Updated on 09.21.10

The Myth of the Exceptional Life

Trent Hamm

You, too, can have an exceptional life!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read or heard the above phrase (or something very similar) over the past few years. It pops up on countless books, television shows, seminar series, DVDs, and countless other things that propose to tell you the secret to living some sort of exceptional life.

That phrase has always struck a very bad chord with me. There’s something inherently off about that message and I think I’ve finally figured out what it is.

Those of you who have read The Simple Dollar for a while know that I deeply value certain core principles when it comes to personal finance and building a life that you want. Spend less than you earn. Stop trying to impress other people. Find and work toward your true passions. Do it yourself.

Almost all of these ideas have one thing in common: you. You are the one, in the end, that’s responsible for what you make of your life. You’re the one that has to make the day-to-day choices. You’re the one that decides where your future will lead.

Which leads us back to the idea of an exceptional life – and why I think it’s a myth.

An exceptional life is inherently based on judging your own life by what others are doing. After all, you can only be an exception if there are lots of other lives that are not exceptional around you.

For the longest time, I was fueled by the desire to have an exceptional life as compared to what I grew up with. I wanted a life that would inspire envy in others and pride in my parents. I wanted a life that made other people say, “Wow.”

What I realized is that by chasing a goal that’s heavily based on comparing my life to others, I’d never get there. I would never feel like my life was exceptional. I would always have peers, and I would always have people that made me think, “Wow. Their life is much more awesome than mine.”

Instead, I needed to work solely from a metric inside of me. A great life comes not from comparing my life to the people around me, but from having a life that brings me happiness whether I’m by myself or around other people.

What brings me happiness? The opportunity to write every day. The ability to spend a ton of time with my children and my wife without the fear of being on call. A home in the country, with a barn out back, a big vegetable garden, and perhaps some chickens. Someday, the ability to write and publish a few novels. Spending time helping others in my local community and in the global community, too, whether it’s doing accounting work or building pipelines in the Congo.

Those are the things that make me happy. I know, from previous comments, that quite a few vocal commenters think that such things aren’t exceptional at all. They consider them boring, parochial, and so on. Frankly, I don’t care. I don’t judge my life and my goals by the standards they have for their life. I judge my life by the goals and standards I have for my life.

I recommend exactly the same thing for you. What do you want? Where do you want to be in five years?

Maybe it’s something “exceptional,” like traveling the world. Or maybe it’s something as “boring” as getting up at six in the morning and harvesting chicken eggs. We’re all wired differently inside.

What matters is that you constantly aim for the things that are important to you, not the things that are important to others.

Keep that philosophy in mind every time you buy an item at the store. Remember it when you’re trying to decide how you’re going to spend a spare hour this evening. Think about it when you’re evaluating and setting your goals for the future.

I’ll make you a deal. I’ll keep talking about how I’m working towards my own goals. You pull out the elements of that story that are useful to you and apply them to your own goals. In the end, we’ll both be where we want to be.

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  1. Shannon says:

    “Someday, the ability to a few novels.” Proofread much?

  2. Amy says:

    Excellent post! I find that worrying too much about what people think really steals my joy. What makes you happy is what makes YOU happy – never mind what everyone else thinks.

    I’ve lurked here for nearly a year and decided today was the day to tell you how much I appreciate your blog. I get something out of each post even when I don’t agree with you.

  3. nansuelee says:

    Gee Shannon, ever just overlook minor errors made by others!

  4. Jaime says:

    I really like this post. I’ve been realizing for the past few months that I don’t want normal things that other people want (the big house, the 30 year mortgage, the 60 hour workweek). Not everyone wants the same things. I don’t get why people judge you for wanting a country home. I think that by having that home, it’ll bring you freedom.

    If you own land then you can be very self-reliant, work less for your needs, and the money you do earn can go to savings & other goals. When people work less for their needs, then they can focus their time and attention on other things they want to do, such us a more fulfilling career, early retirement, or work in a nonprofit, etc.

    If I owned land and my bills were low, I would focus my attention and time on graphic design, illustration, and writing. The cool thing is that we live in the internet age and we can live and work from anywhere if you have the skills to do so. Everyone has different ideas of “the good life.”

