Kumar Mehta has studied the intangible qualities that define those who he refers to as 'The Exceptionals' - the 1% of the 1% who reside at the very top of the pyramid. Hear the story of those people and discover the traits of those who have a...
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Srini: Welcome to the unmistakable creative. Thanks so much for taking the time to join.
Kumar Mehta: Thank you for having me on your show
Srini: It is my pleasure to have you here. I found out about your work because I came across your book, the exceptionals which is a book about how people who are the best in the world that you know, what they are become that way.
Srini: And it was hands down. One of my favorite books I've read this year, and that's why I wanted to kick off 20, 21 or 2022 with you as our first guests, because I thought people need to hear this because it's such a. Realistic take on self-improvement that I've yet to come across in, 10 years of doing this work.
Srini: But before we get into the book, I want to start by asking you, what did your parents do for work and how did that end up shaping and influencing the choices that you ended up making with your own life and career?
Kumar Mehta: Wow, thank you for that introduction and and especially thank you for starting off with a hard question.
Kumar Mehta: My dad was a surgeon. He's no longer there. And my mom assisted assisted him because we had a little nursing home in a hospital with about 15 or 20 beds. And so she managed some of that stuff and helped keep that going. But she also took care of three kids. My, my dad had an interesting life.
Kumar Mehta: He was a brilliant surgeon, but he spent about half of his time working for. He went to a municipal hospital every day that he taught he did surgery. He just basically just because he felt like he had to do that. And the other half of his time he had a private practice and actually worked so he could pay the bills.
Kumar Mehta: So I don't know. If you ask me specifically, have my parents have influenced me, I'd be hard to pinpoint. But I'm sure they've influenced me in everything I do.
Srini: Did you one girl with a typical Indian kid narrative around your house of, doctor, lawyer engineer? Cause clearly your dad, being a doctor at imagined that might have had some influence because even my parents not being doctors, that was the message throughout our houses.
Srini: You want a good life to become a doctor. And of course my sister did that and I didn't, which is, as I've joked before. Friends says your sister is like every Indian parent's dream come true. Which makes me every Indian parent's nightmare come true.
Kumar Mehta: Yeah. I can relate to that. I have yeah I actually wanted to become a doctor, but I didn't get into medical school.
Kumar Mehta: So I went to pharmacy school, but and I worked in the pharmaceutical industry, but then literally And that was just for a couple of years. I left the pharmaceutical industry. I moved to across the country to work at Microsoft and technology when it was a tiny little company growing up and then I left and became a CEO and started started this services company.
Kumar Mehta: And after I exited from that, I decided to write books. So I think I haven't followed any traditional path, but I've been through many different. Reincarnations and different careers that are entirely unrelated to anything I've done previously.
Srini: Yeah. Now, were you born and raised in India or were you born and raised here?
Srini: Educated here early on.
Kumar Mehta: I was born and raised in India. I came to the S. After finishing college, I came here to go to graduate school at the university of Iowa.
Srini: What did you notice as major differences in cultural values? And the way that people are socialized in the United States particularly in the education system versus the way they are in India?
Kumar Mehta: I haven't been in the education system here directly. I have through my kids. And I think I think that first of all the two countries are entirely different in so many ways, especially, 20, 30, 40 years ago. Now it's actually not that different in terms of values, just everyone all over the world has access to the same information as everyone or most people in India speak English and they basically read the same news and listen to the same blogs and listen to the same tech talks as people in the U S so that, that difference is getting the differences in there as much anymore.
Kumar Mehta: But in the early days, I just think everything was different. I just think how we related to people. First of all, I remember going to Iowa city and the first thing I noticed was there are more people that lived on my street in Mumbai and the entire town. And then I'd walk to the bus stop every day and to take my campus to go to campus.
Kumar Mehta: And I see these people, I don't know, say hello to me and I'm going like, wait, why are you saying hello to me? You don't know me. But then I just realized I just being, people being warm and friendly. So it's just a, there's so many differences in every way that I'm sure you may have experienced if you've gone back.
Srini: Yeah no, I think the thing that really shocked me, I went back after about seven or eight years, I went in 2007 while I was in business school. And then my sister got married in 2019 and I went back in 2018 to shop for the wedding. Cause that's what Indians do. When we have weddings, we have to go to India to buy clothes because there's so many damn outfits for the whole thing.
Srini: But I think what really shocked me was the. Dramatic shift in cultural values. I met podcast listeners of mine who were like me doing work like by an, I spent time at a surf camp, which was an office room. And I, when one of the guys and I were out paddleboarding, he started just asking me about people like Tim Ferriss and people, all the people that I've interviewed.
Srini: And I thought to myself, Yeah, I've heard of these people. And this guy had abandoned a job that, Deloitte consulting to go and, be a photographer at a surf camp. And I thought that is a dramatic shift in the cultural narrative that we have had around careers for probably the better part of the last 30 years.
Kumar Mehta: Yeah, I agree.
