Four Simple Ways to Be Extraordinary

At work, at home, or at play, small actions make a big impact.

Photo by Noah Benjamin on Unsplash

Steve Jobs, Bill and Melinda Gates, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou, Amma (the ‘hugging saint’), and Martin Luther King Jr. have impacted millions with their extraordinary-ness in business, social justice, human rights, and the arts. Their efforts are meaningful. Each represents an extension of self to benefit the wider world. But world-changing actions aren’t the only ones that matter.

Consider the word extraordinary. Some dictionary definitions use words like very or extremely to define what’s required to be extraordinary. But others, like Merriam-Webster, allow it to simply mean going beyond what is usual. All of us can do that or be that, and it’s important that we try.

Six is the price of one

You and I affect people. We impact the world around us, whether we’re conscious of it or not. We don’t know how the little things we do (or don’t do) change the course of someone’s day, or even someone’s life. Most of the time, we don’t know when the little things are noticed or ignored. But, we can be sure we’re making an impression.

We know this because we feel the impact of others actions everyday; co-workers, fellow drivers on the freeway, baristas, friends, spouses — you get the idea. Most of us can recall a time when an extra smile or kind word lifted our spirit. And we certainly can remember when a sharp word blackened our mood. Unfortunately, research from a number of studies shows we’re much more likely to be impacted by the negative ones.

In fact, a study assessing team performance at work found that the ratio of positive comments to negative ones should be almost six to one to achieve optimal results. In other words, if we apply the same logic to all interactions we have with others, for every less-than-great encounter we have, we may need up to six good ones to counteract it. That means, many of us are operating with a deficit of goodness a lot of the time. That’s where a little extraordinary comes in.

Small is big

As Christine Porath says in her TED talk Why being respectful to your coworkers is good for business, “Not holding someone down isn’t the same as lifting them up.” Yet, her research suggests small things, like a smile or a hello in the hallway, make a big difference.

Extraordinary can be as simple as making conscious efforts to be a positive force, no matter how inconsequential each action may seem at the time. Though many ways exist to find your particular brand of extraordinary, here’s four simple ones I practice.

Four simple ways to be extraordinary:

1. Show up

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project says, “Whenever you have the chance to see other people, take it.” Stop by a co-workers desk and invite him or her to grab a coffee. Accept an invitation to see a friend’s band play at an open mic night. Or try something bolder. When I moved into a new neighborhood, I used the Nextdoor app to invite other parents in the neighborhood to meet up for a park playdate. Three moms, kiddos in tow, arrived to welcome us to the neighborhood. Showing up is about both inviting and accepting an invitation to create or deepen connections.

2. Extend respect

Zappos, famous for their unorthodox hiring practices, screened out-of-town candidates coming in to their Nevada headquarters in a particularly interesting way. Tired from travel and anxious about interviewing, prospective employees were picked up by a Zappos van. The candidate could dazzle the hiring managers, but veto power rested with the van driver. If the driver didn’t get a good vibe, if the candidate hadn’t treated him or her with respect, that person didn’t get the job. No matter how frustrated, how tired, or upset we might be by something, everyone deserves respect. Being extraordinary means stepping outside of our personal drama, even if it’s really, really hard

3. Listen courageously

When one of comedian Sarah Silverman’s followers called her the c-word on Twitter she could have responded in any number of ways. Instead of ignoring him, or attacking back, she responded with genuine empathy. In today’s online world, “listening” extends beyond what we hear with our ears. It’s also about taking the time to seek a wider context and a better understanding. When we listen courageously, we open our hearts to a different point of view with the intent to understand, not necessarily to agree.

4. Be a first follower

Viewed by over five million people, entrepreneur Derek Silvers, talks about how to start a movement using a wonderful video of a dancing guy at a concert. In the video the shirtless guy dances in a field while onlookers giggle and point. Then, a second guy joins him, and this is where the magic happens. “The first follower,” Silver says, “is what transforms a lone nut into a leader.” It takes guts to follow the crazy guy or gal. Leading isn’t always about being first, it’s about being willing to follow, support, and advocate. For example, be the first to sign up for a volunteer event. ‘Like’ a lonely post on a friend’s Facebook or Instragram account. Or be one of the first to buy a self-published author’s book. Sometimes it takes as much courage to follow as it does to lead. Celebrate the efforts of others by being the first in line to appreciate their unique contribution to the world.

“Precisely their necessity”

Poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) eloquently explains the impact of small actions in her poem,”They Might Not Need Me — Yet They Might #1391.”

They might not need me; but they might.
I’ll let my Head be just in sight;
A smile as small as mine might be
Precisely their necessity.

Notably, Dickinson gives no outcome, no end to the story. There is no reward for the smile that may or may not be someone’s ‘necessity.’ We don’t know if her efforts resulted in anything at all. But that’s not the point. Choosing to be extraordinary isn’t about what we get when we give. It’s about giving what we have, whenever we have it, just in case.