The Case For Acceptionalism Vs. Exceptionalism

2016-10-07-1475805971-9387829-TheCaseforAcceptionalismvsExceptionalism.png Photo @igmirien

America has long championed exceptionalism, the notion that our country and institutions are unique and immune to history's conforming forces. As an American, I have been raised with the values of individual exceptionalism: the feeling that standing out and being different and unusual are somehow better. That being special is better. That individuality, above all, leads to greatness.

This drive to be the best has made American musicians, athletes, and innovators into demi-gods worthy of admiration, nearing the borders of myth. Like many other Americans, I grew up with an unshakeable belief in exceptionalism--that I could do anything or be anyone. My faith in my own exceptionalism has propelled me to earn two Harvard degrees, run an absurd number of marathons, and seek a measure of professional success. But when standing out and being great are considered the same, and there is only one direction to success in life which is up ,up, up-- what happens when the laws of gravity hit, and we have to come down?

The signs are troubling. Mental health crises at universities are on the rise and top schools face suicide rates almost double the national average. In the workforce, millennial women are burning out before 30 more than ever before. Lawyers, consultants, and bankers at some of the world's top companies routinely hide their personal lives as if they were ashamed of having families or hobbies. "The price we have paid for expecting to be so much more than our ancestors," writes philosopher Alain de Botton, "is a perpetual anxiety that we are far from being all we might be."

When we embrace the American ideal of exceptionalism and all the glory that goes with it, having a balanced life becomes a side project.

And who can blame us? The U.S. educational system is geared towards rewarding the "exceptional." Children are conditioned to believe that becoming extraordinary (like becoming a chess champion, a Westinghouse scholar, or an Olympic fencer) is the golden ticket to a coveted Ivy League placement. Or that one idea to change the world can bring Silicon Valley riches.

Middle age brings with it the occasional crisis, but more often than not, it brings hindsight, wisdom, and acceptance. So let's talk about acceptionalism--a term I have coined as a way to cope with my [few] gray hairs for the first time. Acceptionalism is like a fraternal twin to exceptionalism--a stand-in for a humbler mindset that is gentler and more sustainable for a healthier life. Acceptionalism recognizes these universal truths: we all get old; we all look for meaning in life; we all can find pleasure in being ordinary; we all are not so different.

Acceptionalism might be the antidote we need in our stressful lives. Which of the following perspectives fires up your adrenals, and which might make you happier in the long run? It's an easy test, when you come down to it.

Consider the perspective of an exceptionalist vs. acceptionalist:


  • I am never going to get fat. I will be thin... forever.
  • Staying thin forever means that I will have to put my body through gruelling workouts and faddish. No thanks! Forever is too long without salt & vinegar chips.


  • Failure is never an option.
  • Failure is part of the ride. What matters is how you bounce back.


  • The most important measures of success are fame and fortune.
  • Comedian Amy Poehler was right when she wrote, "Success is filled with MSG"'s addictive but leaves you dry-mouthed and with a slight headache.


  • The Kardashians can take a seat. Watch me break the Internet with all the likes and followers I get.
  • I don't need thousands of people knowing how well I'm doing in life. Just my close friends and family. And maybe my ex.


  • A good life is one where I become rich and famous and get a Wiki-worthy article written about me.
  • A good life is in the ordinary--the whiff of freshly cut lawns, singing Pop40 loudly with your kids in the car, taking a hot shower, digging into a warm blueberry muffin.

As a marathon junkie, I am in life for the long run and know that acceptance is the path to a happier and freer existence. American exceptionalism has done an exceptional job of creating great opportunities and freedoms other nations can only envy. But as individuals, to lead truly rich and fulfilling lives, we also have to allow ourselves to accept what we have.

Make your peace with your expectations, and you'll find that your life becomes infinitely richer and freer.

Special thanks to my young friends Crystal Chen & Priyanka Sen. Photograph by @igmirien .