One of the things I ask myself often is how do great programmers separate themselves from good programmers. As a follow up, how does exceptionalism relate to my personal pursuit of sucess?
I think my answer lies in what I think it means to be exceptional. I don't find seniority particularly interesting in of itself, but I have found people in the most senior positions, like at the tech director level, tend to be very different than other programmers, be it demeanor, critical thinking, importance of achievements, or personality. At the other end of the spectrum, I find myself inspired by junior programmers with a high level of motivation combined with being quick to pick things up. They get a lot done with very little. Finally, programmers at every level who are able to solve any problem they are given, who seem more determined and yet more relaxed than others, seemingly with endless confidence, stand out.
I'd like to differentiate these qualities from what I'd consider objectively or traditionally exceptional qualities. Some people are programming prodigies with very high IQ's, or people who have implemented seemingly magical products or libraries which give them widespread notoriety. In other words, natural talent and some luck of being in the right place at the right time. What's compelling to me is that many exceptional people do not posess these what I'd call gifts.
Those are the impossibly famous types of people. For example, the people who created Narbacular Drop aka Portal which Valve hired out of college. John Carmack, the game programming idol who co-founded iD and tweets about endless curiosities of low level programming.
I'm sure having a high IQ or a "knack for programming" (and luck!) helps, and maybe all exceptional programmers carry some elements of these natural talents. Regardless, I argue that many exceptional programmers are not exceptional due to those traits.
The programmers I want to focus on are those who are great but aren't going to be in the latest Kotaku article. They work at the same organizations as you or me. A tech director I work with who manages the organizations requirements with surgical precision but speaks in such a relaxed tone you would think he was on a beach in Hawaii. A lead who can discuss architecture in endless depth and programs his own game engine at home. An engineer and writer who describes complex topics with impressive conciseness and takes time out to compliment small time bloggers like myself. These people impress and inspire others but they aren't code celebrities, they just possess qualities that I would like to. And their qualities have obviously propelled them to desirable places.
I guess that's what exceptionalism means to me. Simply, people with qualities I admire, who have achieved or are in the progress of achieving their own versions of success as a result are exceptional. These aren't just the people who do something cool once in a while. Their qualities are, outwardly at least, an inseparable part of them and are switched on every day. My experience is that this basic trait is exceptional. Most people do not emanate highly desirable traits, and most talk about success but do not do anything out of their way to achieve it. Most people aren't shiny, for now they are matte. And while I aspire to become what I admire, I still know that shininess is something you have to really want and strive for in order to be.
One more thing. I don't think exceptionalism is an elitist or exclusionary idea. It is possible for any, many, or most people to be exceptional, because any person who has traits that I am drawn to and admire is exceptional to me. Only one person on a team can be the most senior, but everyone can be exceptional in their work or personality.
This definitely extends to other areas of life; I can't possibly act like this is just a programming thing. There's a limo driver who I walk by in my appartment who is always flatteringly polite. I want to be as polite as him. There's an acquaintance I know who talks to me like I'm her best friend. I want to be as friendly as her. Whether it's professional, moral, craft-related, or anecdotal happenstance, I see so many places where I and others can become more exceptional.
My goal isn't to be a famous gamedev idol/genius, but I do want to embody qualities that inspire others to be excellent at this worthwhile and satisfying craft. For me that's enough to qualify success. What does success mean for you?