What makes someone extraordinary? As a retired FBI agent with more than 40 years of studying human behavior and performance, no question has captivated me more.
Extraordinary people have a wisdom and way of being that inspires and commands respect. They energize you with their wisdom and empathy. You want them to be your friend, neighbor, co-worker, manager, mentor or community leader.
Surprisingly, the qualities that make these people stand out aren’t related to their level of education, income or talents (say, in athletics or art or business).
As it turns out, based on thousands of observations, there are five traits that set exceptional individuals apart from everyone else — but you must have the entire set, and not just one or a few.
I call them “The Five Domains of Exceptional People”:
Self-mastery brings out your best in whatever you do through dedication, curiosity and adaptability.
Usain Bolt, the fastest human to ever live, didn’t achieve that status merely through athletic ability. He achieved it through self-mastery: He learned, sacrificed, worked hard and remained diligently focused. Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, did the same.
But another side to self-mastery is knowing our emotions, strengths and, more importantly, our weaknesses. By understanding ourselves, we know things like when others should take the lead, when today is not our day or when we need to confront our demons.
Start attaining self-mastery by asking:
- What areas need attention?
- What knowledge, training or skills will help me pursue my goals?
- What can I do now to initiate change?
- How can I better myself through books, mentors, organizations, video tutorials or online classes?
We’re taught to look, but not to observe. We look to see if we can cross the street safely or what supermarket line is moving the fastest. It’s a passive experience that’s useful, but may not provide complete information.
Observing, on the other hand, is active; it requires effort, but the results are more enlightening. It’s about using all our senses to decode the world in real time for a more informed understanding of our environment and of others.
By working as an FBI agent and as an ethologist, I’ve developed my sensitivity for reading the needs, wants, desires, concerns and preferences of others — all crucial information for understanding and communicating with people.
The most observational people have a skill set that many lack. They instantly know:
- What they are seeking and whether there may be multiple explanations.
- How context and/or culture factors in.
- How they can validate their observations and conclusions.
- How to prioritize, separating the inconsequential from the essential.
We communicate constantly. Do it right and people will adore you. Do it wrong and you create doubt, indifference, even anger.
Exceptional communication skills elevate the quality of your relationships. It’s not about communicating perfectly, but rather effectively — and that builds trust. Here’s how:
- Address emotions first. We cannot think or communicate clearly until emotions are dealt with. This is where reading body language is helpful.
- Build rapport through caring and kindness. It can be verbal or nonverbal: a wave or an outstretched hand to acknowledge or welcome. Mirroring your companion’s gestures goes far.
- Be prompt. Answering emails and calls promptly shows that you value others. Bad news shouldn’t be delayed, nor should gratitude and affirmation.
- Listen to validate. Listen not only for what is said, but also in what order and how often certain words are mentioned. Repetition of a topic, for example, can shed light on unresolved or underlying problems.
Our actions are the nonverbals that show who we are, what’s important to us and how we feel about others.
You can’t fully master this trait without the previous three: Self-mastery prepares us for possible actions to take based on what’s happening; observation allows us to understand the situation in context so we can act appropriately; communication allows us to give and receive the information and support to act.
Exceptional individuals weigh four major factors when making decisions:
- Do my actions build trust?
- Do my actions add value?
- Do my actions positively influence or inspire?
- Do my actions benefit others?
5. Psychological Comfort
Psychological comfort is a state where our biological and emotional needs and preferences are met.
It forms the bedrock of our mental and physical health, driving everything from our relationship choices to the brands we buy. We thrive when we have psychological comfort, and it’s especially essential in difficult times.
Since we’re primed to receive psychological comfort, it doesn’t take a grand gesture — it just takes the right one. It could be a calm voice, a kind word, an acknowledgment, a thank you note, a welcoming smile or suggesting a break.
Psychological comfort is where self-mastery, observation, communication and action join forces, helping you recognize and provide what best reduces unwanted emotions like stress, fear or apprehension.
It’s simple: In the 21st century, whoever provides the most psychological comfort wins.