As I thought about a Fourth of July message on American exceptionalism, my assistant Kylie Neslen wisely reminded me that American exceptionalism is not about the rare stories of rags-to-riches, but is about the incredibly common stories of rags-to-enriching others. It is so easy to focus on the Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan or Oprah Winfrey types. While such individuals are exceptional, achievements like theirs don’t solely comprise American exceptionalism.
The entrepreneur who starts in her garage and becomes a millionaire is impressive to be sure. But what is truly exceptional is the woman who starts in her garage and earns just enough to send her son to college, or the guy who starts doing some programming on the side to save for a house for his growing family, or the teenager from a broken home who studies long and then works the night shift to help make ends meet. Rags-to-riches stories are good TV, inspiring and always interesting. Yet it was the Founding Fathers’ vision of an entire nation of citizens committed to the idea of rags-to-enriching others that inspired the Revolution we celebrate today.
American exceptionalism is not found in a lady in a harbor, though her lamp of liberty beckons the tired, poor and huddle masses to come and begin their own rags-to-enriching-others story. American exceptionalism is not found in marble monuments in our nation’s capital, though those we honor there enriched a country and elevated the condition of humanity by their service and sacrifice. American exceptionalism is not found in our skyscrapers, our cities or even in our technological advances, though they provide space and place for exceptionalism to flourish.
So where then is American exceptionalism to be found? American exceptionalism is planted in the soul of every citizen, it is fostered in our families and neighborhoods and it is created in our communities. Rags-to-enriching-others really is a cottage industry and cannot be manufactured in a warehouse or legislated into being by a congress.
I experienced rags-to-enriching-others American exceptionalism in a most interesting place — the local gas station early in the morning. I used to make a pretty regular stop at a gas station near my home at 6:30 in the morning on my way to work. It is an interesting mass of humanity that stands in line at that time of day — construction workers with muddy boots, doctors and nurses in scrubs, business people in suits, teenagers ready for school — all a little bleary-eyed and buying whatever doughnut, candy or caffeinated beverage they need to jump-start their day.
Most of us tended to be a little grumpy at the point of the day — that is until we were served a morning dose of American exceptionalism. You see, at this particular station there was a rags-to-enriching clerk I will call Mary. Mary has not had an easy life, and working the shift from midnight to 8 a.m. had to be a challenge. But Mary was the epitome of American exceptionalism. There was an unmistakable transformation that occurred from the moment a customer was in line to the moment they walked away from the counter. Mary knew everyone’s name, asked them a personal question, listened and then sent them on their way with an inspiring thought and sincere wish that they would have a wonderful day. Mary never failed. Mary was magic. Mary was absolutely exceptional.
I remember being weighed down one morning with the prospects of a difficult day ahead. After making my purchase and realizing that Mary had just elevated my day in what couldn’t have been more than a 37-second transaction, I stopped at the door and just watched for a few moments. It struck me that Mary was enriching and impacting lives in a most incredible way — she was clearly having a bigger influence on humanity than any business or political leader ever could. Rags-to-enriching-others at its finest.
During my time in Washington, D.C., I discovered that American exceptionalism was most often manifest by those who worked in the Capitol — and I am not talking about the elected officials. “Coach” David West is typically found in and around the gallery of the Senate. His enthusiasm for the chamber, his love of country and his desire to make a difference are infectious. Many a young Senate staffer has found wise counsel, encouragement and confidence from a conversation with Coach West. (Even though I was an old chief of staff, I was blessed by his American exceptionalism.) Peter Moleros regularly transforms the Senators’ Dining Room from a place to eat into a place where elevated experiences happen. The moment you walk in you are treated as if you are the most important person in the Capitol. Peter enriches everyone from the senators themselves to the visitor who is there for the first time by taking personal interest, paying attention to every detail, and ending with a handshake and a thank-you.
American exceptionalism is never defined by wealth, social status or fame — it is simply found in the lives of those who choose to enrich others. America is the most exceptional nation on earth, not because of who we are or where we live but because of what we do — individually and collectively. On this July Fourth holiday, we would be wise to remember, look for and commit to live American exceptionalism — it is a rags-to-enriching-others story for all us.