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  • Dan Connors

Hidden Potential

Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things

“It’s often said that where there’s a will, there’s a way. What we overlook is that when people can’t see a path, they stop dreaming of the destination.”

“The Tennessee experiment contained a startling result. Chetty was able to predict the success that students achieved as adults simply by looking at who taught their kindergarten class. By age 25, students who happened to have had more experienced kindergarten teachers were earning significantly more money than their peers...For a class of 20 students, an above-average kindergarten teacher could be worth additional lifetime income of $320,000." Adam Grant

Have you reached your potential yet? Me neither. Self-help books are often about reaching hidden potential, and since our potential is unknown and enormous, none of us will ever reach it 100%. That said, many are stuck at the 1-25% level due to bad health, traumatic childhoods, or losing the genetic and geographic lottery. Once we get into our heads that we can't do any better, many choose to settle.

Thing is, we all deserve better, and books like Hidden Potential are one way to change destructive thinking. Adam Grant is a bestselling author, Wharton professor, and recognized expert on organizations, motivation, and finding meaning in life. His other books, most of which I've reviewed, include Think Again, Give and Take, and Originals.

Somewhere there is a happy medium between gross waste of potential and overemphasis on optimizing every skill you've ever had or wanted. People want to feel like they've grown and learned something, without feeling overwhelmed that they'll never perfect themselves. Very few books address this, (and this one doesn't either), but since the pendulum seems to be swinging in the direction of wasted potentials, this book can be very helpful.

Hidden Potential is full of plenty of tools and suggestions on how to get better at reaching at one's potential, and that's a welcome idea in an age where so many seem to be blaming others for their lack of progress on anything. There are ways to get around the blocks that keep us stuck, and many of the ones from this book I had heard before. But it's still nice to see them again with fresh stories to illustrate their power. Here is a sampling.

  1. Be a sponge. Be curious and eager to learn new things, especially things beyond your comfort zone. Ask for advice on how to get better from others, making sure to vet any coaches for expertise and credibility.

  2. Strive for excellence, but not perfection. Have high standards but expect mistakes at every turn. Mistakes are good for you.

  3. Set up scaffolding. Progress can be hard, and starting from scratch is the hardest. Scaffolding means structures that keep you on track, be they groups, activities, roadmaps, goals, or coaches. But scaffolding should be flexible and motivational, not rigid and static.

  4. When you are the most stuck- back up and find a different path. Seek out new ideas, people, and territories to get you unstuck.

  5. Design practice around fun and play. Challenges can be daunting, but making them fun can improve motivation.

  6. Teach to others what you want to learn. You understand things better when you have to explain it to other people.

The last part of the book is devoted to setting up systems to help others find their potential. There are some great suggestions for educators, managers, and interviewers, all of whom tend to overlook the potentials of the people they claim to be helping. We tend to look for the easiest markers of exceptional people- grades, awards, and appearance. And this causes us to overemphasize smooth talkers and overlook people with the highest potential to grow. People with the highest grades and best looks are already at the peak of their abilities- there is little room to grow there, and they are likely risk-averse to losing their status in life. If you are looking for diamonds in the rough, you have to look harder and smarter.

Of course there are some inspirational stories in the book to illustrate Grant's points. There is the story of R.A. Dickey, a major league pitcher who struggled for many years to succeed, finding the pitch that finally worked for him late in his career by propelling him to success and a Cy Young award. Jose Hernandez started as a migrant farm worker with a passion for outer space, and he persisted in applying to NASA so many times, getting better each time, that he ended up in the astronaut program. The Finnish school system gets much praise for how they emphasize the growth and potential of all students, not just the gifted ones.

My favorite story involved the Chilean miners, who were stuck in a collapsed mine 2300 feet underground for 69 days. They were rescued not by professionals, but by a crowd of online thinkers who were tasked with coming up with creative solutions to rescue them. In the end, a 24 year old engineer thousands of miles away came up with the idea that saved them. Solutions are out there for almost anything, but we have to widen our horizons to see them.

Adam Grant is one of my favorite authors, and this book is a great addition to his body of works. Highly recommended.

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