    I wonder if some of the people who judge you are jealous? Some of them might be because they might want the same things but don’t know how to get them. I could be wrong, of course.

  5. Jenny says:

    This article makes me sick. Stop defending your pathetic parochial attitudes, Trent.

  6. Great post trent. I can honestly say that when I see something like “be your best ever, earn more money, have more free time, etc” I often wonder what it is they are selling me. I find out relatively quickly after that. I saw in a video one time that says “if you’re one in a million in china, there are 1300 kids just like you”. I feel the same way about living an “exceptional” lifestyle. Is this just another case of keeping up with the Jones’? Do we just want to live exceptionally because Suzy down the street is living exceptionally and we want to live more exceptionally than she does?

  7. Brad says:

    Great post, again you have made me think.

  8. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Jenny, could you be any more caustic? If you channeled some of that hate into something positive, you could build a better life for yourself and wouldn’t have to waste your time leaving bitter comments on personal finance blogs.

  9. cng says:

    But Trent, what if they just mean “an exceptional life, compared only to how you lived YESTERDAY?” I too have come across that phrase many times and have always understood it to imply SELF-improvement. Not a beat-the-joneses mentality the way you seem to interpret it.

  10. Julia says:

    I love both the message of this post as well as the proof-reading errors so ha! Thanks Trent– very much needed to read this today.

  11. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    cng: I like that interpretation. The part that always made me feel as though it’s about comparing yourself to others is that such statements are usually followed by a bunch of stories describing what the author feels are exceptional lives. Maybe all of that stuff is just better off skipped.

  12. Anne says:

    I have my own comment for #5 Jenny: Stop being such a snotty-butt!!

  13. Anne says:

    One other thing, Trent: Great, great, great post.

  14. Tippy says:

    Huh. I’ve always believed it to imply the opposite of keeping-up-with-the-Jones’s because there’s not a thing exceptional about doing what most everyone else tries to do. Take my great-grandparents – they lived through the Dust Bowl, the Depression, two World Wars along with the rest of it. They always had food on the table, plenty in the root cellar, as well as a roof over that root cellar. Grandpa made all the instruments for a band they both played in. He worked as a carney riding a motorcycle in the “Circle of Death”. Got through the really tough times by custom butchering chickens and the occasional sheep and picked rocks and boulders by hand from cropland. When they were too old to drive anymore, they parked the car out back, opened the doors and converted it into living quarters for the goat. They always had chickens with the occasional rooster ending up as dinner. Grandma made a pot roast that literally would melt in your mouth – to this day I’ve never had better. The stories they told were incredible! Not rich by any means, but they were the most exceptional people I’ve ever known.

  15. Sandy L says:

    I like this post and CNG’s interpretation as well.

    Jobs, universities, even PF blogs get force ranked by comparing a person to their peers. One way to be exceptional is to just hang around with losers and deadbeats. I think I’d rather spend my time with people who drive me to use even more of my potential and to see what’s really possible to achieve in one lifetime.

  16. David says:

    Any chance Jenny is being ironic? Her quoting your words suggests that might be a possibility…

  17. SEC Lawyer says:

    Met a very happy man this past weekend who reminded me of the sort of life that Trent describes as ideal for himself. He’s a retired municipal employee living on a modest pension, augmented by farming. We stopped to buy tomatoes from him at a road-side stand and asked how many plants he had farmed this year. “Six hundred tomato plants” was the answer. Plus corn, and squash, and beans, and more. This man has little or no stress in his life and is obviously very happy. We saw a clothesline in his back yard with work clothes strewn all over it. What a nice life! Simple as could be, and gratifying to him.

  18. S01 says:

    Trent a very good article and at it’s base it has some of the core mainstays of personal self growth and realization.

    The only addition I have is that I try and bring a little bit of happiness into the lives of those people around me.