Srini: So speaking of kids. One of the things that really struck me was one of the things that you've said about being raised in an environment of high expectation, which is, I think standard for boast Indian kids, where nobody puts our report cards on refrigerators. When we get straight A's, that's just what they expect.
Srini: And, I think that there are numerous benefits to that leader in life, even though they seem like a pain in the ass in childhood. I remember you saying something specifically about, the pros and cons of that when it came to raising your own kids. How has it, has this perspective on, exceptionals influenced your own parenting?
Kumar Mehta: I've been researching exceptional performance or are basically what it takes for certain people to become. The best in the world and what they do across multiple fields. And I've been doing that for the past several years. Unfortunately my kids are past the age. They're young adults now they're in their, they're in their mid to late twenties.
Kumar Mehta: So everything I've learned in the past few years was not applicable. When they were young, I wish you so much more. And my kids are fine. They have great lives, had good education, they have good jobs and they're trying to make an impact. They're trying to make a difference, but really I didn't.
Kumar Mehta: I never thought when they were like 3, 4, 5, 6, how do I know. Can they become like world changers? I never thought, never crossed my mind. I tried to do everything, expose them to, baseball and piano and karate and, all kinds of stuff that kids do along with acting and drama and debate.
Kumar Mehta: And of course do well in school. But I never thought that, Hey, does any of my kids do any of my kids have the potential for becoming a Michael Jordan in their face?
Srini: Yeah, it's funny because I had Daniel Coyle who wrote the talent code here quite a while back. And I remember talking to him and say, I wish my parents had told me about this 10,000 hour thing when I was a kid, but he said, often those parents do more harm than good because it doesn't give a kid the room to explore and grow and to become their own person.
Srini: And often he said, this is why child prodigies don't end up becoming musicians and professional orchestra.
Kumar Mehta: Absolutely. I think I think showing showing talents as a child is necessary, but it's just basically a modest indicator of what you can do because you absolutely need to be born with talent, but then there's so much more, I think what I would have done differently if I had kids knowing what I know now is create an environment that that, that would let them do their best.
Kumar Mehta: Would it be to, help them understand their strengths create a culture of striving in a sense I would have them believe that the guys on TV, the people on TV, these people who do these incredible things in sports or in other fields of people you read about, that's just not reserved for a few special people.
Kumar Mehta: I think with the right things, you too can become. Exceptional and whatever you choose to do or whatever you, whatever it meant for you to be exceptionally
Srini: well. So the funny thing is that I think it's starting to change with people in my generation who beat a, went to college in the United States, particularly with immigrants, born and brought up here.
Srini: But in our parents' generation, I think that narrative of, doctor, lawyer, engineer, and high expectations, Predominant. And, as I said, I think the upside to my parents being so insistent that straight A's were not negotiable. It's just what we did was that it taught me the value of intrinsic motivation.
Srini: The downside of it is that I think that one of the things that happens, particularly when that's the narrative around your household, is that it blinds you to the possibilities that surround you, because all you're forced to see are the options in front of you. We're talking about changing a cultural narrative of an entire culture or race or generation.
Srini: How does that begin to happen?
Kumar Mehta: Wow. That's a pretty loaded question. There are a lot of elements and I'm trying to understand how to dissect is the question how. We can change an entire society in terms of becoming exceptional.
Srini: Yeah, I guess it's a big question. And we could probably spend three hours talking about it, but I'll let me, frame it with example to give you some context.
Srini: So my bad had one of our uncles visiting and he had a son in ninth grade and my dad asked him, want to do, does he want to become a doctor, lawyer engineer, study computers and this uncle is right now, all he cares about is girls. And I'm like, he's in ninth grade, that's all he should care about.
Srini: You've just limited this kid's options to like four possible futures. And to me, that I think is one of the great disservices that we do when we insist that people should know exactly what they want to do with their lives before they've had enough data points to even make a decision. Like my mom always thought I should go become a doctor and I would tell her I'm like, I hate going to the hospital.
Srini: I get sick all the time. She, and she said you'll develop immunity, like a typical Indian mother.
Kumar Mehta: Yeah, no, I think you're absolutely right. I think I think if you want to really be successful at something it's gotta play to your strengths and it there've been, there's been a lot of research that's been done in the area.
Kumar Mehta: Yeah, basically, eight different kinds of intelligences there's mathematical and logical. There's linguistic. There is athletic there's musical. There's a interpersonal, and it will be really good if you were able to identify, obviously with the help of your parents kind of way or natural skills lie if like you said, Yeah, maybe you're just not meant to be, you have great interpersonal skills, you have great linguistic skills.
Kumar Mehta: That's why you picked this profession. But if that was something that was identified and encouraged when you were six or eight or 12 years old, maybe things might, you might've gotten into what you're doing earlier, of course, getting straight A's and all that, maybe, Hey, you're in this environment, you have to try to do the best you can, but it might've been a good, and then that's what happens for the most exceptional people.
