The Ordinary’s Guide to Becoming Extraordinary

The secret to unlocking your potential.

It’s 2:00AM and I’m sitting in the dark, typing furiously, having rewritten this post at least a hundred times now— possibly more, but I’ve long lost count.

The once imagined sentences — formed gloriously in my mind, are now on paper — sporadic and unwilling, a mere whisper of the post I had wanted to write.

I ask myself:

Is writing supposed to be this difficult?
Am I destined to forever be a mediocre writer?

These questions, along with many others, fill up my mind as I struggle not to fall asleep:

How is it that great writers are able to write so effortlessly?
How is it that the people we look up to and admire, especially those we recognize as
extraordinary, are able to achieve all that they wish?

Because if anything, the question I really want to ask most is:

How do ordinary folks, like you and I, become extraordinary?

This is a post I’ve struggled to write for months, in my attempt to piece together fragments of what I believe is the answer to this question:

How do ordinary folks, like you and I, become extraordinary?

You see, all my life, I’ve wanted, thought of, even dreamed about becoming someone great, someone extraordinary — like all the heroes I had so desperately looked up to.

So I toiled away in my 20s, working senselessly long hours, convinced of the fact that in order to become extraordinary, I had to work an equally extraordinary number of hours.

And as such, extreme levels of stress became the norm, fueling the masochistic obsession I had bestowed upon myself — the start to a series of sporadic, depressive states that continued to plague me until a full decade later, when I realized, that despite having worked so hard, despite having given it my all, I wasn’t at all any closer to becoming extraordinary; I was in fact, even further than when I had started.

That realization was devastating, but through it, I came across a new notion: that perhaps the act of being extraordinary, rather than being a result you obtain, is an ethic and mindset you develop that others, in time come to recognize as extraordinary.

I’ve written this post mainly for the purposes of self-reflection as a way to make sense of otherwise incoherent thoughts, but if you’re able to discover your own insights within, applicable to questions of your own — then I’m glad to have helped; after all, we as writers write for others as much as we write for ourselves.

So if you’ve ever wondered how ordinary folks become extraordinary, the answer to our question starts with how we learn.

How We Learn

If there’s one thing that most of us will do when first attempting to learn something, it’ll be googling how long it’ll take to learn it.

It’s something we do rather instinctively: a search for ‘How long does it take to get six-pack abs?’ or ‘How long does it take to learn to code? To learn Chinese? To play piano?’ 

But why?

Why do we care how long something will take to learn?

We don’t ask because it’ll make a difference — something that takes five months to learn will still take five months to learn, regardless of whether or not you know it.

The reason we ask, is so we can complain; it’s our way of voicing dissent, the subtle testament to our unwillingness to learn.

In other words, we ask, because by knowing how long something takes to learn, we’ll know how long we’ll have to suffer for.

To us, it is more chore than choice; it’s something we’d rather get over with as soon as we can — so we ask, hoping it’ll take sooner rather than later, because if you compare it with the things we do enjoy: watching TV, playing games, hanging out with friends, having sex — how often do we ask to speed things up or how long it’ll take?

Almost never; and even in the moments that we do, we’ll still do them anyways, by choice, regardless of the amount of time it’ll take, because we’d actually want to do them.

But even more worrisome, more so than asking questions that shouldn’t matter are the unrealistic expectations set as a result from asking.

Because the moment we ask — the moment we decide to ask — we’ll have already allowed ourselves to accept one of the many answers that come our way, even if that answer is entirely baseless — because without experience (which is why we’ve asked in the first place), how can we know whether or not that answer makes sense?

And what if, that person answering the question has had a lot more opportunities leading to them learning it faster than you ever could?

The facts of the matter is that:

Someone who excels at math will most likely pick up programming faster than someone who doesn’t.

Someone who’s fluent in multiple languages will most likely learn another language faster than someone who isn’t.

Someone who’s well-read will most likely become a better writer, faster than someone who isn’t.

So against someone who has those kind of opportunities — is it really fair to ourselves to be basing our expectations on that person’s experiences?

We google answers to questions that do not matter, accept answers we’re unsure of, and allow ourselves to set unrealistic expectations based on someone else’s experience because we hope it’ll make learning it easier, faster, but what we don’t realize is that what we’re doing is anything but.

What we’ll have done is instead hardwire into our brains, a preconceived reason for failing — our excuse for when our path becomes difficult or challenging, because we’ll have already convinced ourselves that the only way to succeed is if we learn at the speed of which we’ve set our expectations.

As a result, we’re likelier to give up before we’ve even begun.

And that, is perhaps the key difference between those someone ordinary and someone extraordinary — those who are extraordinary understand the need to focus on what is ‘process’, rather than any unrealistic expectations or subsequent outcomes because it’s the only thing they can control.

The Extraordinary and Their Pursuit of the Process

A lot of people, including myself, have already written about process, about why focusing on process is important, so I won’t expand on it in this post.