    You may find this article a bit of an interesting read across at urbanmonk:


    keep the posts coming :)

  19. Brigett says:

    I was just told about your website and I have to say this post is GREAT!!! I don’t usually read too many people’s comments…but man you must have some haters….lol ;) I appreciate your outlook and have to say this…My husband and I will be 30 next year…have 2 kids, will have our 3 house paid for in 2012 and we own our vehicles and live on one income and have for the last 7 years…that is how we have managed to get where we are…we have never had the “keeping up with Jones” mentality but have many friends that do…that end up borrowing money from us when things get rough…hopefully people will do what you ask and take what they can from your posts instead of being “Debbie-downers”!

  20. valleycat1 says:

    I like to think of it in terms of living my own unique life, whether anyone considers it “exceptional” or not. And have been making more concerted efforts to define my life on my terms, thanks in no small part to Trent’s blog & others.

    Having visited a number of blogs across multiple categories over the past several years has helped me see that there are more people than you’d think celebrating their own uniqueness.

  21. Roberta says:

    How is living one’s own dreams and discovering what they are ‘parochial’? This makes no sense. The post clearly expresses the idea that goals and dreams differ from person to person, and does not in any way diminish the goals of those folks whose dreams differ from Trent’s.

    I find this post to be uplifting, and I’m grateful that Trent wrote it. My child is a musician who attends a performing arts magnet school, and even though it’s a public school, many of the students who attend are wealthy. I often feel bad about myself in comparison to the beautiful moms in their beautiful clothes.

    My choices have been different than theirs (a career that may not pay excessively but that provides job security, benefits and lot of time off); a small home, but one whose mortgage I can afford, etc.

    Thank you for this post, Trent. It reminds me that I don’t have to follow Hollywood’s script, or any external other script, for happiness.

  22. chacha1 says:

    I will never understand why some people think they are qualified to judge other peoples’ choices *that do not affect them.* Like there is anything even remotely wrong with Trent’s choices. The fact that he writes about them doesn’t constitute “defending” them.

    Trent’s vision of an exceptional life has only minor points in common with mine, but that doesn’t mean either of us is wrong.

    As to defining “exceptional,” I’d bet a common problem is that people DON’T define it on a personal level: they look outside, to someone else’s definition … and then either agree or disagree with it. But it has to come from self-knowledge. Which clearly is something many people struggle with.

  23. Jackie says:

    I don’t understand this post. Why do you assume that people really don’t want the things they want? We all want to be happy. Some people might think a big house will make them happy, Trent may think a house on land, with a barn and a specific set of pets will make him happy. (I imagine I’d be happier without any mortgage at all.)

    Also I don’t understand Jaime’s comment. Farms are not free, and do not allow anyone to work less. Work differently maybe, but not less. To say “if I owned land and my bills were low, I’d do…” is exactly the same as saying “if I owned a suburban cookie-cutter house and my bills were low, I’d do…” or “if I owned a mansion and my bills were low, I’d do…” or “if I owned a condo in the city and my bills were low, I’d do…”. None of these is more valid than the others. The key to the kind of free time Jaime (and Trent perhaps) wants is the low bills, not the farm house.

  24. Steve I. says:

    Great post, Trent. You nailed it in my opinion. It makes me also think of those that say you need to “use your degree/education” and not waste it. I see the logic but it’s inspiring to see those who have advanced degrees and working in high paying jobs give it all up to do what they really love (ie. farming, art, etc.). Do what you love and are passionate about and use your natural talents. Easier said than done but we all should do it.

  25. Jaime says:

    I didn’t say that I wanted a farm. You can buy land and not farm, you can buy a small parcel of land, and not farm at all. I do see your point in that we shouldn’t put off living.

  26. Jessica says:

    Geesh! People can be so mean. Breathe, it will be ok. Trent, I love this article. When I was younger I use to want to live in a mansion. Now that I am older, all I want, is to have a cozy home with a family.

  27. Christina Crowe ( @CashCampfire ) says:

    @#5 Wow, Jenny. If you really dislike the blog so much, why are you here? What’s the purpose of continuing to read Trent’s blog if you have so much negative energy against him? For goodness sake, move on!

    I can understand constructive criticism. But your comments aren’t constructive or helpful. You don’t state why this article makes you “sick,” how the article can be improved or how Trent can better please your highness. Because of that, your negative feedback is worthless; there’s no use in them and nothing to gain from them.