Kumar Mehta: They've identified the strengths early on in life. And then they're able to build on that. Yeah. So
Srini: let's actually start diving into the concepts in the book. So you opened the book by talking about what's required to be exceptional, but the thing that struck me most in any direction is that you said that being the best often means earning a lot of money, but the question is, will it make you happy when we live by the common refrain that money can't buy happiness research in the area has shown that achieving great wealth does in fact, tend to make your house.
Srini: The caveat is that great wealth can make you happy only if you've earned it yourself, as opposed to inheriting it, or coming into a windfall people with a networker of greater than a net worth of greater than 10 million appear to be happier than others. As long as they earned the wealth themselves.
Srini: Now you, we live in a society that puts billionaires on the covers of magazines. And I conic people on pedestals almost to the point of leading us to compare ourselves to. Models of possibility for us which I know you go into later in the book. But what is the downside to that? Because we had we'll store here who wrote this book called you know, a selfie, how we've become self obsessed and what it's doing to us.
Srini: And he said, part of what is happening with the media that we create is that we're perpetuating this narrative. That if you're not Steve jobs, if you're not Oprah, if you're not Beyonce, then your life has no meaning. And you and I both know the reality is. Many of us are probably not going to find ourselves with a net worth of $10 million in this lifetime.
Srini: So how do you balance that reality with the drive to continue being becoming exceptional?
Kumar Mehta: So that, that was just a proxy for. W the famous exceptional people. When I speak, when I talk about exceptional, it's becoming the best in your field, whatever it could be, you could be an exceptional accountant.
Kumar Mehta: You could be an exceptional podcast, or you could be an exceptional nurse. You can be, a exceptional architect. You could be exceptional. Data analyst, pick a profession. We're not just stopping off, being an exceptional quarterback or being an exceptional golfer, like tiger woods.
Kumar Mehta: We're talking about being. At your field, whatever it may be. And and basically I talk about being exceptional means maximizing your potential. Now, in some cases, if you are born like a bill gates or a Michael Jordan or tiger woods, becoming exceptional means having an impact on the world.
Kumar Mehta: In other cases, it means just becoming the best you can become, maximizing your physical, your mental, your social potential, that's available to you. And if you do. That's all you can hope to do, and that's being exceptional, just doing the best you possibly can. And and once you do that, you have the satisfaction of knowing that you've given it, your all you've left, nothing out.
Kumar Mehta: And then that's a great feeling.
Srini: Let's start by talking specifically about genetics, because I think there's nothing that people hate more in the world of self-improvement than genetic determinism. There are two things that you say that really struck me. You say that although no one can exactly quantify the amount of influence genes or DNA has on performance.
Srini: The estimates of how much genes could contribute to high-performance are generally over 50%. This means that. Abilities influenced the exceptional achievements. We observe more than any other factor contributing to half or more of the effect. You have to be born with the right markers that will make you successful in a domain.
Srini: Everyone has natural talent in some area. Your chances of successful depends on whether you find your innate skills and can take advantage of them. What I wonder is why. This narrative is not more prevalent and why we have basically sold people. This bag of bullshit of you can be anything, do anything, or have anything like you.
Srini: And I both know that you and I are never going to play LeBron James in a game of basketball, even a game of pickup.
Kumar Mehta: I think because that's the one thing that's not in your control. It's in your parents' control. And it's it's also, it's just not. How we talk about things, we talk about 10,000 hours or we talk about grit or we talk about all these things we can do. Now. All of them are absolutely necessary.
Kumar Mehta: You are not going to become, like you said, a LeBron James without 10 or 20 or 50,000 hours or whatever that number is you're not going to do it without perseverance and grit and growth mindset and all these other things. But none of, so while all of these are necessary, they're not sufficient. You have to be born with a certain.
Kumar Mehta: I could just, building on your example, I could spend 20,000 or 30,000 hours and I could be born as a basketball ball in my lap. I'm never going to become Michael Jordan just because I'm built to do something else. And the sooner I realized but I could be the Michael Jordan of something else, as soon as they realize what that was.
Kumar Mehta: And if I realized that, Hey, I've got an ability to be a great writer. To be a mathematician or to be a musician. If that's what I focused on and built on that natural ability, my chances of becoming exceptional increase.
Srini: Yeah. Let's talk about, one, how you identify that natural ability or talent, because I had this mentor, Greg, who used to say that you, we often focus on the possibility of being able to accomplish and ignore the probability of being able to accomplish it.
Srini: And as a result, you have a lot of people who are basically on this uphill battle to try to succeed at something. They have absolutely no natural talent at. What are they hearing from the world around them? Everybody should start a podcast. Everybody should be a writer. Everybody should be a public speaker.
Srini: Everybody should do this. And I realized there's nothing that everybody should do. And I personally said, if you see the word EV everybody should, you should assume that what follows is bullshit, because it might be for you,
Kumar Mehta: right.
Kumar Mehta: Are you waiting for me to respond to that?
Srini: Yeah, so why, so how do you identify that natural talent? More importantly, you mentioned that genetics are not controlled, but then why is it? You have so many people who are striving to get something good at some, an area where they have no natural aptitudes.
