Have you ever felt as if you have hit a plateau without reaching your full potential? Do you wish you had tips and techniques on how to increase your potential? Shawn Achor is one of the world’s leading experts on happiness, success, and potential. His research has been published in top psychology journals and featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Fortune. He’s also made an appearance on Oprah’s SuperSoul Sundays. In his new book, Big Potential, Achor brings us a system to do help us increase our potential.
“[I]nspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more.”
The traditional view of potential is that it’s a fixed asset, an individual pursuit. But Achor argues that it’s not the people who have the strongest abilities, but the people who have the most complementary skills that achieve the most. Humans are social creatures. Why do we retreat and withdraw when we are having a hard time? Why do we try to not burden our friends and family with our problems?
The same applies to our achievements. So often, we see successful people as successful in their own right, by their own abilities and their own hard work. What we don’t see is that they have a huge team of people behind the scenes supporting them every step of the way. Every superstar has a team. There’s only so much each person can achieve on their own. When we work together, we can do so much more. Success is greater than the sum of its parts.
The people around us can lift us up or bring us down. This means what we do impacts everyone around us. When we work together, we can bring out the best in each other. We become better together.
The Virtuous Cycle
Achor introduces the idea of a virtuous cycle (as opposed to a vicious cycle), where we create an upward spiral of compounding potential, success, and positivity. For example, you don’t like running, but you decide to go running one morning. Afterwards, you feel healthier and more accomplished. The feeling leads you to start running three times a week. At work, you find out some of your coworkers are runners, and that they are training for a 10k. You start training for the race with them, and the race goes so well that eventually you start training for a half-marathon, then a marathon. You have created a virtuous cycle.
Five Strategies to Increase Your Potential
We can create these virtuous cycles in our lives to create our own opportunities for increasing our potential. Achor gives us five strategies to creating virtuous cycles:
1. SURROUND yourself with the right people.
Build a network of people who pull us up, people who inspire us to think differently, reach higher, and support each other. Research has shown that we are the sum of the five people closest to us; we should surround ourselves with people we want to be, and we should strive to be that person for others. I’ve noticed this in group projects; when I’m with a stronger group, I work harder to keep up with them, which produces higher quality work overall.
2. EXPAND power to those who lack it.
Allowing people who are not in leadership positions to make important decisions increases their potential. Being able to make important decisions, and having leaders take our suggestions to heart, increases our confidence in our abilities and allows us to be more proactive. I worked in a daycare center during college, and we were trained to always ask the children. We would ask them if they wanted more food or water at mealtimes, we would ask them if they wanted to put on a sweater, we would ask them if they wanted to play/read a book/do art projects. Even though these children were only 9-18 months old! Power and self-autonomy is crucial.
3. ENHANCE others’ self-confidence.
Giving praise and recognition helps other people see their own worth. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when someone is feeling down or frustrated about their work. Letting people know they are valued and appreciated for their contributions, no matter how small, will boost their confidence in themselves and their work. This translates into them being more willing to speak up, take action, take risks. When you make people believe in themselves and their work, they will in turn do the same for others.
4. DEFEND against obstacles to success.
There will always be negative forces working against us. We might feel helpless in the face of all the current events in the world, we might feel discouraged when we receive negative feedback on a project, we might feel like we’re being pulled in all directions. Instead of focusing on all that, we can create a buffer between ourselves and the negativity. We can reframe how we view challenges and failure and tragedy.
5. SUSTAIN the virtuous cycle.
Creating meaning in our work motivates us to keep going when times get tough. It prevents us from giving up at the first obstacle we encounter. Envisioning the path to success breaks it down into actionable steps to follow. We know where we need to go next, even if we get stuck. And celebrating those small accomplishments will build the momentum to continue the cycle, giving us the motivation to do more.
I didn’t know what to expect going in; I am not familiar with Shawn Achor, and this book had not yet appeared on my radar. But I thoroughly enjoyed Big Potential. It’s in line with the current zeitgeist about making connections and the power of our network (one of the first things we learned in business school), and Achor gives us specific action steps to take within each of the five strategies he presents to achieve our best potential. It’s a very holistic approach to life in general; we don’t live in isolation, so everything we do and everything other people do will impact each other. I very much believe that helping others will help ourselves multi-fold in the future.
That said, he does repeat a lot of the popular ideas currently circulating (I read too much, so a lot of this is old news to me), and some of the formatting (italics and bolds and ALL CAPS) was very distracting (you get used to it as you read on). It is overall a very good book, very easy to read, a bit casual at times. Its strength lies more in its message than in its presentation.
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What do you think? How will you use these tips to increase your potential?