Personal Transformation: What Makes a Life Extraordinary?

Marlena Fiol, author of the upcoming Nothing Bad Between Us, explains how “ordinary” people have the ability to do extraordinary things.

In Monday’s blog, I wrote about the extraordinary lives of two ordinary men: John R. Lewis and John R. Schmidt.

I described their remarkable achievements, but never addressed the question: If these two men were ordinary but achieved extraordinary things, why aren’t the rest of us ordinary people doing the same? What makes a life extraordinary?

The word ‘extraordinary’ stems from the Latin extrāōrdinārius, which means beyond the ordinary or exceptional in nature. If it must be exceptional in nature, is it really within the reach of any of us ordinary folks? And if it is within reach, what would it take for my life to become more extraordinary?

When I think about the extraordinary lives who have touched me over time, no single overall profile emerges. But every one of them exudes two qualities: 1) A focus on what matters most, and 2) vulnerability about their own failures.

A Focus on What Matters Most to Me

In a world full of enjoyable pursuits and important causes calling out for support, how do I figure out where to focus my time and energy? How do I know what really matters most to me? I have found that the answer to this question begins with me authentically identifying my values and living in a manner that is consistent with them.

One useful exercise for uncovering my core values is the ‘5 Why’s Technique.’ It was originally developed at Toyota, a company famous for its methods of lean manufacturing and almost zero-error production. Although they developed this technique to address manufacturing problems, it is a tool for getting to the root of almost anything, including our deepest values.

Ask yourself what matters to you. Then ask “Why?” at least five times, to uncover layer after layer until you get to what really, deeply matters more than anything else.

My guest on next week’s podcast, Arno Michaelis, is one of those ordinary-turned-extraordinary people who is devoting his life to what matters most to him. Arno is an inspirational speaker and author of My Life After Hate. He works with Serve2Unite, an organization that engages young people of all backgrounds as peacemakers. His latest book, with Pradeep Singh Kaleka, is The Gift of Our Wounds: A Sikh and a Former White Supremacist Find Forgiveness After Hate.

I love how Arno describes his book: “With a collection of reflective essays, disturbing flashbacks, and an interview, My Life After Hate scrubs scabs off the festering wound of racism, then soothes with the essential wisdom of forgiveness and compassion.”

Vulnerability about My Own Failures

The second quality of the extraordinary people who have touched me directly is a willingness to put themselves out there despite their failures; to not allow shame about the past or fear about the future to stop them from doing what matters.

Yes, you read correctly what I wrote about Arno Michaelis just above. Arno was a hateful white supremacist. From the age of seventeen, he was deeply involved in the white power movement. He was a founding member of what became the largest racist skinhead organization in the world, a reverend of self-declared Racial Holy War, and lead singer of the race-metal band Centurion, which sold over 20,000 CDs to racists around the world.

When I asked him in the interview to describe what allowed such a radical transformation from skinhead to peace builder, his answer was, “Vulnerability, showing your honest authentic self, especially when that honest authentic self is hurting.”

So, must an extraordinary life, like that of John R. Lewis or John R. Schmidt, be exceptional, available to only a few? Or Is an extraordinary life within the reach of any of us ordinary folks?

My answer is yes …  but.

Yes, living an extraordinary life is not reserved only for the exceptionally bright and creative people in this world. It is available to any of us who focus with discipline and passion on what matters most to us. 

But… paradoxically, finding the greatness of an extraordinary life may also require authentically acknowledging the brokenness of our hurting selves.


nothing bad between us

A Mennonite Missionary’s Daughter Finds Healing in Her Brokenness

This story differs from similar accounts of childhood domination or abuse because it tells the story of the author’s seemingly paradoxical responses to the powerful forces in my life, but doesn’t leave it at that. It sheds light on the social and religious dynamics underlying these responses, giving readers insights into and understanding of her otherwise incomprehensible choices, as she found my way back into loving relationships with her parents and the Mennonite community.