Instead, I’d like to talk about the question never asked: How do you focus on process?

Because if anything, knowing to do something and knowing how to do it are two entirely different concepts.

Focusing on process is a lot easier said than done. Most of us at some point, can attest to having tried, yet failed — because when faced against endless obstacles and miniscule amount of progress made, all in the presence of an unknowable future — how can we be motivated to stay the course? How can we, against all odds, focus on what is process?

It’s a question I’ve asked myself, time and again, at both the lowest and highest points of my career.

I mention my career, because, despite having achieved what can be considered a bit of financial success, I’ve found myself still not any more driven to becoming extraordinary than I had been before that success, while working as a barista, making minimum wage.

I was raised in a family that, while wasn’t poor, would often struggle to make ends meet; and as such, I learned reluctantly, the necessities of being frugal, which in turn, became the very reason behind my money-making obsession.

I didn’t just desire change; I needed it. The last thing I wanted was to be a product of my circumstances.

So I toiled away, putting in effort I believed was necessary for success — albeit at the cost of my mental health — because it was the only way I had been taught: that in the most literal sense, success only came with hard work.

The price I paid — for sacrificing my mental health was a number of years in therapy equal in proportion to the time I had worked; and even then, it wasn’t until after leaving my therapist’s office one day, in the elevator on the way down, when I ironically stumbled upon the only piece of advice that helped — all from a poster quote that read:

“Life your life, don’t just live to exist.”

A subtle, but glaring realization that all the work I had done up to that point — all the hours worked and all the months toiled — were for someone else’s sake, in someone else’s company; all I got in return, was money I never even had the chance to spend, except for during the two-week vacations that I was permitted to take.

I was in every way, living exactly as the poster quote had warned not to — merely existing.

So I quit my job, chalked it up to an early mid-life crisis, and packed my bags in order to travel — to leave behind life as I knew it, away from the city I had been calling home for over 27 years.

Because as much as the thought of traveling alone, to a place that was foreign, to a place whose language I couldn’t speak a single word of was terrifying, having to continue to live a lifestyle that no longer made sense (if it ever even did) was even more so, terrifying.

I’ve traveled to eight different countries since then; soon to be nine. While I’m still not by any means more extraordinary than before having travelled, my thinking has progressed tremendously as a by-product of the more expansive worldview and broadened perspective. What I’ve come to believe is that in order to become extraordinary, more so than simply being passionate about what it is that you do, it is far more important to be passionate about why you’re doing it.

Because if anything, for all the people who’ve become extraordinary as a result of following their passions, there are many more people who’ve found success because they’ve found reason to persist.

Brian Scudamore is one of those people.

As founder and CEO of the multimillion-dollar junk removal company, 1–800-GOT-JUNK, his story is a fascinating one.

The idea behind his junk removal business was realized out of necessity for having to pay for college. When he was 19, he took the $700 he had out of savings to invest in his first pickup truck; by 27, he made his first million dollars in revenue.

In an interview with Mixergy, Scudamore talks about how he started, his early aspirations, and his passions for the business:

I don’t know if I ever anticipated I would be in that space cleaning up junk. Maybe it was destiny. Some kids dream of being Superman. I don’t know if I dreamed of being a junk man, but here I am today. Again, I love what I do. Being an entrepreneur is the world’s best profession, in my mind.

Scudamore says he doesn’t know if he ever anticipated being a junk man — which is reasonable, because who does, really? To him, the 19-year-old him at the time, being a junkman was just a means to an end, as a way to pay for college.

What he’s really passionate about is being an entrepreneur:

Again, I love what I do. Being an entrepreneur is the world’s best profession, in my mind.

Because to him, being a junkman is part of that process of being an entrepreneur. It makes no difference to him, because he still gets to do what he loves regardless — it’s one and the same. So to become an entrepreneur, he’s also willing to become a junkman.

What matters, more so than simply being passionate about what it is that you do, is to be passionate about why you’re doing it.

Because that’s the only way you can persist through the process.

…But how exactly are you able to discover those your passions in the first place?

The Discovering of Our Passions

Having traveled to many different countries in the recent years, I’ve daresay I’ve developed quite a palette for particular foods.

Stinky tofu, bitter melon, durian, natto — these are just a few of the many foods I’ve acquired a taste for — but not before having found initially each and every one of those foods repugnant.

Because let’s be honest — stinky tofu is really stinky. It is abhorrently stinky. From the first moment you inhale it to the lingering odor that still remains on your clothes hours later, that foul funk that comes from the concoction of rotting cabbages, tofu and spoiled milk, never gets any better. Some might even say it gets worse — the smell, reminiscent of a rotting sea creature is often enough to ruin any date or blunt whatever appetite you might’ve had. It’s difficult enough as is to inhale, much less ingest.