    Since you hate Trent’s blog, here’s a suggestion: Go make your own personal finance blog and fill it with your own thoughts and opinions. That way, you’ll be able to rant all you want without us having to listen to it. You won’t have to bother us with useless negativity and it will satisfy your desire for attention.


    Great post, Trent.

    Several years ago, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I toyed with the idea of becoming an English teacher because I enjoyed writing and I loved to read. However, when I went to college to obtain my English degree, I hated the English classes I was taking but loved the writing ones. I began taking more extensive writing courses, even when I didn’t necessarily need them for my degree. I just really thoroughly enjoyed them.

    After about two years of striving to get my English degree, I decided that it just wasn’t working out. I hated it and, to be honest, I couldn’t see myself teaching students. I ended up doing some extensive research online for writing opportunities and careers. I found quite a few opportunities open for me that I liked (copywriting, blogging and so on), planned out the rest of my life based on my findings, created alternative paths just in case my main goals weren’t achievable and got started in my writing career.

    I never looked back since and love every minute of what I do now. Yes, there are obstacles I have to face every now and then. And yes, sometimes I do struggle. But I look at each obstacle as a challenge, and successfully completing challenges is much more gratifying in the end. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing with my life, and I wouldn’t be as happy as I am now if it wasn’t for my career change.

    Great read!


  28. Kathryn says:

    This article, this attitude is exactly why i keep coming back here.

    Trent doesn’t say his life & what makes him happy is for everyone. He says, find what makes you happy & your values & live your life by that yardstick.

    For some people that might be the big houses, but often the big houses are simply a way to yardstick themselves, & they are trying to impress someone. Not always. Compared to my husband’s family, we are “poor relations” & our house reflects this. BUT we like our lifestyle, & love our home, & are not out to impress family or anyone else. Would i like something bigger? Probably. Am i content where i am? Definitely.

    Thank you Trent, for your way of looking at things. I appreciate these posts.

  29. MM Brown says:

    Trent, I had been thinking about the very idea of an exceptional life on my bus ride to work today–and I had been relating it more to the work I do as a PhD student in English.

    The goal in my field is publication, which is tied to the competitive nature of the discipline. The exceptional life, as you’re putting it, too, is the competitive life: it’s about ranking.

    I’m glad to come to terms with the relationship between those seemingly disparate modi operandi. It doesn’t mean I’ll give up the goal of succeeding in my field–but it’s helped me to gain new perspective, and renew myself for the hard work ahead.

    Oh, and thanks also for anticipating my interest in hearing what you think people should buy used!

  30. lurker carl says:

    Lives are exceptional based on HOW they are lived rather than where. Actions and attitudes are what makes lives exceptional. The people I feel are living exceptionally don’t realize it. That isn’t a conscious decision or goal on their part to be exceptional, it just happens to be that way.

  31. almost there says:

    Trent, I see you are finally reading and replying to comments. Good. I think this article would have jelled better if you had explained by examples right off the bat what you mean by the exceptional life comments you always hear about. As it is you made statements of not comparing your life with the people that said you can have an exceptional life. But no examples of what they were refering to. I think you get ahead of yourself knocking out postings and you need to stop and read carefully what you wrote. I think that you would catch a lot of errors and see that what you write sometimes doesn’t convey the idea that you are trying to get across. I find errors in my replys sometimes but your site does not offer the ability to edit like other sites do for 30 minutes or so after posting. A trick I have learned is to read the written words backwards from finish to start to catch obvious errors.

  32. Cossa says:


    I read your blog frequently, but I never post.

    Your life is, by definition, exceptional. You are living a life that is very different than most. Whether that is a positive or a negative thing is for you to decide.

    In my view, living an exceptional life is worth striving for, whereas being average is a total waste. If you forced yourself to live an “average” life then you would still be an unhappy employee that was mired in debt and working outside of the home. Would that make you happy? According to your posts, it would not.

    In my view, the primary reason you have an audience is because your life is exceptional. If your life wasn’t exceptional then your blog would be next to useless. It would be boring and I wouldn’t learn anything from it.

