One of the other things that has come to our attention is that when Mrs. Gordon told us that any one of us in her classroom could become president, what a lot of us heard was: all of us can become president. Now, we know that that doesn't make any sense. There can only be one president at a time, and an infinitesimally small percent of the population becomes one. But there is a real tension in America between wanting to fit in and wanting to stand out.

We believe this tension is crippling. It leads to self-doubt and confusion, and that leads to poor choices. Young people often say that the worst thing to be is "just one of the crowd," but they are simultaneously terrified of breaching cultural norms, even when those norms are restrictive, oppressive, and unfair. This is what allows many people to conflate fame with success and riches with wealth. This is part of what creates a culture in which it is unfortunately adaptive to pay money one does not have for sneakers that everyone wears in order to express one's individuality through conspicuous consumption. And this does more than just bankrupt a lot of aspirational people; it is a morally bankrupt idea.

It is related to another particularly American foible: the ideal of rugged individualism. Most of us are taught to believe that the only way to succeed is through hard work, and that we are the only ones who can do that work for ourselves. It is true that hard work is an essential component of success. We too believe in perseverance. But hard work is not enough. We cannot all pull ourselves up by our boot straps. Some of us never even got boots. Sometimes, when people fail, it is not because they didn't try hard enough, or they didn't deserve it, or they didn't work hard enough. Rather, it is just as often because they never had the opportunity to acquire the skills they needed, or even to be taught what skills are pertinent to their success.

We believe that, to paraphrase something Chinua Achebe said: we rise together or not at all. And that that means that we also don't fail alone. When we fail, our community has also failed us and its self.

We at the Endowment for Unexceptional Humans believe that if a person is a good person, a moral person, and she tries hard and attains a level of skill commensurate with her peers, then that should be enough. The problem is that there are whole peer groups that are failing. Together, as a society, we need to address the institutional impediments to success: the ingrained race, class, gender and sexuality discrimination in our culture and our country, the generational poverty, the learned helplessness and the pervasive hopelessness. As individuals, most of us can only address those things in our own life, and do the best we can for ourselves and our community. It takes persistence, resilience, character and support to even get the skills needed to move toward success. No one can gain these things alone. We must learn from others in order to even know which questions to ask or what we are missing. When we focus on individual success we cripple the community by believing that we have an obligation to ourselves (maybe even to our county and its values) to succeed at all costs, to do anything to attain our goal, even if that means throwing all others under the onrushing bus. There can be no real social progress toward equity or innovation if every woman is out for herself.

And this type of behavior is counter-productive for the individual, too. When we believe we are special, rugged, and above all individual, we deny ourselves access to community support and the wisdom and help of others. If we are exceptional, then certainly no one can help us; no one can understand what we are going through or can provide us with the skills and tools we will need for our unique journey to success. If every man is out for himself, then of course we cannot look toward others to work with us. If we are truly exceptional than the rules should not apply to us. And that is a dangerous attitude. It is dangerous for society to have all these unique individuals running around believing that they do not have to abide by the norms of integrity, justice, kindness, or common sense. It is dangerous for all those exceptional people, too, because if one considers one's self the exception to the rule, than what obligation can society have to extend the basic human rights, protections and benefits it gives to normal folks, to that exceptional one?

It's all a bunch of bullshit anyway. Most people are mostly alike most of the time. And that is great news.

The thing that is of pressing interest is how some people become excellent in their chosen field or endeavor, and how we can all use those skills and techniques to become excellent too. At The Endowment for Unexceptional Humans, we believe everyone can achieve excellence. We do not believe that every person deserves to be rich and famous, or even that every person deserves to be successful. But every young person deserves a chance to try to make herself into whatever she dreams herself to be. We believe what it mostly takes, most of the time, is perseverance, resilience, character and support. We believe that with a plan, anyone can build the skills they need to achieve success. We believe that each person should define success for herself. We believe that opportunity is a human right. And we believe in the human potential for excellence. And as Aristotle reminds us, "we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit." We believe we, and you, can establish those habits. Starting now.


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We can't do it alone

Resilience, perseverance, character, support. Excellence for all.

"We workin on my future. Why you need to know my history?" --Cam'Ron

"Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the world." --Archimedes

"When one man, for whatever reason, has the opportunity to live an extraordinary life, he has no right to keep it to himself." --Jacques Cousteau

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©2010 The Endowment For Unexceptional Humans
Amy L Clark, Jeremy P Bushnell, and Scott Thomson.