The 5 Traits of Extraordinary Ordinary People
This is how the people we admire most live genuine, authentic, generous lives.
Posted Mar 31, 2015
Being extraordinary isn’t reserved for the rich, the famous, the powerful, or the privileged. Extraordinary people exist within even the most seemingly ordinary lives.
They are the ones with the knack for living genuinely and who inspire us to attempt the same.
We can all name extraordinary people who have touched us—a teacher who made us feel seen, a relative who helped us believe in our dreams, a friend who created a circle of acceptance wide enough for all. Those we deem extraordinary can’t be narrowed to a single profile, but their lives are likely to include five vital ingredients:
1. A focus on the things that matter
Evolution has set us up to feel that we must accumulate more—more money, more things, more sexual partners. But evolution never promised us those things would make us happy. And, indeed, studies show they don’t. Even money goes only so far. While we certainly feel less anxiety with economic stability, abundance can backfire, affecting our ability to appreciate everyday pleasures. (By the way, the optimum number of sexual partners for happiness? Research puts it at one.)
The extraordinary person knows it’s the intrinsic qualities that bring true satisfaction—those that satisfy our needs for emotional intimacy and personal growth. Focusing on extrinsic goals, by contrast—things such as physical attractiveness, wealth and fame—not only doesn’t satisfy us, it can damage our well-being by setting us up to feel that what we have is never enough. The extraordinary ordinary people seem to know instinctively the folly of joining the crowd on the hamster wheel. Instead, they are content to keep their focus on “being” rather than “having.”
Not long ago, I read a news article about a school crossing guard whom a whole community had honored. Why? Because he was kind. He knew the kids by name. He talked to them about their days. If one walked through his crosswalk with birthday balloons one year he remembered their birthday the next. We all know people like this. They are special because they have the gift of making others feel special. And the nice thing about kindness is it works both ways. It’s lovely to be on the receiving end, but multiple studies confirm it feels even nicer to do kind things for others.
3. A willingness to be seen as imperfect
It's not that extraordinary people never fail; but they’re the ones who put themselves out there despite their failures. Noted author and lecturer Brené Brown, PhD, writes eloquently of this in her book Daring Greatly:
“When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make.”
Those who are willing to reach for the extraordinary understand that criticism and rejection are the price we sometimes pay for trying, that we all have fear, and that defeat doesn’t equal unworthiness. This willingness to be vulnerable gives them the freedom to pursue their dreams and tap into their creative powers. By extension, this mindset creates a safe place for those in their orbit, so that they can feel inspired to give it their best shot, too.
4. An ability to connect
A famous research project called the Grant Study has followed every aspect of the lives of 268 men from the 1930s to this day. A few years ago, the longtime director of the study, George Vaillant, was asked what he had learned from the mountains of data. His response? “That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”
Extraordinary people understand this; that’s why they make others a priority. They are the ones who remember our names, ask us questions and care about the answers, and leave us feeling heard and valued. Extraordinary people also connect with themselves, paying attention to their feelings and respecting their needs, just as they do for those around them.
We spend our lives aiming for happiness, but how many of us really let it in when it arrives? Instead, we temper our joy, feeling we somehow don’t deserve it, or that it won’t last, or that we are somehow jinxing ourselves by acknowledging it. If you’ve ever felt your heart swell with joy as you look at a loved one only to instantly imagine tragedy befalling them, or received a promotion only to worry that your company’s faith has been misplaced, you know what I mean.
The antidote for this reaction is gratitude, as the extraordinary ones among us know. They aren’t fooling themselves; they know that joy ebbs and flows, but they welcome what they get, allow themselves to feel worthy of their share, and seek it in the most ordinary moments—where it is most often found.
Dr. David Sack is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine, and writes an addiction blog. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees mental health treatment programs at Brightwater Landing in Pennsylvania, COPAC in Mississippi, and Park Bench Group in New Jersey.