    I get your point. You take your cues from internal rather than external references. So do the majority of others living an exceptional life. Myself included. But I am constantly looking around for ways to improve my life and help make it exceptional (i.e. a better way to do things). Taking that a step further, I could even say that examining your life helps me to decide whether I am happy in my own.

    My choices are different than yours, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t respect yours. The best we can hope is that our choices make us happy.

    I’ve got to stop procrastinating, but wanted to thank you for the blog.

  33. Kathleen says:

    Every reference I’ve ever seen to the “exceptional life” idea has come from simplicity/minimalism blogs, where the idea is precisely breaking free from a “keeping up with the Joneses” approach to living. Interesting that you seem to have seen the same catch phrase used so differently.

  34. Awry says:

    Everyone wants to be “special” and unique. They don’t realise that they already are. It’s just that elements of “you” are common across (most of) humanity, e.g. two eyes, likes Ben&Jerry ice-cream, has a laptop, etc, etc.

  35. Kathleen says:

    Every reference I’ve ever seen to the “exceptional life” idea has come from simplicity/minimalism blogs, where the idea is precisely breaking free from a “keeping up with the Joneses” approach to living. Interesting that you seem to have seen the same catch phrase used so differently!

  36. Troy says:

    I completely disagree with the general theme of this post.

    I want an exceptional life. And I have it because I strive for it.

    An exceptional life is an exception to the average life. An exception to what is considered average. I don’t want to be average.

    Average people live paycheck to paycheck. Average families have both parents working
    Average people dislike their jobs
    Average people have credit card debt
    Average people finance their vehicles
    Average people work for the man, or someone else other than themselves
    Average people don’t teach their children to think for themselves
    Average people are not independent
    Average people have no savings
    Average people do average things and have average lives and raise average kids
    Average people complain rather than do something about it.
    Average people do not plan for their future, whether it be financial, career, or personal.

    I am not average. My family is not average. We are the opposite of everything I posted above.

    Do I judge my life by others. You bet I do. Everyday I ask what the average person would do and then proceed to do the opposite on most choices.

    You made a nice point at the beginning. That we ourselves are solely responsible for our success and failures. We make the choices in our lives. We teach other how to treat us. We are responsible.

    But the average person doesn’t get that. They can repeat the words, but they don’t get it. They “ask” for a raise. I go earn one. They “ask” for time off. I take it.

    That makes us an exception. So we live an exception…al life.

    You should to. Actually you somewhat do, you just don’t know it yet.

  37. BD says:

    I think it’s just a slight difference in the way you and he are looking at this.

    It isn’t that we aren’t to be an exception. It’s just that it’s better to do things for yourself, rather than constantly compare yourself to others.

    Trent seems to be saying “Do what you do for YOU, because YOU want to, because what you’re doing is in line with YOUR own goals and pursuits. Don’t do it just to make the point that you’re better or different from everyone else. Forget about endless comparisons and focus on your betterment for YOU.”

    Sure, you can be an exception and live debt-free, be independent, have savings, plan for the future and love your job, but do it for YOU. Don’t do it because you’re intent on one-upping your neighbor or beating some national average. Because if you ever fail to one-up someone or beat a national average, you’ll just feel 10 times worse than if you had been doing it for yourself.

  38. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    “An exceptional life is an exception to the average life. An exception to what is considered average. I don’t want to be average.”

    Your entire basis here is comparing your life to other lives. That’s exactly what my post is *against*. Succeed for yourself, not to prove your superiority over others.

  39. Sandy says:

    Interesting post today. I noted the reference to that new age nonsense ‘The Secret’, and I do agree with you. ‘Wish hard enough and you too can be a kazillionnaire….’. Such stuff is dangerous and ultimately destructive. And that’s the trouble with Western society – we are brought up to believe we should have flash things to be successful. It was the same theme running through Amway when i did it 20 years ago. Everyone is supposed to covet being so rich you don’t know how much money you have. Being rich has nothing to do with money, but everything to do with your health and relationships. :)

  40. J.O. says:

    Really liked this post – very empowering!

