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Unlocking Hidden Potential

27 February 2024

Janie read Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things by Adam Grant and considered how she could use the stories and lessons shared to advance her own personal and professional growth.

Tags: janie read, learning

Earlier this month, I read Adam Grant’s newest book, Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things. The main premise is that we are so fixated on talent that we underestimate the wide range of skills and abilities that can be learned. We can all improve at improving, whether we have natural talent or not. In fact, research shows that most of the greatest athletes, scientists, and artists bloomed late in life and their success was not due to innate talent, but rather the result of their character and refusal to give up. 

Midway through the book Grant tells a story about joining the diving team his freshman year of high school. As a new diver, Grant’s desire for perfection led to him obsessing over tiny details and unable to make progress. “At one practice, I went back and forth on the board for 45 minutes without making a single attempt. As I stood there frozen, I wasn’t just wasting time—I was freezing my progress…I needed to get over my perfectionism.” After this incident, Grant’s coach, Eric Best, said, “There’s no such thing as a perfect dive. Even in Olympic judging rules, a 10 doesn’t stand for perfection—it stands for excellence.” This helped Grant realize he didn’t need perfection; he needed a clear goal or target to work towards. Best worked with him to set goals for each dive that were at the edge of his abilities, so he was always working to improve his skills, but not paralyzed by the desire to do everything perfectly. When he shifted his focus to improvement rather than perfection, he made progress that led to him making the All-American list and qualifying twice for the Junior Olympic Nationals before he finished high school.

I found this story interesting because it demonstrated how aiming for perfection can be harmful to your growth and keep you stuck. When Grant focused on perfection, he froze and couldn’t make himself leave the diving board. This story helped me recognize some of the times I’ve held myself back by being too focused on perfection.

While I’ve never spent 45 minutes unable to leave a diving board, I’ve had many times where I felt paralyzed and found myself unable to take the next step because I was so worried about doing it wrong. Sometimes this shows up in the form of procrastination. Other times, I find myself staring at my computer screen rather than making progress on a task or hitting send on an email because I question whether my work is good enough.

To make progress and keep myself from getting stuck, I’ve developed strategies. For example, when I’m getting ready to start something new and I don’t feel confident, I tell myself, “Just start.” Once I get over the initial hurdle of starting, it’s much easier to keep going and finish the task. If I’m not sure where to start, I often brainstorm by freewriting my thoughts and forcing myself to put what I know down on paper. Then I review everything I’ve written down and ask myself, what do I need to do next? This helps me figure out where I am confident and where I have questions, so I can make progress.

When I’m trying to develop a new skill, my work won’t always be right, and I will make mistakes. I have to remind myself that it’s much better to make mistakes and learn from them than to never push myself to do things that don’t come easily to me. If I never speak up and ask questions when I’m unsure, then I will never be able to achieve my full potential. Grant’s diving story and numerous other stories from the book demonstrate that the more comfortable I can get with the discomfort of learning new things, the more I’ll improve. How do you push yourself when you’re trying to learn something new?


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