Personal Exceptionalism

Harry Stebbins had a great interview with venture capitalist Michael Dearing on the 20 Minute VC Podcast a couple weeks ago. Michael talked about a trait that he looks for in founders and startup teams that he refers to as "personal exceptionalism". This is the idea that a person believes that they are special and that their outcomes are going to be "outside the bounds of normal". They’re not arrogant, they just strongly believe that they can produce results far greater than the mean.

This idea really resonated with me; not as an investor but as a person that hires a lot of people and builds teams and is constantly trying to scour through candidates to find the best of the best. The notion of personal exceptionalism really captures what I look for. Rather than try to explain the concept myself I've transcribed Michael's comments on it below. Spot on.

I think my radar for personal exceptionalism has evolved over time but I think the constant is that I’m looking for people who have broken out of the bounds of normal for their peer group. Now that does not [necessarily] mean in business or as technicians or technical talent. It just means that whatever the circumstances were in their lives, that that was not the determining factor. They were able to break out either because they took some crazy personal risk, they took some very sharp left-hand turn, they ended up accomplishing more and seeing more and building a much better experience base because of that risk-taking. So that personal exceptionalism that says that they are special that they are destined for really unique outcomes relative to their peer group. I think that shows up early in somebody’s life and it’s quite independent of pedigree or brand name work experience. In fact, sometimes those things are negatively correlated. But the distinction you make between arrogance and personal exceptionalism is an important one. Personal exceptionalism just means that they see themselves as special and their outcomes are going to be outside of the bounds of normal. I think that they a lot of times are some of the most self-critical people I know and they beat themselves up when they do miss a goal or they fail in a venture they beat themselves up far harder than any third party could so the arrogance piece is easy to suss out. You see it in the form of the people they attract around them and the kinds of networks that they build how much are they are a taker versus a giver in those networks. So I actually have found over the years it’s relatively easy to separate the sheep from the goats.