  41. Tony Marren says:

    This is a hotstuff article; a lot of people are too driven by what others think and feel versus just “doing” life.I drive a 1997 Crown Victoria government surplus car.I buy the ties I wear to Church (yea,I’m Mormon…ok?ok!)from EBay often for under $2 on auction bids(FREE shipping-new with tags–100% silk–from Hong Kong)…and choose in on wearing Old Navy sweaters and Dickies pants.I pay $2 a year gym renewal at Golds
    and $99 a year at 24 Hour Fitness.Life is basics.Its about BEING real.Its about DOING what it takes to BE grounded.The “Real World” uses Live ammo.

  42. Constantin says:

    Hi Trent,

    thanks for this article!

    I fully agree with the notion that letting other people’s judgements influence your life is utterly wrong.

    Your article starts with the premise: “An exceptional life is inherently based on judging your own life by what others are doing.”, thereby defining “exceptional life”, but I think there’s another level of “exceptionality”. Let me explain:

    If you choose to live your life independently, based on your own values, goals and beliefs, thereby separating yourself from the crowd of people who choose to (or not, but still) live a life that is defined by other people’s judgments, you’re living an exceptional life, too!

    You see, the value system becomes “self-dependent” vs. “dependent on others”, and the exceptionality comes from your choice to base your life on your own judgements, vs. following what other people tell you to.

    So, paradoxically, the kind of life that you describe in the rest of the article, which you wouldn’t call exceptional, turns out to be a very exceptional life, after all. Maybe not in your own eyes, but in those of millions of other people who have “regular” jobs, live a “regular consumerist life” and pursue “regular goals” (whatever that is).

    I just reviewed a book that is based on exactly that notion: Live an exceptional life by not surrendering to other people’s values and choices, but instead pursuing what you want for yourself: http://constantin.glez.de/blog/2010/09/book-review-art-non-conformity-chris-guillebeau

    Hope this is an interesting read to you and your readers.


  43. This is an excellent article. You actually wrote my comment for me. For those who truly want to lead an exceptional ife, you need to come up with your own personalized definition of what “exceptional” truly is. If I am leading a life that OTHERS deem to be expcetional, I’d imagine that would be a pretty empty one for me.

  44. Sara says:

    I have always thought that what was meant by an exceptional life was exactly what Trent is always talking about: having some freedom to follow your own dreams. What else could it mean, really? I figure I have an exceptional life that others probably envy. But maybe I am delusional! I mean, I have a very low income – almost eligible for food stamps, etc. BUT, I have an absolutely adorable, TINY house that I love and two wonderful kids I get to spend a good bit of time with, I am in graduate school learning AMAZING things about philosophy, the nature of science, and some practical skills that should lead to my dream job as well. I can’t afford to go out to dinner, or go on much of a vacation,but I live minutes away of some beautiful forests and meadows that are state protected land. Every day I pull on my ratty old sneakers and take a long walk in the fresh air. And every day I grab my violin and work a little on my skills there as well. I have so many comments on how much people love my house, even though those same people are struggling to keep up with the Jones’. I don’t believe that the exceptional life would be the same for everyone. Most people are just looking for what would make them happy.

  45. James says:

    Warren Buffett talks about people being “internal scorecard” or “external scorecard” types. Hooray for the internal scorecard.

  46. Chris says:

    I do not agree with Trent’s assessment of the statement about living an exceptional life. My understanding of an exceptional life is based on living up to my own criteria of how I want to be in this life. Primarily I believe that if I can be respectful, honest, helpful, ethical and mostly joyous, then I am living an exceptional life. I strive for this and fall short on a daily basis, but never give up reaching for that goal. Trent’s ideas for keeping the practical aspects of this life on track so I can live my ideal life are very helpful. There is not much about this life that is easy, but every bit of it has something to be thankful for and something to smile about.

  47. Laura says:

    I needed this inspiring post today! Sometimes life gets stressful and you lose sight of your goals. It’s so easy to get sucked into a life of comparing yourself to others. If I compare myself to X then I become only slightly better than them. However, if I evaluate my life based on the goals I have for myself and my family, the sky is the limit! Thanks for the great insight.

