How to Discover Potential in Yourself and Others

by Diana Drake

Adam Grant is more than a management and organizational psychology professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He is a powerhouse brand. Dr. Grant has been recognized as Wharton’s top-rated professor for seven straight years and is a No. 1 New York Times bestselling author of six books and a popular podcaster. His inspiring insights circulate around social media at lightning speed. Like this one: “The highest compliment from someone who disagrees with you is not, ‘You were right.’ It’s, ‘You made me think.’”

In the spirit of thoughtful reflection, we are exploring Adam Grant’s latest bestseller, Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things. Dr. Grant sat down with fellow Wharton and Penn professor Angela Duckworth for a conversation about why unlocking potential isn’t always about talent.


Adam Grant: Sports Star

Their conversation kicked off from a very relatable place for many high school students: sports achievement.

Dr. Grant’s playing field back in his hometown of West Bloomfield, Michigan, was the pool, where as a high school freshman he decided to try diving when he didn’t make the basketball team. “I was hands down the worst diver on the team,” admitted Grant.

How did he progress from belly flops to All-American diver by the time he graduated? “I remember [my coach] saying to me that I got further with less talent than anyone he had ever coached,” noted Grant. “I think it’s a huge compliment. I don’t know if my potential was hidden or if I just squeezed every ounce out of it. The lesson here is that I had real talent constraints, and I had a coach who taught me what grit looked like and to learn that I was able to improve at a faster rate and get to a higher level than ever expected. One season my coach said, ‘Every day at 6:00 practice is over, and I have to kick Adam out of the pool.’ I would always say, ‘Just one more dive’…What kept bringing me back was I loved being part of a team. I loved challenging myself to do something where I could get better, even though I wasn’t very good.”

This personal story, one of many that author Grant pairs with evidence and insight, captures the essence of his book. While we live in a world that is obsessed with talent and over-achievement in the form of gifted athletes, music prodigies and straight A students, we often underestimate the range of skills that we can learn and how good we can become. As he puts it: “Admiring people who start out with innate advantages leads us to overlook the distance we ourselves can travel.”

Learning to Accept Criticism

Professor Grant’s book explores how to build the character skills and motivational forces to realize your own potential. His research often challenges existing practices and presents a new way of thinking about things.

During his conversation with Professor Duckworth, he discussed accepting criticism, which is not the easiest skill for most teenagers (or adults!), and yet is an essential part of personal growth. We all need to learn how to do it better.

Dr. Grant suggested starting with a feedback filter and then following a specific strategy for accepting criticism. “Not all critics are thinking critically about you and not all critics are speaking constructively about you,” he said. “You need a filter to figure out whose criticism is worth listening to. In some cases, you should discount them because they don’t know what they’re talking about task-wise; they don’t have relevant expertise. In other cases, they are very familiar with the task, but they don’t know anything about you and your capabilities so what they’re saying may be miscalibrated. And most importantly, even if they’re an expert on you and the task, if they’re not trying to help you –they’re envious of you or they’re threatened by you — then you have to question whether what they’re saying is really going to be helpful to you.”

If you conclude they are a credible criticism source, Grant embraces a concept from conflict-mediation expert Sheila Keen, known as the second score. “When someone gives you feedback, you usually try to argue with them about the score they gave you. Instead of trying to change the first score, you should try to get an A+ (the second score) for how well you [respond].” In other words, shift your focus to getting a perfect score for how well you accept and process the criticism. Visit this Huberman Lab podcast segment for a personal story about how Dr. Grant has used the second score in his career.

Antique Apples and a Chance to Shine

Strategies for unlocking potential must also involve designing systems that create opportunities for those who have been underrated and overlooked, said Grant. He and Dr. Duckworth discussed several of these systemic improvements, which he hopes will make their way onto campuses and into business boardrooms and corner CEO offices.

The big mistake we make when assessing potential in others, for instance, is that we listen to what people say, instead of watching what they do. “How many times have you admitted someone who is a great talker or hired somebody who is charismatic and incredible at schmoozing, only to find that they didn’t have the skills or motivation that you were looking for? asked Grant.

He illustrated how to get closer to seeing real motivation and skill through his own experience selling advertisements in college for Let’s Go books.

“I had a candidate come in [for a job] and he gave a terrible interview, and I rejected him,” Dr. Grant recalled. “I said, ‘I can’t hire this guy for sales. He didn’t make any eye contact.’ [My supervisor] said, ‘You realize this is a phone sales job, right?’ It hadn’t crossed my mind. I was looking to gauge social skill, and he failed. We called that candidate back for a do-over and asked him to sell us a rotten apple. Without skipping a beat, he said: ‘This may look like a rotten apple, but I’m actually selling aged, antique apples. You can display this on your mantle, and you only have to eat one a week for the benefits, and when you’re done you can plant the seeds in your backyard and you won’t have to buy seeds at the store.’ He was the highest-performing salesperson we ever hired. He was extremely introverted and built robots. Once we gave him a chance to shine, he was able to get creative.”

This concept of the do-over is something that Adam Grant wants potential-seekers (you!) to remember – and future employers (you!) to practice as they look for the hidden potential in others. “We all need a do-over. I think that every organization at every job should do this,” he said. He cited the example of one hiring manager who gives job candidates a second chance if they’re unhappy with how the interview went, and also has them fill out a questionnaire about their strengths, and then gears the interview around what candidates think they do well, rather than playing “gotcha” with his questions. “Your interviewer is your literal host whose job is to help you put your best foot forward,” marveled Grant. “I would love to see that be the norm.”

Help Others Stand Out and Fit In

According to Grant, companies often fail at unlocking hidden potential in their employees, because they try to break people in to fit the mold of the organization, as opposed to letting them stand out. “What does it take to see somebody’s hidden potential and allow them to be distinctive from day one? One of my favorite things to do is a personal-highlight reel,” he said. “In your first week on the job, you’re asked to imagine that you’re going to be on Sports Center tomorrow showing the highlights of your life or your career; the moments that you’re proudest of and that you were at your best. You share those with your manager and the rest of your team. When people are given the chance to do that, they feel like they stand out, but they also fit in because people start to see them as unique human beings and value them.”

As you start to make memorable plays for your own personal-highlight reel by unlocking your true potential in school, life and work, Dr. Grant urges you to think about character skills, not just talent (and also be sure to visit Dr. Duckworth’s Character Lab). “Character is your capacity to prioritize your values over your instincts,” Grant writes. “You’ve got to accept discomfort as you make mistakes that are part of the learning process and always be willing to absorb new ideas and information.”

Now that you’ve read the research, take this quiz to assess your own hidden potential.

Conversation Starters

Professor Adam Grant describes character as “your capacity to prioritize your values over your instincts.” What does this mean to you? Would you add to this definition? Can you think of a time when you were able to demonstrate true character?

Why is learning to accept criticism from people we trust essential to unlocking our own potential?

High school can sometimes have its own hierarchy — the cool kids, smart kids, and so on. How might Dr. Grant’s assertion: “Admiring people who start out with innate advantages leads us to overlook the distance we ourselves can travel” help you better navigate that high school culture and unlock your own potential?

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