Srini: So for example, I tried to study computer science in college. And by the time we got to the last two weeks, I realized I'm going to get an F in this class. I have absolutely no aptitude for this. My brain doesn't work like this.
Kumar Mehta: Yeah, no, you are. You are absolutely right. There is every, the way you can find out.
Kumar Mehta: Just think about it. And if you ask a hundred people around you what are you good at? They're all going to be scratching their heads and thinking know, I'm not sure what I'm really good at. I'm not sure what my attitude is. I'm not sure what. Everyone has something that they're good at what bond with, with varying varying abilities in different things in your case, if you weren't good at computer science and you didn't have the aptitude for that, maybe you just didn't have that, that built in you, you're good with words, you're good with connecting with people, that was your strength.
Kumar Mehta: So the way to find out what you're good at is ask people around. That's the simplest thing I ask people to really know you. And the other thing is if you can think back, think of the things you gravitated to when you were a kid when, what are the things you really like doing?
Kumar Mehta: Because when you when you have no expectations, when you've got nothing around you, you've got all the free time in the world, the things you pick are the things that kind of blend in with your natural talents and abilities. And I didn't realize this when. But I know I loved reading. I read books all the time.
Kumar Mehta: I couldn't read enough books and I'd just sit in my room, my summer vacations and read and read. And I didn't make any connection to this, but then I had a professional career in science like a lot of kids. And then I went into data and analytics and did all that. But once I got off that track and I wanted to do stuff, I w that I thought I'd like doing something.
Kumar Mehta: The thought of writing books came to me and the act of writing while, it's a hard process. It's impossible for some other people. But for me, I realized that I could actually think and analyze and research and write. And so it was that linguistic intelligence that, and then I had made the connection once I studied all this said, yeah, maybe I was just.
Kumar Mehta: A little I was born a little bit more advanced on, on, on this capability than many other things that have done in my career.
Srini: Yeah, no, it absolutely does. Let's talk about what you call you, the enablers of, becoming exceptional. One of the things that you say is that The exceptionals hone their skills through intense effort and hard work.
Srini: And there's no substitute or volume of effort for series and deliberate practice. Every single exceptional has worked incredibly hard and devoted years, even decades to, there are a lot of their lives getting better at their craft. And so you go into. This idea, idea of attitudes, habits, beliefs and environment let's start with environment because I think that people really underestimate the role that their environment plays in their ability to accomplish what they do.
Srini: Because as we talked about, being raised in an Indian family is an environment of high expectation that comes with a lot of advantages that other people can't replicate.
Kumar Mehta: Yeah. So just to just to put this conversation in context, the way I talk about what it takes to become exceptional is that it's the combination of three, three elements.
Kumar Mehta: The first one we've already talked about, which is which is your innate ability, are you building on your strengths? The second thing is just the amount of, as you pointed out, the hard work and intense effort that you put into something, both of these are absolutely necessary. And if you just do this, these two things, you can become very good at something.
Kumar Mehta: If you work really hard in an area where you have a natural ability, but to truly become exceptional, to become the best in the world at what you are to become, just to stand out you need something else. And those are the enabling factors. And one of those, there are five enabling factors that are discussed.
Kumar Mehta: And one of those is the environments you brought up. And the environment is actually quite simple. It's just your physical environment, and if you want to be a skier, you need to be near snow or, if you are a scientist, you need to be near a lab. You can, it's just a simple thing.
Kumar Mehta: That's just the physical environment. The other thing is the social, the psychological arts psychosocial environment, which is some of the things you're talking about is, are you brought up in a culture of striving? Are you brought up in an environment? You believe you can you believe you can achieve whatever you want to achieve, or you brought up in an environment that actually shows you the link between effort and outcomes.
Kumar Mehta: So these are some of the elements that the most exceptional people in the world I've actually grown up. So that's what I mean when I talk about the right environment, partly it's also just to finish the thought. It's also partly being surrounded by like-minded people and being able to test your skills and test your abilities on an everyday basis.
Kumar Mehta: So that's also the environment you're in. Anyway, go ahead.
Srini: It was a comment. When I, as I told you, I'm writing this huge guide on how to build an audience. And I decided a lot of research from your book and the guide, but I just spent seven years in Texas and Texas has the best high school music programs in the country.
Srini: And because of that, I had world-class music teacher. And the contrast when I got to California, it was drastic. And it was because of that environment that I was able to get really good at what I did within three years. I think I've made more progress between seventh and ninth grade than I did for the rest of the time.
Srini: I was in high school as a musician simply because of that environment.
Kumar Mehta: Yep. That makes perfect sense. So
Srini: let's talk about what goes into intense effort. Cause I think intense effort is somewhat, misunderstood by a lot of people. I think they often think it's just, hours on end of doing work.
Srini: One of the things you say is that very few people have the discipline and commitment to follow through on a single desire. Most of us get distracted or drawn to other opportunities along the way, and are unable to demonstrate the singular focus required to Excel the exceptional Sharon unwavering commitment to the target they set.
