I’m going to tell you how to be exceptional across the board. This is based on my four years experience with the NSERC Electrical and Computer Engineering committee. While these observations come from an academic grants competition, I think they generalize to many other competitive situations, such as business plan competitions and competing to get into startup incubators and accelerators. Also, I think think they equally apply to being exceptional in life.
First some background. NSERC (National Science and Engineering Research Council) is the Canadian counterpart to the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the US. One of NSERC’s mandates is to manage government investment into basic research and development. Hundreds of millions of dollars is distributed by NSERC to Canada’s researchers every year.
NSERC’s largest grants competition is called the Discovery Grant (DG) program. This program is open to every researcher in Canada. My committee’s responsibility is to review and rank every application and provide to NSERC a fair ordering of the applications. Put bluntly, it is our job to identify the top researcher, the bottom researcher, and everyone in between.
Ranking every researcher is a challenging job. Canada includes some of the top computer and engineering schools in the world, like Waterloo. It also includes small, regional schools that are primarily focused on providing educational opportunities to remote communities (and in Canada, remote communities are very remote). Our task is to judge every researcher fairly, based solely on their own merits.
We are provided guidelines from NSERC. The are 3 broad categories for evaluation: excellence of the researcher, merit of the proposal, and quality of their students (called HQP or High Quality Persons). Each category has 6 bins, ranging from exceptional to insufficient.
Since this competition is open to every researcher across all disciplines, many university professors (and university departments) use the results of the DG to determine their ranking within the academic community. If you score Strong in each category, you are most likely an average professor. Score exceptional in all categories and it is fair to say you are the top dog.
Each year we usually have one researcher get exceptional, exceptional, exceptional. Here are my observations about what it takes to get this score, generalized from the academic setting.
- Be Prolific Quality is more important then quantity. The exceptional individual, however, has quality and quantity. They have made several important breakthroughs, written a dozen important patents, created many great products. When looking at the exceptional individual, they are also present at all the right places. Published in the key journals or magazines, attended the most important conferences, and invited to the most exclusive events. In being prolific it is not just doing more great work than others, it is presenting and sharing that great work in the most visible venues.
- Have a Vision Everybody has goals. Exceptional people have vision. I’ve written about vision elsewhere (e.g. The Goldilocks Vision Statement). The difference between goals and vision is subtle but important: goals are steps that lead to a destination; vision is a destination that makes clear what the first and next steps should be. All exceptional proposals have a clear vision. It ties many disparate projects and goals into a grand and compelling whole. In life, exceptional people don’t seem to be checking goals of a list, they are going somewhere with a purpose.
- Inspire Others We’ve all heard the saying “A people hire A people”. Well exceptional people inspire those around them to become A people. The people we inspire are our legacy. This is why we evaluate the students of the researchers applying for grants. Many have been fortunate to find one or two good students. The rare person seems to have an abundance of greatness around them. As we mature in life and our careers, we are judged less by our accomplishments and more by the accomplishments of those around us. Exceptional people realize this and inspire others to greatness.
None of these observations are easy to do. They take conscious practice and persistence. You can’t become exceptional overnight. It is a journey. I’m starting this journey as well.
I’ve started blogging in an effort to be prolific. That also means sharing to (in my opinion) the top news sites — and exposing myself to the top people — in the world. It would be less scary to keep this blog to myself, share it only with my friends, but that isn’t being prolific. I’ve thought quite a bit about my personal vision (I’ll blog about that in the future). By sharing my failures and the lessons I’ve learned, while painful and demoralizing at times, I hope to inspire others. That you too can build a startup, get funding, and succeed.
Whether your applying to the MacArthur Foundation or Y Combinator, you now have the secret to being exceptional, exceptional, exceptional!