Skip to content

What does it mean to be uncommon?

What does it take to trip up the typical, refuse the usual, confuse conventional? Those are the questions raised by our new video, which explores what it means to be uncommon.

The truth is, there aren’t simple answers to those questions. Uncommon is a quality that is more easily recognized than it is defined.

We think uncommon is you

Complex problems take uncommon solutions – and uncommon folks, like you, who believe education and entrepreneurship can empower people to shape their futures.

It takes a solid foundation to be uncommon

In declaring independence, our founding fathers created a republic to guarantee citizens “certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness” in large part to rally common people in defense of the nascent country. While the Bill of Rights solidified individual freedoms, it wasn’t until the inauguration of Andrew Jackson that the United States saw the “Era of the Common Man,” in which the right to vote was extended to non-landowners (although, of course, not to women and slaves; and, Jackson was also responsible for forcibly removing Native Americans from their lands). Jackson’s ascendance as the first president who was a “self-made” man, without the education and wealth of his predecessors, sparked the idea that in this country, a common man could accomplish uncommon things.

When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.

George Washington Carver

Thus was born the American ideal of rugged individualism, the quality that propelled pioneers to “settle” the West, through the promise of free land and the opportunity that went with it. By 1840, the pioneering spirit had inspired nearly 40 percent of U.S. citizens to cross the Appalachians in search of a better life, forever baking into the American psyche the idea that no matter the status of your birth, you had the freedom to take risks to better your standing.

Not every pioneer set out to seek personal fortune, however. Another uncommon man born with common roots was a pioneer in a different way. George Washington Carver was born a slave in the midst of the Civil War, and became the first African-American to receive a Bachelor of Science degree at Iowa State University after years of rejections from other colleges. From his position at the Tuskegee Institute, he is credited with saving the agricultural economy of the South, introducing crop rotation by alternating peanuts with the then standard cotton crop, and then famously developing about 300 products making use of the resulting bounty of peanuts.

Today, we assign the label pioneer to all manner of Americans with notable accomplishments, such as aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart; Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross; entertainment industry genius Walt Disney; and civil rights activist Rosa Parks. With the benefit of historical perspective, we see these as extraordinary people. But, for each, there were first actions that propelled them into our collective consciousness: Earhart worked odd jobs to save money, then took a bus to the end of the line before walking four miles to receive her first flying lessons. Barton was first a teacher, then the first female clerk in the federal government, and an aid organizer in the Civil War, before she worked to bring the Red Cross to America. Walt Disney attended the Kansas City Art Institute and worked in a humble studio on 31st street, supposedly with a mouse living in his desk drawer, before taking the leap to move to Hollywood. Parks had long been an activist and leader in the Montgomery NAACP, before refusing to give up her seat in the 1955 incident that helped spark the civil rights movement.

But, it was the common person who was called on to step up numerous times in the 20th century. Franklin Delano Roosevelt inherited a country on the precipice during the Great Depression and fended off calls for a totalitarian government by putting Americans to work, during an era known as the “Rise of the Common Man.” With nothing to lose, his administration tried uncommon methods to feed the hungry, make farming viable again, and reboot the economy.

As the U.S. became engaged in World War II, composer Aaron Copland was called on to write a piece of music to help rally Americans to the cause of standing up to imperialism. The resulting symphony, “Fanfare for the Common Man,” was anything but common. It was a piece of music so inspiring that it has been regularly used since for celebrations and solemn occasions and has become an unofficial anthem for the country.

After the war, as the country entered a time of prosperity, Dean Alfange, a mid-century political force and activist in New York, stirred the nation’s uncommon spirit when he wrote a short statement that came to be known as “An American’s Creed.” It opens with the lines “I do not choose to be a common man. It is my right to be uncommon.” It was a popular call to embrace the uncommon, and it was featured in both the October 1952 and January 1954 editions of Reader’s Digest.

It is likely that the sentiment in Alfange’s creed inspired Ewing Kauffman.

“You should not choose to be a common company. It’s your right to be uncommon if you can. You seek opportunity to compete. You desire to take the calculated risk, to dream, to build, yes, even to fail, and to succeed.”

Ewing Marion Kauffman

Signposts on a road less traveled

Ewing Kauffman defied convention. He saw himself as a common man who lived an uncommon life. He established his company, Marion Laboratories, in 1950 and held with steadfast loyalty to promises to treat others as you want to be treated and share the rewards with those that produce; beliefs that seem progressive even by today’s standards. In business, baseball, and ultimately, the philanthropy that would serve as his lasting legacy, “Mr. K” took the road less traveled. There are signposts along his path that we can look to today for direction and inspiration.

Ewing Kauffman had the uncommon vision to offer more than 1400 low-income students in the Kansas City area full scholarships for college or post-secondary education with an array of support services to help them reach their goals through a program he called Project Choice. “If you give those kids hope for the future, if you let them know that somebody cares about them, you’ll be surprised at what they can achieve,” he said.