Srini: Many of them have established, precise and specific goals fairly or very low early on.
Kumar Mehta: Yeah. I think the people who become exceptional. New, whatever, what they wanted to do very early in their lives. Look at Borg, the tennis legend he knew at when he was eight years old, he wanted to play on the center court at Wimbledon.
Kumar Mehta: And I think he ended up winning like five or six times same with Agassi or tiger woods or, any of these people that we just think about when we think about these exceptional talent. So they knew what they wanted to do very early on. They had the north star in their mind at a very early age.
Kumar Mehta: And then they also knew that's not going to be easy and they were willing to put in the hours, like the, just the insane amount of effort and energy. And we, when we see people on TV after they've achieved their success, they make it look easy, but it's never easy getting to, getting to that level.
Kumar Mehta: I talk about you saying. He had this image of this, smiling and waving and, running around the track and, being with being one with the crowds and he had this partying kind of look and feel, but there were probably no one who worked any harder than he did the way his workouts were to get there, which is really intense.
Kumar Mehta: So again, this book is about what it takes to become exceptional in something, as it's not about. Soundbite the reality I don't know if it's a harsh reality, but the reality is that it is going to take an immense amount of effort. And and if you want to become the best in the world at what you do.
Kumar Mehta: You're going to have to put in the work now,
Srini: w let's talk about attitudes self-belief and habits, because I know that this also plays a role. And one of the things you talk about is this idea of self-efficacy which, you say was introduced by the psychologist, Albert Bandura, and. And individual's belief in their innate capability to achieve their goals.
Srini: And you say belief inability is often a more reliable predictor of your success than your actual skills are safer. That capabilities. This means your level of achievement at a task is influenced more by whether you believe you can achieve it than whether you have developed the skills and capabilities to achieve it.
Srini: So the question then is for somebody who has this. But it doesn't believe they can achieve a goal. How do they begin to achieve that goal and that, for the delusional person who has the belief without the skill, what do you say to them?
Kumar Mehta: Okay. Yeah, that's a good question. So you have to, you have, beyond having everything else, you just have to believe you belong on that stage.
Kumar Mehta: As I spoke to a number of Olympians who actually went to the Olympics who made it. And, and when you're at the Olympics at the starting line, and you're looking around you and you all of a sudden feel, like an imposter syndrome or you feel like I don't belong here, you've lost that race before the gun goes off.
Kumar Mehta: You have to have that belief. Again, going back to your same boat, he just had that belief that he could outrun anyone. If he followed his process, he could, achieve he, he could win the race. And that is the belief you need so for example, if I had, if everything was on the line and if I need someone to take the last shot on the basketball court or make that last spot for me I would pick Michael Jordan or tiger woods.
Kumar Mehta: Not because they have the best stats for putting or shooting baskets. Maybe they don't. I actually don't know have a big thing because I know that they'll come through in the clutch. I know that they have that. And that is the belief that you need the way to do it, the way to do it.
Kumar Mehta: So a belief and skills are linked by by reciprocal causation, each one relies on the other. So if you believe you can do something, your skill, your skillset stretches to meet that belief. And if your skill set is really high, then your belief increases as well. And so if you really want to build that self believe in self-confidence, Start that picking tasks that are slowly outside of your comfort zone just a little bit and let your S and then let your skill meet that, and then stretch to meet that.
Kumar Mehta: And if you keep doing that enough times, your belief in yourself will increase. There are several ways to increase your self efficacy, and then there's a lot of literature. But but just becoming good at something mastering something is probably the simplest way to start increasing your self efficacy.
Kumar Mehta: No.
Srini: So one of the things that you talked about when it comes to self efficacy is looking at the people that we have as role models. And I think this really struck me because it takes us back to. Idea of co outliers as our role models. And, primarily we look at outliers or as our role models, because these are the people that have, press written about them.
Srini: They're the ones on the covers of magazines. Yeah. And yet most of them are unrealistic models of possibility. And one of the things you say is watching role models, say athletes on TV or others who already who are already exceptional, can sometimes serve as a vicarious stimulus to self-efficacy, but it's less impactful than seeing a peer do something extra.
Kumar Mehta: Yeah. Yeah. W when you see, when you see someone and I write about an Olympian who I didn't make it to the Olympic trials in I can't remember the year but she didn't make the Olympic trials. And when I was speaking with her she visited the Olympic trials as as as a spectator.
Kumar Mehta: And, when she was in the stands and she heard, the names of people being called out and she heard these are people that she's run against in college. And these are people she knew and she said, wow, if they can do it, I can do it. And that gave her that incredible rush of self-belief and self-efficacy.
