There's a radio show whose host has a decades-long, running joke about a town in which all the children are above average. Work long enough, however, and you'll discover that the opposite is true: Most people are actually below average.
I don't mean this as an insult but rather as a statistical truth. The extremes in any group can make the average misleading, especially when there's a floor above zero. As a result, however, it is easier than you might imagine to improve your performance way above average in just about any endeavor.
Yet, few succeed -- perhaps because most give up before they even get started. Here are the seven key things that a small minority of people do to jump from meh to amazing:
1. Achieve a level of competence.
All else on this list flows from this first point. You don't have to be the No. 1 expert in your field when you begin, but you do at least have to know what you're talking about.
So if you want to be an elite sailor, you have to learn the basics of sailing; if you want to be an elite marketer, you have to learn the basics of marketing. Don't just pronounce yourself a "guru;" instead, start by putting in the grunt work and learning the basics of whatever field you care about.
2. Think of the future.
We've seen before that great leaders see the future differently. The same applies to anyone who hopes to improve in any field. You will simply be more likely to succeed if you start with the end in mind.
A highly successful colleague of mine offers simple advice to college students: Map your career by looking up the LinkedIn profiles of people you want to emulate, and then plan backward.
3. Set goals worth fighting for.
It's surprising how many people don't think hard about whether they're chasing a goal that is worthy of their efforts. They wind up following someone else's dream -- a career that others have picked for them or life choices that someone else has made on their behalf. They find it hard to succeed, and they're unsatisfied even when they have achieved the goal, but they can't figure out why.
As a wise person once said, "It's better to be at the bottom of a ladder you want to climb rather than halfway up one you don't."
4. Leverage technology.
We live in an era of unprecedented technological progress. Thus, it's also an era in which ordinary performers can leapfrog ahead of their competitors simply by applying new technologies to their field before others do.
These don't have to be dramatic or groundbreaking improvements. As an example, the online jewelry retailer Blue Nile has its roots in a Seattle store that happened to be one of the first to build a website. What would happen if you were the first salesperson in your company to use a smart new organizational tool or the first athlete on your team to use new and better equipment?
5. Put others first.
There are a lot of selfish people who are nevertheless amazing, so although selflessness is a moral good, it's not exactly what we're talking about here. Instead, this is a corollary of the second piece of advice above, when we think of envisioning the future -- specifically how we'd like people to react to us -- and then figuring out how to get there.
In dealing with people, do you want them to like you more? Do you want them to buy your products? Do you want them to tell others about your services? Envision that result, and work backward.
6. Treat people with respect, and expect them to reciprocate.
Lest you be concerned that the last bit of advice can be a bit Machiavellian, it's simultaneously important to treat others with respect. From the basic to the grandiose, you need their help in order to be successful, and you can't expect people to help you if you don't treat them well.
At the same time, don't forget the other side of the coin. It's hard to treat people with true respect -- rather than being obsequious or disingenuous -- if you don't respect yourself first. So set the tone and show that you expect to be treated with respect, too.
7. Value honesty and transparency.
You don't have to share all your deepest secrets, but honesty and transparency are usually the best policies. Usually when we hold on to information that others could use to make better decisions, it's because we're fearful --afraid they will choose another solution, be disappointed in us, or even achieve greater success than we will.
Transcend your fears by pulling back the curtain. The little bit that you might risk will be nothing compared with the gains you'll receive in trust and unexpected benefits.