Why Knowing You Are the Exception to the Rule Matters

By Alice Bentinck, EF Co-Founder

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This piece is part of a collection about the traits we see in the best founders at EF

Over the last six years of building companies, one of Michael Dearing’s Five Cognitive Distortions of People Who Get Stuff Done has been correlated with our most successful founders; Personal Exceptionalism.

What is Personal Exceptionalism?

In the words of Michael Dearing, who discusses this on the Twenty Minute VC podcast:

“Personal Exceptionalism means that they [founders] see themselves as special and their outcomes are going to be outside the bounds of normal”.

It’s the belief that you are not like other people. You are different and can achieve what others can’t.

It’s not arrogance or overconfidence. Many arrogant and overconfident individuals seem to lack Personal Exceptionalism (PE). It’s a quiet belief that even if the world is falling around you, you will be the one to be ok.

This really matters for a founder.

Deciding to found a company is an irrational thing to do. The majority of founders will have a ‘bad’ outcome where their company fails. Being a founder is taking on a power law. Very few individuals succeed, but when they do succeed, they succeed to an insane degree.

You could say it’s like playing the lottery. But not all the lottery tickets in this gamble are made equal. High PE individuals believe that the odds of their lottery ticket are different. They believe they have improved odds of building a successful startup.

At interview for EF, they have never considered what would happen if their startup failed. On EF, they aren’t focused on avoiding failure, they are focused on realising their potential.

Why does Personal Exceptionalism matter for a founder?

A google of PE describes it as destructive; by believing you are different, you don’t fit in with normal life. But, founders aren’t normal, they are the exceptions to the rule and often don’t fit in with normal life.

Personal exceptionalism allows early stage founders to:

1. Take on insane goals

This is the most important factor with PE. Individuals with high PE often overestimate their level of skill and expertise. They aren’t afraid to take on goals that do not match their level of experience.

A good example of this is Rob Bishop, CEO of Magic Pony Technology (EF3). When he was selling MPT to Twitter, instead of following the norm of using a private bank to sell, he managed the entire process himself (age 25), completely dedicating himself to the process of negotiating with Twitter’s lawyers. It was unorthodox, but he secured a great outcome for MPT.

2. Break the rules

Individuals with high PE believe rules are for other people. This could mean breaking social norms, legal requirements, or industry norms. What others see as breaking the rules, they see as lateral thinking. Their belief in their uniqueness means they aren’t restrained by barriers ‘made for other people’.

This is frustrating if you are the manager of someone with high PE. But, as an investor this is exactly the kind of characteristic we are looking for.

For example, Theo, co-founder of CloudNC (EF5) secretly built a metal 3D printer in the basement of his university as an undergrad.

3. Be resilient

As a founder, you are told “no” daily. My co-founder and I experienced this when first starting EF. The ecosystem told us it was impossible to build startups from strangers who didn’t know each other. 100 funded companies later, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

High PE individuals stick to their vision, even when naysayers tell them that their idea won’t work. No ideas are born great, but founders need to be sticky to a mission and vision. This can be easier as a high PE individual where you have an unshakable belief in your own ability.

4. Push themselves

One of our values at EF is to “push yourself and others to greatness”. EF is there to help push individuals to outcomes they would never have achieved otherwise.

High PE individuals are likely to show dissatisfaction with how they are progressing. They are aware of the delta between their current performance and what they are capable of. Having high PE and a growth mindset is an unstoppable combination.

Many of the founders we work with at EF are from technical backgrounds who often haven’t done any sales in the past. The best of these founders push themselves out of their comfort zone. They throw themselves into learning to sell and they get feedback so that they can improve.

5. Be focused

When a new EF cohort starts, there will always be someone who asks the question “what can I do to avoid failure?”. This is often a clear signal this individual will struggle on EF.

Low PE individuals spend much of their energy on avoiding failure, not on how to succeed. High PE individuals ‘know’ that they will succeed and so focus on how they will get there as fast as possible. Both are problem solving, but to achieve very different outcomes.

The challenges of Personal Exceptionalism

PE isn’t a magic bullet. It’s one ingredient of many that we have seen many of our most successful founders display. PE also has many downsides. High PE individuals are not always easy to work with. They can seem irrational in their belief in themselves, and can appear to be slow to take on feedback.

A key lever for making PE a positive personality trait is to combine it with a growth mindset. By knowing that you can have extraordinary outcomes you are lining yourself up for an extraordinary career.

Each EF cohort is made of 100 individuals with high PE. If you think you have particularly high PE and want to meet others like you, apply to join our next cohort.

Entrepreneur First