Mr. Kauffman grew up poor. His mother introduced him to the riches of reading. Without leaving Kansas City’s urban core, books took Ewing on great adventures and fueled his curiosity. He worked hard and never stopped learning. The joy of discovery created the framework to leave common behind and the courage to take his destiny into his own hands. Education was Ewing Kauffman’s ticket out of poverty, and a ticket he would share with others to pursue their dreams.

Mr. Kauffman built his success on respect and admiration. He wasn’t afraid to take a risk. When he introduced the FastTrac program to help entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses he paraphrased a passage from Dean Alfange’s “An American’s Creed,” saying, “You should not choose to be a common company. It’s your right to be uncommon if you can. You seek opportunity to compete. You desire to take the calculated risk, to dream, to build, yes, even to fail, and to succeed.”

Today, education and entrepreneurship are at the core of the Kauffman Foundation’s approach to finding uncommon solutions to some of society’s biggest challenges. We are determined to ensure that a quality education and the opportunity to start and grow a business are accessible to all Americans no matter what their socio-economic conditions. We stay connected to our Kansas City roots by supporting our hometown’s vibrancy and the effectiveness of its nonprofit sector.

Big challenges require uncommon solutions

The status quo isn’t serving us well. Here are some statistics about how our world is changing, making it necessary for us to take uncommon actions now:


of jobs that will be available in 2030 don’t exist yet for today’s graduates.


growth in demand for higher cognitive skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, decision making, and complex information processing, in the United States by 2030.


of the U.S. workforce may be comprised of contingent workers by 2020.

Think, do, and be uncommon

The Kauffman Foundation aspires to eliminate barriers so that every person – regardless of their background – can take risks, achieve success, and give back to their communities. In that spirit, the Kauffman Foundation follows these principles:

  • Listen to the communities we serve, seek to understand the problems, and dream big with people around the country to build innovative programs that deliver results.
  • Champion bold ideas to change futures because every person should have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.
  • Work with partners and communities to build solutions.
  • Share resources that have national impact and global reach.
  • Create communities of peers and provide them with the resources they need to be successful.

In education, being uncommon means supporting access to the best public schools by cutting across debates and ideologies to get to the heart of what matters for students and families – a quality school close to home. We invest in the most promising public schools and models; those that put low-income children on a path to success from pre-kindergarten to college completion. And, we support teachers and school leaders every step of the way.

In entrepreneurship, we are part of a collaborative, nationwide effort that seeks to identify and remove large and small barriers to new business creation. This unconventional alliance involves entrepreneurs, organizations that help entrepreneurs, researchers, and policymakers, and it will develop solutions and empower more women and men to be uncommon. By leveling the playing field for entrepreneurs who have been systematically left behind due to demographic, geographic, or issue-specific constraints, we open economic opportunity to all Americans so they can add their story to the American ideal.

In Kansas City, we work to continue our founder’s intent to make this a vibrant community. To do this, we make investments in initiatives that cross our education and entrepreneurship program areas. We support key city cultural assets such as museums and the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. And, we support the local nonprofit organizations that improve life in Kansas City, by building their capacities in leadership and operations.

We have uncommon in common

Data-driven and community involved, we bring people together to question the status quo. That means rapidly creating, sharpening, and implementing new strategies, tools, and resources we will use to learn and work in the future. It also means telling the stories and sharing insights that underscore the essential role of education and entrepreneurship in empowering all people to shape their futures, create vibrant communities, and grow an inclusive economy.

We continue to move forward with a willingness to break from convention and let uncommon sense prevail.

Smithsonian American Art Museum’s perspective on the Age of the Common Man, through paintings.

A Japanese student’s exploration of how the collectivistic nature of his country impacts the personality of his culture, compared to American individualism.

A discussion of management consultant Peter Drucker’s theory that “the purpose of an organization is to enable common people to do uncommon things.”

Ty Koehn threw the last pitch to advance to the Minnesota state high school baseball tournament, but instead of celebrating with his teammates, he consoled his friend, Jack Kocon, the batter he just struck out.

Alpine, Utah, school bus driver Tracey Dean takes extra time on her route nearly every day to style Isabella Pieri’s long brown hair before school because Isabella’s mom passed away and fixing his daughter’s hair was just too much for Isabella’s grieving dad.

In a grocery store aisle in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Jordan Taylor noticed Jack Ryan Edwards, who has autism, was mesmerized, watching as he placed juice in the cooler of Rouses Market. Jordan made an uncommon decision, and it made all the difference for Jack Ryan and his family.


What do you think?

Where do you see uncommon acts in everyday life? Who do you hold up as an example of someone who acts in uncommon ways?