  48. Michelle says:

    I understand the premise of the value of living your life the way you want to, but the last sentence, “I’ll make you a deal…” seemed to change the tone of the post from positive encouragement to “stop criticizing my choices and leave me alone.”

    There is value to looking at other’s lives to use that as a way to evaluate your own. The difference thinking of what other’s HAVE as a measuring stick for how “acceptable” you are to general society vs observing what others DO in search of inspiration – both of what to do and what not to do.

  49. Cindy says:

    I love this post. As someone who has worked in advertising, I agree that aiming for a “fabulous” life can leave you constantly striving and never content. We confuse money with personal success. Stuff and leisure activities are fun for awhile, but they don’t bring meaning or contentment or joy. Money and an exceptional life have very little to do with each other – ask Gandhi, MLK, Jesus, and countless other people who change their societies on a grassroots level. Personally, I want more time for family, friends, and living. If you happen to have a ton of money, great. But this alone won’t make your life exceptional. If you don’t have a ton of money, don’t worry – the exceptionality of your life is not determined by the furnishings of your life!

  50. Kevin says:

    I agree with Troy. I have no desire to be average – I strive to be exceptional. How am I supposed to know whether or not I am succeeding if I don’t compare myself to others?

    The central message of this post is “forget about what everyone else thinks and just focus on the things that make you happy.” But isn’t that exactly what got Trent (and millions of others) into financial trouble in the first place? He thought fancy dinners, the latest cell phone, and cutting edge video games would make him happy, so that’s what he focused on. He was perfectly “average.” He had no savings, plenty of debt, and disliked his job. Just like everyone else. “Exceptional Life” successfully dodged.

    And yet, how did Trent TRULY achieve happiness? By doing precisely what he’s preaching against in this post: Chasing an “exceptional life.” By looking at what everyone else was doing, realizing it wasn’t making him happy, and choosing his own, different, “exceptional” path.

    Also, I find comparing myself to others to be very motivating. I’m a runner. If I never compared myself to others, I might spend years trotting along at 6.5 mph, thinking I’m doing great. But after participating in a race, and running in a crowd of people faster (and many much older!) than myself, I now realize how much more I can improve. So now I’m much more motivated to push myself to become an even better runner.

    Likewise with money. If I paid no attention to the national averages with respect to debt and savings, I might slowly plug away at my own debt, putting away a couple hundred a month in savings, thinking I was perfectly on track. But when I look at the numbers and see that everyone else is saving so much more than me, it motivates me to step it up, so I don’t wind up living a decidedly below-average existence in retirement.

    I think comparing yourself to others can be very useful, if done in a healthy way. Being willfully ignorant is certainly no panacea to happiness.

  51. Troy says:

    My point is all success is measured. Everything has a reference point. To imply that you can live your life without comparing it to others lives is unrealistic.

    How do you define success. There must be a measuring point. And that measuring point is others successes or failures. Whether directly or indirectly through your thoughts, assumptions, desires, whatever. Personal success is defined and measured by the success of others. This is why we covet awards, recognition and titles.

    There is a massive difference between making your choices because of others and comparing those choices you make to others.

  52. Gretchen says:

    “There is a massive difference between making your choices because of others and comparing those choices you make to others.”


    Is this another thinly veiled report to the negative comments you got about your book review at GRS?

  53. jesinalbuquerque says:

    Interesting, what strong feelings this post aroused. Seems to me that spending energy thinking about whether your life is “exceptional” is just like a teenager’s constant worry about being (appearing) “cool” (or whatever the word is these days). It’s another form of conformity. It took me a long time to figure out the life that would please me, and it’s not something anybody else would regard as exceptional. But it is, because it doesn’t conform to any expected norms, just my own needs and wishes. Always find food for thought on this blog.

  54. I think the post is a good reminder above all to not let others set your definition of exception. My cousin Rosie is an exceptional pie maker, a friend is an exceptional quilter, and my aunt Donna an exceptional gardener. These are things I and others hold great value to. Exceptional is being yourself and being exceptional at doing it.

  55. reulte says:

    Exceptional has two meanings – ‘better than average’ or ‘different from the norm’. I think some people are using the word one way and other people using the alternate definition.