Kumar Mehta: So when you see, yeah. When you see Michael Jordan do something spectacular, that's create a new enjoy watching it, but when you see your friend in your classroom, do something, you're going, oh, wait a second. He can. Oh, she can do it. I can do it too. And that's that's th those are the experiences that, that help you grow
Srini: Yeah. Let's talk about this whole idea of micro excellence, because I, this is one of the things that struck me most especially because I think this is how all writers and all creatives become successful is through what you call by. Excellent. The most outstanding NGL individuals from all walks of life have attained their greatness by focusing on the small seemingly insignificant things, not just by focusing on the big stuff, the cumulative effect of small changes, leads to significant outcomes.
Srini: And, I think that struck me because so often I will have people. Come to me and say things like, I want to write a New York times bestselling book and they don't have a blog. They don't have an audience. They've never written a word. And they have these really lofty goals. How do you one break that narrative, first of all.
Srini: And then how do you use the concepts of micro excellence to actually accomplish.
Kumar Mehta: Yeah, I think you, you hit it on the head. I think we're just wired to think big, don't sweat, the small stuff, gets, if you're in a corporate environment, you want these big, hairy goals you want, everyone talks about being big but the reality is that, excellence It is a series.
Kumar Mehta: It's just a countless series of little things that give you that add up to something exceptional. It's not like one or two or three big things. And so while we focus on the big thing, it's really impossible to get there. But if, to your example, if you ride every day and you become a better writer and you start publishing and you have two people or five people read your work and that's five becomes 15 and that 15 becomes a hundred, that's how you're going to grow.
Kumar Mehta: The only way to achieve excellence is through micro excellence, by excelling in all the tiny details. And it's incredible whether you are an exceptional architect or whether you've won a Nobel prize in economics or physics, or whether you're an athlete or whether you're a musician, it's always the tiniest of the details that make all the difference.
Kumar Mehta: And too often, we don't focus on. And that's where I tried to bring that as a one common trait across all of the exceptions I studied. I interviewed, I spent time with I watched, I read about everyday. Sweat, the small stuff everyone focuses on the details. And that whole concept is something I call them micro excellence.
Srini: Another thing that really struck me that you said was everyone wants to be excellent when it matters most, but the only way to be excellent when it matters most is to be excellent when it matters least. And it made me think about how people practice a musical instrument, for example, And to me, it was always practice as if you're performing in front of an audience.
Srini: And a lot of people don't do that yet.
Kumar Mehta: Yes, you're absolutely right. We think of, we just think of peak performances. We think of the game, the meet, the match, the recital, whatever it is, and you're going to peak there, but the only way and these are the. Events that actually have a peak performance day.
Kumar Mehta: If you are a product manager at a company, or if you are a surgeon or if you are an accountant or if you're a lawyer, your peak performances, whenever it is, you don't know when it is your peak performance is when there's a patient lying on that bed. Not when you prepare for some specific outcome. So the only way to do your best when it matters the most is to be able to do it all the time.
Kumar Mehta: And that's the message I tried to get across is that the only way to be excellent, where it matters most is to be excellent when it matters least, but no one is looking when it's just you and when you know that you mastered. Then you know that when you really need to do it, you'll be able to do it again.
Kumar Mehta: Yeah,
Srini: absolutely. Let's talk specifically about this idea of no plan B because I don't think there's an Indian parent in America who came from my parents' generation, who would say, Hey, go be an artist, no plan B. Unless they're really strange, weird parents because particularly for creatives and artists, they are signing up for a life where there is no guarantee of anything.
Srini: And there's always a possibility that you end up in poverty or, amount to nothing after busting your ass for years, because you don't hear those stories. Those, aren't the stories we hear about. You only hear the stories of, the struggling writer who broke out of nowhere and became JK Rowling,
Kumar Mehta: right?
Kumar Mehta: Yeah. So the one. Thing. So my book is about the common elements that are shared among the most exceptional people in all fields. And one of them is that they're fully committed to what they do. And there is really no plan B. Now that doesn't mean that, if for whatever reason that career is cut short.
Kumar Mehta: In fact, I spoke to an Olympian who was who wanted to become an Olympic skier and she had a skiing accident and eventually became an Olympic runner. You do other things. If something doesn't work out, but you don't go out saying that, Hey, I'm going to become a rock, I'm going to make a big and a rock man, but that doesn't work.
Kumar Mehta: My family has an auto dealership that I'll go work at. That's having a plan B because what ends up happening is that by definition your plan, B's your safety net. It's designed to say that, Hey, I'm going to go as far as I want as high as. And for whatever reason, things don't work out my way.
Kumar Mehta: And I fall. And my plan B is there a grab me but the plan B ends up doing the opposite. Things are going to get hard. We just talked about the amount of energy and effort you need to put in. And whenever the, whenever you get the sliders bumps in the road, people just say, ah, this is not for me.
Kumar Mehta: I'm just, maybe I'll go into my plan B and that's never going to make you exceptional. So the most, if you want to become exceptional, you've gotta be fully. Not be thinking about what else you can do if you don't become exceptional, or if you don't achieve what you think you ought to achieve all those skills that brought you into getting as far as you possibly can be transferred to something else.
