"What Makes One Exceptional?: Creative Rule-Breaking" by Zelda Poem

"What Makes One Exceptional?: Creative Rule-Breaking" by Zelda Poem

Originally posted by Zelda on her substack, Tomorrow’s Ancestors, in April 2023

Exceptional, phenomenal, singular, remarkable… are compliments I’ve gotten used to hearing.

But it wasn’t always this way. In high school, I was more likely to hear that I was a disappointment, awkward, a failure, even. My mom was worried about me, not proud.

In a word, I was a loser.

How did I go from there to here? tl;dr, I went all-in on taking an unconventional path that revealed that I was highly talented at some particular things.

Let me be clear: I wasn’t any more of a misunderstood genius than anyone else. And most people tried to discourage me from going the unconventional route, even if that meant staying below average in conventional things.

That’s a big issue with the way we think of original paths: because they seem to be harder, we think you must be exceptional in order to choose them.

If you decide to drop out, leaving traditional studies behind, for instance (but still believe you aren’t going to completely waste your life), people might ironically ask you: “What do you think, that you’re the next Jobs or Zuck?”

Again, this is a misconception. People become exceptional only once they’re on the right path. Their singularity is unearthed thanks to the environment in which they put themselves,  not the other way around.

Being exceptional matters

Being special means being uncommonly good at something, or embodying something unique.

The only people I’ve met who’ve said to me that they’re not interested in feeling special were status signaling. They were trying to be special by saying that they’re not interested in being special.

The truth is, we all want to feel exceptional: it means we’re irreplaceable, that we’re needed; that in turn translates into the reassurance that we will keep receiving love and attention.

Depending on your upbringing, sitting with that truth might not be easy. For myself, the aspiration of being exceptional – as in, being recognized for my strengths – carried a lot of shame.

But here I am, peacefully teaching you how to navigate this topic for yourself. You can do it too!

Why not a conventional path?

What’s the conventional path I’ve been talking about? Going through school and its very narrow ways of evaluating what is extraordinary.

Here’s the thing: How many exceptional scholars do you know, even with the massive volume of students that our society trains?

If you want to become exceptional in a conventional way, it’s not even enough to be accepted into an Ivy League school: you need to be the top of your class, of your school year, even of your generation. You’re playing a game that’s extremely competitive, because literally every other kid is pursuing that same kind of extraordinary by default.

In that sense, unconventional paths seem to me to be the safest way to become exceptional.

What’s hard with an original path

I see a lot of confusion when people think about what’s hard in walking down an unusual path. It’s not about skills; what’s hard is finding the right path. Still, that’s less hard than staying on a path that’s not for you, feeling it daily as your soul is sucked away from you.

But the most difficult thing to handle is others. Until you’re met with a fair amount of external success, people will constantly annoy you with projections of their own insecurities.

People who have left the main road but haven’t yet found their genius are marginalized. They are told they’re confusing. Annoying.

People who have left the main road AND found their way are only then told they’re exceptional. Geniuses.

It’s a law of nature: If you aren’t ready to spend your time on the margins, you won’t make it to being called a genius. If you’re ready, though, keep reading.

Develop specific knowledge

Specific knowledge (knowledge you cannot be trained for) is the key to guiding your personal odyssey towards being remarkable.

This “knowledge” is the sum of your random interests and obsessions, your life story, skills and natural talents. Again, nobody will get why it makes sense until you succeed in articulating it all in something that garners external success. In the beginning, it always feels like you’re just breaking the rules. In other words, you’re going to have to be creative at life itself.

Which is why what you should focus on, right now, is having a good time pursuing what you absolutely love. Dream insanely big. Go out and find ways to learn whatever you need to achieve them.

Validation will come. But not now. You’ll get used to being a renegade, and one day, like me, you’ll be able to look back at the people who tried to discourage you. At that point, you’ll be rooting for them to find their own ways to be exceptional.

I’m launching a podcast on exceptional people!

My dream is to help every person in my generation find their way of being unique. As a teen, I lacked models for unconventional educations that could be leading to inspiring careers.

Thanks to dropUp, I am filling this gap. You will discover the very bumpy, singular paths of successful people from all industries (entrepreneurs, artists, philosophers, chefs, therapists…), ages and backgrounds. With them, I’ll explore the key decisions they’ve taken in pursuit of crafting their specific knowledge.

If you’re interested, be sure to follow me on Twitter or Instagram, where I’ll be sharing more info in the coming weeks.