    All success is NOT measured through others’ successes or failures. There is a self-referencing option for determining success. Am I happy? Yes. Do I care if I’m happier or sadder than anyone else? No. Therefore, I am successful. Do I have enough money to satisfy all of my needs and most of my wants? Yep. Does it bother me if there are people richer than me in the world or even living on my street or in my apartment building? No. Successful.

    Troy – You may covet awards, recognition and titles but not everyone does. Unless those titles provide other benefits that are relevant to my life, I couldn’t care less.

    Great article, Trent.

  56. Briana @ GBR says:

    I think I’m finally in the stage of my life where I’m happy with what I’m doing as opposed to comparing my life to others. The things I’m doing are what works for me, which is how I’m judging if my life is exceptional or not.

  57. idratherbefarming says:

    Thanks for yet another great post. I really needed to hear that not wanting “exceptional” is okay. Yesterday morning I saw a video from a friend displaying her exceptional life and felt pretty crappy after that. Spent the whole day analyzing my reaction. I read your post that evening and understood my reaction. I really am living the simple life I want to live – no fancy vacations and sports equipment, no fancy private schools for my kids. Just need to remind myself that I shouldn’t be comparing myself to the Joneses.

  58. Josh says:

    Thanks for this article. It’s really good.
    Successful business comes with a successful life. Period.

  59. Very true. Generally you find that people who are criticizing what you are doing as not exceptional, are jealous. It all goes back to the playground. What they don’t realize is that when you are truly happy with what you are doing, you are focused on that–not on trying to point out the shortfalls of others.

  60. Lorri says:

    A great post and lots of good comments. To make just one point, re: #22 Jackie. “Why do you assume that people really don’t want the things they want?” I think people are so inundated with advertisements, etc. that they don’t know what they want. They know what they’re supposed to want, but not want they really want. And you know what, even if you are aware of this issue it’s still sometimes hard to figure out, especially if you have kids and their desires are thrown into the mix. Great post, Trent. I think a lot of people are struggling with this.

    And can I just add that people who post obviously mean or negative things seem EXCEPTIONALLY rude and unhappy?

  61. T says:


    I once observed a social service training that contained the following exercise:

    The 20-30 people attending stood around in a large empty space. Without saying anything, each person picked two other people. Then their job was to move such that they were equidistant from both people. When the leader said “go,” there was a flurry of movement – it took a long time for things to settle down to an equilibrium.

    Then, she moved a few people, and things were stirred up all over again.

    I don’t remember offhand what the point of the exercise was – but your post made me think of it as an image of what it’s like to try to “keep up” with others in life.

  62. Carly says:

    I thought this was a great article! A good reminder to live in the present instead of wishing you were at a different place in life.

  63. Erin says:

    Awesome post, Trent. (Yes, still reading after all these years!) Raising my three children, especially after I started homeschooling, I came to realize that so much of what we “do”, we “do” because that is what others do, others expect us to do, or because we are, in fact, comparing our position to that of others. There is no master scoreboard ranking us all. The reality? Whether you learn to read at four or eight, you can read. Life is not a race and life is not one size fits all. I think the need to identify yourself as exceptional means the accomplishments of others might be mattering a bit too much. We’ve all met the person who spends so much time proving that they are, in fact, wonderful that we know for certain they don’t believe it for a second. As my daughter says, “If you have to prove it, you probably aren’t it”.

    Having said that, we do seek out the exceptional in our lives. We want an exceptional woodworking guy if we’re going to pay for the work to be done. An exceptional roofer is more desirable than one deemed mediocre. I think the line is internal motivations vs. external motivators.

  64. Matthew says:

    This was great man. It really falls in line with certain thoughts that I have, and I think that I would love it even more if it didn’t. I was just having a conversation with some friends about how, after college, I plan on not going to law school, like how my parents have wanted me to, but that I’m going to save up enough money to travel somewhere and just live life the way I want to live it. To each his or her own, but I know that it’s best for me to being doing what I want, and living passionately. Thanks for this article, I think I’ll check out some of your other ones.

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