Kumar Mehta: So then you always have options, but you just don't go in saying that, Hey, this is. I got something else waiting for me. Oh,
Srini: Let's do one more area of intense effort. And then we'll get into, what you call joining the exceptionals. This struck me because this is a common debate around Silicon valley.
Srini: The header of this section was 40 hours. Isn't nearly enough. And you say, you need to. I'm thinking about your cause all the time, you need to have an unmatched work ethic. You can't take evenings and weekends off, you have to be prepared to immerse yourself in improving your skills. And I had Justine Musk here, who's Elan's ex wife she ended up writing an article that ended up going viral about extreme success.
Srini: And the thing that always struck me about. What she said was that when you see people like Richard Branson and you one must choose and people don't really see the amount of work that goes into these accomplishments, she said, these often come at the cost of everything else in your life. And then yesterday I was relistening to the how to start a startup podcast that Y Combinator made available.
Srini: And there's a lecture with Reid Hoffman on how to be a great founder. And one of the things he talks about is the myth of balance. And he said that is a big red flag for him. Basically, you're going to pour your life into this thing if you're building a company because there's so many ways to die. So how do you balance that reality to becoming exceptional?
Srini: And what's required with the fact that everybody needs sleep food, the things that we need to survive without killing yourself in the process.
Kumar Mehta: Yeah. So again I think you can become very good at something. With that. But as you pointed out in all your examples to become exceptional, to become, an Elon Musk or the R Reed Hoffman, or a startup successful startup founder or a world-class athlete or a gymnast or whatever it is, You just have to make that commitment.
Kumar Mehta: And that's just how people have done it. It's not necessarily a healthy lifestyle. It's not necessarily something I'd advocate for everyone, but if you want to become the best tennis player, the best golfer, the best pianists, the best electric car maker or whatever it is you want to do there is going to be that sacrifice.
Kumar Mehta: And and what I write about is an observation. Everyone who's become exceptional has had to go through that sacrifice. So you can't. So the point I'm trying to make is that you can't say that I, I want to win, 10 major golf tournament and you can have that as a goal and yet.
Kumar Mehta: Yeah, but I'm just going to work from, 10 to five or something and then go home and forget about it. And so there is that mismatch in and the sad reality is that that commitment is an effort is absolutely necessary to achieve that level of success.
Srini: No. Now one distinction you make is the difference between your possible and your personal best.
Srini: What are, what you know for people who haven't read your book. Can you explain.
Kumar Mehta: Yeah. So that's something I think would help all of us, whether you become exceptional in something or not. So we're all wired to think of a personal best. You do anything, you just, you run a race you jump on your Peloton, you do something.
Kumar Mehta: You play around a golf, you play with your friends, you do whatever you do. You're a salesperson. You say, Hey, I did X last month, or last time I want to do X plus one, I closed eight deals last month, I want to close nine deals. I shocked, this was my score.
Kumar Mehta: I want to do better. We're always looking at bettering our personal. Now the problem with that, there's nothing really wrong with it. But one problem is that it's a very backward looking metric. You're looking at bettering something you've done in the past. What I talk about is your possible best, and instead of your benchmark being what you did in the past and trying to do one better, what if you are your benchmark was your possible best how far you can go and started measuring yourself against against that.
Kumar Mehta: And I think that's how the most exceptional people in the world have done it. And so that's the distinction I try to make between your personal best, which is backward looking and your possible best, which is forward-looking and something that you can strive toward. No.
Srini: One of the, things that you've talked about is joining the exceptionals and you talk about the super elites and you say, unlike the elites, the super elites went through a significant negative life events, such as the loss of a parent or loved one parental divorce or an unsettled environment that resulted in substantial trauma in their minds.
Srini: This gave them a chip on their shoulder or extra motivation. Pursue excellence. Often this negative shock was followed closely by a positive experience in their sport that compensated for the loss and served as a catalyst to becoming exceptional. Now, not that I consider myself super elite by any stretch of the imagination, but I can tell you being fired from every job basically was my motivation to, make a career out of this hell or high water.
Kumar Mehta: Yes. And and the sentence that you just quoted was actually from a research study that was done with with athletes. And it was a really interesting study where they looked at the most elite athletes, these Olympic Olympians and people who represented the country in, in, in the world championships.
Kumar Mehta: And they compared them with the super elite, not only people who had represented their country, but were going to. And had one multiple metals in these events. So that was the comparison between elite and super elite. So we're already talking in verified air, even the lower group isn't in this rarefied air.
Kumar Mehta: And one of the difference that, that the researchers found was this this obsessive need to succeed. This people have been through. A life event, but one big difference between the two groups and something we can all take to heart and learn from is that the elites were focused on outcomes. They wanted to win their race, or when their match, the super elites were also focused on outcomes because of course, they wanted to win whatever they were competing in, but they were also focused on mastery that they were competing against themselves.
Kumar Mehta: They were trying to get to their possible. And that was a big difference between the elites and super elite also.
Srini: So what if you didn't have one of these sort of negative life experiences or pivot, what you call pivot points or, what they basically call the all is lost moment in the hero's journey.
