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The Difference Between Being Accomplished and Exceptional

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In a recent speech I gave to a professional group, I highlighted the difference between accomplished and exceptional individuals. According to the thesaurus, accomplished people are able, talented, skilled and expert at something. They get things done. Exceptional people are extraordinary, incomparable and unique. They are not satisfied with just being talented at, say, drawing ⎯- rather; they are driven to push the limits of their talent and are able to translate a facility with pen and pencil into works of art. What they produce can't be explained by their merely being gifted. Exceptional people handle their talent with reverence, work hard at perfection and shape their worlds with a brilliance that is almost godly.

The funny part about being exceptional is that it doesn't necessarily mean that you are the most gifted in your area or profession. Nor is it just relegated to the likes of Bill Gates. I have met exceptional people amid the squalor in small African villages -⎯ young people who are innovators in their own right, medical doctors doing their very best with the least amount of resources, teachers instructing pupils under the trees. You can be exceptional in the middle of desperation and among the destitute. It means that you are more bent on going all the way to the top -⎯ a path that many who are equally gifted aren't willing to pursue.

Unfortunately, people often cheat themselves out of being exceptional. How many times have you heard of a gifted sports figure that settled for being accomplished and embraced mediocrity or even capitulated to failure? A case in point is the debacle of Lance Armstrong's swift decline. Many of us are accomplished in our careers and indeed in our lives, and on occasion we look back and feel a certain level of satisfaction -⎯ as so we should. Getting a college degree, landing a dream job, marrying your college sweetheart and owning a home are often considered accomplishments.

To me, however, these are better considered milestones that initiate us into stages of human growth, from young to old. Might it be true that these forms of initiation are just small underachievers' goals that we as a society have benchmarked to just get by? Too often such accomplishments are just places to hide our "mediocratic" nature as humans. The question then becomes, are accomplishments a form of stagnation? Do they encourage a complacency that thwarts our exceptional side? After all, many of us have college degrees, and most of us end up not even using them. And when you don't give your very best and perfect your skill set, isn't that a missed opportunity for you and the rest of society?

Similarly, many multimillionaires go to the grave with all that money locked away in a bank with no human contribution or impact at all! That is what makes both Warren Buffet and Bill Gates exceptional. Rather than hoarding their billions, they have applied their vast wealth to solving human conditions that prevent the least among us from achieving success. They both have proclaimed that they will fight malaria, one of the deadliest diseases in the world. They are fighting HIV/AIDS. They are getting kids into school and bringing literacy to people the world over. The list goes on and on. Not being satisfied with being accomplished billionaires, they have chosen to impact life, marking them as exceptional individuals.

I came to the realization that I was living a life of mediocrity after working for thirteen years in a field I loved but had no particular impact on. I would come up with ideas that I thought were brilliant and that my friends thought were great, but I never really acted on them. Instead of realizing them, letting them take shape outside my mind, I forced them to languish in the hallways of neglect. Every so often, as in every relationship, these ideas would abandon me and would transport to another human, who then would immediately act on them. The next thing I would hear was the idea I had had in mind was being implemented and the person was in the Hall of Fame and making a ton of money.

So one day, I asked myself what stood between me and the level of success I longed for? Why was Bill Gates that successful? What gave Mother Teresa the place she had in our lives? What accounted for the likes of Mark Zuckerberg? How come Barack Obama was the first black president when there were so many equally if not better qualified blacks in the United States? What made Michael Jordan the best basketball player of all time? (Please don't argue with me on that one; he really is, all things held constant). The answer came to me one sleepless night, as I looked out my bedroom window wondering if I was really created to be just an accomplished individual. Remember all the aforementioned people started off just like all of us, accomplished in their fields of work. I finally realized that what defined these individuals and all the ones who have had an impact on life since time immemorial was their desire to not just be adept and be routine-bound. Rather, they endured the pressure and insisted on making the sacrifices required to be a transformative individual.

So four years ago, I set off building a solution to a problem because that's where transformation begins. The problem I identified was that U.S. hotels threw away about 800 million bars of soap annually. In juxtaposition, two million kids died globally of diarrheal diseases. I identified a soap access gap in the development sector as the problem. To close that gap, I targeted first the hotel business, then the public health sector, and last but not least, the environmental debate. To this end, I founded the Global Soap Project (GSP), an entity that takes partially used bars of soap from hotels and recycles them into new soap, which we then donate to the NGO sector to fight disease and help with general hygiene in over thirty countries. We have production partners in Hong Kong and are in the process of working through our European affiliate (Global Soap Europe) to recycle the soap in that part of the world. This year we will manufacture one million new bars of soap through recycling! Next year our goal is to produce two million new bars.

All this recycled soap would have ended up in the landfill, had it not been for my revolutionary idea to recycle it! But thanks to the Hilton Hotel Corporation and my exceptional board and staff, who invested $1.3 million in my dream to be transformative, I am proud to say that we are helping mitigate diseases with soap that was being thrown away into the environment. The number of children who die every year due to diarrheal diseases globally can actually be mitigated by 40 percent if they wash their hands with soap, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of our key partners at Global Soap.

Recycling soap was a new concept in the hotel industry space. It would never have transpired if I had continued to ignore the nagging idea that wouldn't leave me alone. All I needed to do to make this exceptional step was to get off my ass and employ my gifts and talents for business and networking to build what is now an amazing NGO business. I am delighted to see excited mothers in Kenya, Pakistan, Liberia, Malawi, and other places touch and smell our soap⎯made by over five thousand loving volunteer hands. I am touched to get the blessing of success after all the hard work.

What builds an exceptional individual? You don't have to be famous to be exceptional. Indeed, exceptional beings can come from the humblest of beginnings. Once they find their purpose, they devote their passion and resources to attaining their goals. During that process they become exceptional! That will be the focus of our next blog, so please stay tuned!

Quote: "To create something exceptional, your mindset must be relentlessly focused on the smallest detail." Giorgio Armani