re living in a tent in your parents’ yard, you can take risks.
You can actually take risks either way. Life is just one big risk. Security is an illusion. Let go of security, and then you’ll become extraordinary.