Srini: Is there something you can do to bring it about? Or can you bring that motivation about without dismantling your life?
Kumar Mehta: Yeah, I think I think pivot points are these events that happen, they're the, they're basically these opportunities knocking on you. And you've got to, you've got to know that you want to answer them.
Kumar Mehta: And we all have pivot points. We all have this urge where we feel like we want to do something, but if people make up negative life events people just say that, somebody who wrote a negative article on me and I'm going to show them, or, people create these motivational things that drive them to achieving what they want to do, because they really want to achieve the goal.
Kumar Mehta: That if there's no reason, there's always a reason which is internal, but they make up these these events that give them that extra push.
Srini: Now, one thing you talk about is how people respond to these negative events, right? And how the people who make something out of this these negative events did respond to them positively.
Srini: Whereas the people that don't react to them negatively. Why is that? And how do you cultivate the capacity to react or respond positively to negative events?
Kumar Mehta: I don't know if you've cultivated that capacity. This is not an area of research to deeply. So I really am a little bit out of my depth here, but I think that these events just give you that extra prompt or motivation.
Kumar Mehta: You are already on your path. You already know what you want to do. These things. These negative events, give you a little push each time. And like I said, if they're on there, you create them just to give you that extra motivation. Okay.
Srini: Let's finish up by talking about the three stages of skill development that you talk about which are the positive, the comparative and the supportive.
Srini: What are they in? How do they apply to our lives when we're trying to become active?
Kumar Mehta: Yeah. And they applied to our lives in every way to the first stage, is that whatever you want to do, let's say you pick up, playing the guitar. That initial experience has to be positive.
Kumar Mehta: You have to enjoy it. Otherwise you're not going to do it for the second day. And in that positive experience you enjoy something you want to do better. You just do something for the pure joy and the satisfaction of getting. Then you start getting a little bit better at it and you get to the second stage, which is the comparative stage.
Kumar Mehta: And again, in whatever your activity may be, then you say, oh, can I do this? Can I do that? You know what I mean, better than someone else. Can I win this race? Can I, achieve certain milestones and really start thinking of all that? That's when you're thinking of your personal best. And that's when you are thinking of really, you're really into it into an activity or looking to get better at it.
Kumar Mehta: You have some benchmarks and milestones, some targets and, you're trying to achieve a new, personal best each time and whatever it may be, it varies for activities. The final stage where you become exceptional at something is the super. And now you've transcended that comparison with other people or other benchmarks and metrics.
Kumar Mehta: You're trying to do something better for the sake of becoming better to see how far you can go. You're not doing it purely to, to do better than someone else you're doing it because you can, or you want to do it for yourself. And that's when you're striving for your possible. And that's when you're on the road, that's when you're in the rarefied air and headed for something exceptional.
Srini: No. Wow. I have two final questions for you. As I mentioned part of the reason that I wanted to interview you now in October was because I wanted to air your episode as the very first of the new year. Being a new year. A lot of people who are listening to this probably have goals that they want to accomplish in the next year.
Srini: They have plans. And so often what happens is we get to the end of the year, half the things we thought we were going to do, goals, we thought we're going to accomplish, don't get realized. What is your message to them for kicking off this year?
Kumar Mehta: That's a great question. So the first thing I would say is write down your.
Kumar Mehta: And research has shown that writing down goals is already a big step than just thinking about your goals. So you write them down and then you develop a plan or a process, and it's not an, it's not this big, heavy process. Just write down how you break it up. If you want to do something, if you want to lose 30 pounds by the end of the year.
Kumar Mehta: Work backwards, start with your way that, whatever it is minus 30 for the end of the year, but that means that you probably need to lose two pounds in this first month. How are you going to do that and have the step-by-step plan that gets you there? The reason people don't accomplish goals is they try to bite everything off this.
Kumar Mehta: Just try to do everything all at once. And that's just not the right way. We've talked about micro excellence or having a process. Yeah. That's what evidence advise people to do. Amazing.
Srini: I have one final question for you, which is how we finish all of our interviews at the unmistakable creative.
Srini: What do you think it is that makes somebody or something mystical?
Kumar Mehta: I think that's what being exceptional is. You do something unmistakable you maximize your potential. I think that it would be achieving your possible best doing the. Making the most of your physical, mental, and social potential and achieving what you are built and make to achieve? Not what someone else's.
Kumar Mehta: Yeah.
Srini: Amazing. I can't thank you enough for taking the time to join us, to share your story, your wisdom, and your insights with our listeners. Where can people find out more about you your work, the book, and everything else that you're up to.
Kumar Mehta: So the book is available everywhere. You can find it on Amazon or anywhere else.
Kumar Mehta: It's called the exception. My website is my name is Kumar method.com. That'll give you more information on, on my background and what I do and both of my books and all the other articles I've written. So that's probably a good place to start. And I look forward to hearing from you or from other readers.
Srini: Amazing. And for everybody listening, we will wrap the show with that.
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