People erroneously use the terms “excellent” and “exceptional” synonymously, but the two differ. “Excellent” implies a distinction from others but not necessarily rarity. For example, one might comment that a fourth-grade pianist is excellent, but she might be one of many in her class who shares the honor.
On the other hand, “exceptional” denotes someone or something that stands apart—something extraordinary, rare, and incomparable. Mozart played the piano excellently at the age of three, which made him exceptional. Also, he continued to improve his musicality throughout his life, distinguishing himself as both brilliant and atypical. Often that which we consider excellent is also exceptional, and exceptional usually implies excellent, but not always.
For example, in June of 2013, Oregon’s Redmond High School graduated twenty-nine valedictorians because the school had implemented a system that allowed all students who achieved the highest grade point average to receive the honor. Arguably, all twenty-nine displayed enough academic excellence to earn distinction, but if twenty-eight others shared the designation, the exceptional element faded.
This example also illustrates that we have lost the ability to distinguish. Those twenty-nine students may have differentiated themselves from the others in the class, but no one with decision-making authority recognized the nuances that would have allowed the school to recognize the unique or singular contributions of any one of them.
College admissions boards face unprecedented challenges with this pervasive everybody-gets-a-trophy approach in high schools. Now, we see a push for a valedictorian club of sorts—people who took advanced placement classes and received all “As.” However, traditionally the very term “valedictorian” implied exceptional achievement—even when compared to others who also accomplished excellent performance standards. It was the Most Valuable Player award high schools bestowed at the end of the game—and only one student received it, no matter how many others played well.
Imagine how we would regard the MVP award if every player in the NFL, or even the Super Bowl, were to receive it. Certainly, we would consider all players who qualify to don an NFL jersey as exceptional players, if we compared them to the best high school and college players. But we don’t. Instead, each year we single out two teams of excellent players to attend the Super Bowl and then from among them, decision makers pick one and only one player to receive the award that only a handful of men have received since the league’s conception.
Businesses don’t enjoy the same kind of nonsensical grading system that seems to pervade our public schools. They have no unionized customers trying to avoid damaging their financial self-esteem, no decision-making panel striving to level the economic playing field, and no trophies for showing up. Only those companies that offer a systematic approach to excellence will distinguish themselves from the competition, and only those leaders who demand consistent excellence in every aspect of their organizations will classify themselves as exceptional.