Yet, here I am — ready now, against reason, against common sense, to declare my love for stinky tofu as one of my all-time favorite Taiwanese snacks.

If it sounds crazy, it’s because it is — after all, how does one go from finding food that was initially repulsive to having acquired a taste for it, and heavens forbid!, actually enjoying it?

Wikipedia defines this, an acquired taste, to be:

an appreciation for something unlikely to be enjoyed by a person who has not had substantial exposure to it.

Simply put, the best way to acquire a taste for particular foods, is to first have substantial exposure to it, regardless of how repulsive or unpalatable it may seem initially — because only by doing so, can you discover the intricacies and hidden flavors that make eating it so worthwhile.

And likewise, how we discover our passions work very much the same way.

Only by having substantial exposure (endurance) to the process, regardless of how tedious or mundane it may feel, can we discover the intricacies and hidden intrigues that make pursuing that process so very worthwhile.

The theory is that when you’ve endured a process long enough, often beyond the point of wanting to give up, you discover enjoyment within the process — because through all the struggles and successes, you learn to appreciate at a finer level, all the subtleties and nuances that make that experience so incredibly fulfilling.

Just like how wine connoisseurs are able to better appreciate wine because of their ability to perceive various tasting notes, we’re able to better appreciate the process when we gain ample experience for it.

This is something that Ronda Rousey, Olympian and longest reigning UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion, talks about:

“Most people focus on the wrong thing; They focus on the result, not the process. The process is the sacrifice; it’s all the hard parts — the sweat, the pain, the tears, the losses. You make the sacrifices anyway. You learn to enjoy them, or at least embrace them. In the end, it is the sacrifices that must fulfill you.”

“You learn to enjoy them, or at least embrace them” —  these are words from someone extraordinary, someone who’s acquired the taste for process — the very same process in which you’ll face numerous, monumental challenges, as well as the very same process in which you’ll also come to appreciate and fall in love with.

More important than how we persist is why we persist, and our appreciation is what becomes that reason.

Gandhi once said, “Every worthwhile accomplishment, big or little, has its stages of drudgery and triumph: a beginning, a struggle and a victory”. There will be struggles within the process just as there will be pain, and having a reason to persist is what makes all the difference.

Because then, we’ll have a greater chance at becoming extraordinary.

“Fall in love with the process, and the results will come.” — Eric Thomas

Final thoughts

I’ve said before, in the beginning of the post, that I’ve come to believe that the act of being extraordinary, rather than being a result you obtain, is an ethic and mindset you develop that others, in time come to recognize as extraordinary.

Because if you’re focusing on what is purely process rather than outcomes or expectations, there are no metrics, no progress charts, no awards that you can use to measure progress in process other than by what you’ve learned or how you feel — both of which are subjective and difficult to measure. Everything else are merely outcomes — a part of the process, but not the process itself.

And as such, the only thing evident of someone being extraordinary is then their ethic and mindset because it’s what they do — the actions they take, the decisions they make — that set them apart from everyone else.

“An extraordinary person is someone who consistently does the things ordinary people can’t or won’t do.” — Nido R. Qubein

A direct passion in what you do isn’t necessary, but having one is. Without one, you lack reason to persist, especially when any early infatuations or motivations have already ceased to exist.

It’s just ironic, because the only way to actually be passionate about something in the first place, is to have substantial exposure to it —or in other words, just doing it. Because only by persisting beyond the point of wanting to give up, will you have the opportunity to discover what makes pursuing that process worthwhile in the first place.

But be as it may, the finding of our passion isn’t actually as dreary as we make it out to be. Because if anything, we don’t have to be directly passionate about what it is that we do. Having passion for a even a small part of the process as a whole is often sufficient enough — as had been the case for Brian Scudamore, who while working as a junkman, discovered his very passion in entrepreneurship.

It’s not necessary for someone who aspires to be a writer to also be passionate about writing. All they need is to be passionate about one of the many things that comes with being a writer.

For me, it’s the same way. I write not because I enjoy it, but because I appreciate the spontaneous moments of clarity that often comes with writing. As Elie Wiesel said it, “I write to understand as much as to be understood.”

For others, their passion in writing might lie in the solving of particular challenges — the finding of quotes, making words flow — or from the sheer thrill of creating something out of nothing, like a painter and their canvas —all of which can be reasons to continue persisting.

Being extraordinary is more ethic and mindset than anything else; it’s a state of mind developed through both struggles and successes found from within the process. And to reach that state of mind, to have the courage for it, having a passion is necessary because that passion becomes the reason to persist.

All it takes, is the single discovery of a passion for any part of the process — the only caveat being that you must first persist beyond the point of wanting to give up. Because when you do, you’ll realize why it had all been worth it.

And perhaps it’s precisely that realization that makes our final thought so perplexing:

What if, for all the times we’ve given up in the past, it’s because we’ve never truly understood what we were giving up in the first place?

What are your thoughts on the post?