In 1991, a group of eight middle schoolers from Harlem went to Michigan to compete in the National Junior High School Chess Championship tournament. No one had seen these kids coming—many of them from underresourced schools and communities—and they were considered underdogs. But they went on to win first place, shattering expectations, making them and their coach, Maurice Ashely, instant celebrities.
This heartwarming story is one of many cautionary tales recounted in Adam Grant’s new book, Hidden Potential. His mission is to challenge conventional wisdom around innate talent, hard work, or past performance as being predictors of success, and he argues that nurture is more important than nature when it comes to developing everyone’s potential.
“Neglecting the impact of nurture has dire consequences,” he writes. “It leads us to underestimate the amount of ground that can be gained and the range of talents that can be learned.”
As the chess team’s story illustrates, we often dismiss people too readily and don’t fully understand what truly leads to greatness, depriving them (and us) of their important contributions. Grant argues that anyone can get better at what they want to achieve if they focus on the right skills and have the right kinds of support in place.
How to get better at improving
Grant laments how much attention is given to signs of early talent (like child prodigies) and not enough to those who’ve had to fight adversity (and shown perseverance). Though having great teachers early on can make a big difference in nurturing a child’s potential, it’s also important for students to learn how to embrace discomfort, make mistakes, and expect failure (rather than doing everything they can to avoid it).
“Summoning the nerve to face discomfort is a character skill—an especially important form of determination,” Grant writes. “If we avoid the discomfort of learning techniques that don’t come easily to us, we limit our own growth.” Alternatively, seeking discomfort deliberatively can have the opposite effect—helping us to expand our knowledge and skills.
Grant points to polyglots (people who speak many languages) embracing discomfort as a way of learning foreign languages. Making errors and getting comfortable with imperfection helps you learn more quickly and become fluent faster.
Grant argues that, when it comes to learning, you need to pay attention to the quality (and not just quantity) of information you take in. How well you seek out the right kind of information (and filter out what you don’t need) is more important for real learning and retention than absorbing tons of information (to feed your ego or pass the test).
To that end, he suggests not seeking feedback from others on your work, but seeking out advice on how you can improve. That way, you’re shifting the attention away from past performance and toward getting better next time—which is more motivating and leads to better performance.
On the other hand, he argues, aiming for perfection is also a mistake. Perfectionism limits us in nefarious ways, making it harder to do our best, in part because we fear discomfort and making mistakes, which are important for learning and growing.
“Perfectionism traps us in a spiral of tunnel vision and error avoidance: It prevents us from seeing larger problems and limits us to mastering increasingly narrower skills,” he writes. “We grow by embracing our shortcomings, not by punishing them.”
Providing structure and opportunity
As any teacher knows, students need scaffolding of lessons in order to learn—meaning, larger tasks should be broken down into smaller, more manageable steps so that students don’t get too discouraged. Grant applies this concept to anyone trying to achieve something in the face of obstacles.
“When circumstances threaten to overpower us, instead of only looking inward we can turn outward to mentors, teachers, coaches, role models, or peers,” he writes. “The scaffolding they provide looks and feels different depending on the type of challenge we’re facing, but it has the same effect: giving us a foothold or a boost.”
The main importance of scaffolding is to make sure motivation remains high and people don’t become overwhelmed by discouraging results. Tips for making scaffolding work for you include:
1. Making tasks fun. Don’t think that you need to go through monotonous, repetitive exercises to improve. That is only true for skills that require you to do the same thing the same way every time (like swinging a golf club). Instead, you should infuse your practice with deliberate playfulness to “transform the daily grind into a source of daily joy,” says Grant. Research suggests that persistence is good for performance, but passion for what you are doing matters, too.
2. Taking breaks. Putting in long hours at work may impress your boss—but, in the end, it will surely lead to one of two things, says Grant: burnout or boredom. Instead, you need take deliberate breaks to help let your mind recover from attention fatigue and allow for creative solutions to emerge. “Relaxing is not a waste of time—it’s an investment in well-being. Breaks are not a distraction—they’re a chance to reset attention and incubate ideas. Play is not a frivolous activity—it’s a source of joy and a path to mastery,” he writes.
3. Pivoting when needed. Our path to success can be linear, but more often it’s not. We may hit a wall at some point and need to reconsider the path we’re on, perhaps making a detour (or even a U-turn) to find an alternative route, says Grant. To figure out a good plan, it may help to find a trusted mentor to give you advice—or, better yet, several trusted mentors—who can suggest different directions to take that might help you get where you want to go.
4. Focus on others. When we are faced with obstacles, we may get discouraged in pursuing our dreams. We need to keep in mind how others matter and may benefit from our perseverance to help us stick to our goals, suggests Grant. He points to a group of Black enlisted sailors recruited during World War II (the Golden Thirteen) who supported each other in training to become officers and, despite the prejudice they faced, graduated at the top of their class. “We need to look inside ourselves for hidden reserves of confidence and know-how. But it’s actually in turning outward to harness resources with and for others that we discover—and develop—our hidden potential,” he writes.
5. Teach what you’re learning. It’s important to have a growth mindset—a belief in your ability to improve at whatever you’re trying to do—when aiming for your highest potential. It can help to boost your confidence if you try to teach others what you’ve learned (which forces you to learn what you need to know) or offer coaching to others (which helps feed your confidence in your own knowledge).
“The expectations others hold of us often become self-fulfilling prophecies,” says Grant. “When others believe in our potential, they give us a ladder. They elevate our aspirations and enable us to reach higher peaks.”
How organizations can provide opportunities
While some of this advice we can take on our own—with a little help from our friends, perhaps—it’s still often the case that our ability to soar is hampered by the institutions that bind us. In the latter part of the book, Grant writes about how we can spread opportunity better in society by reconsidering the way we structure our schools, teams, and organizations.
For example, he stresses the importance of designing schools to give all children the potential to learn, rather than trying to single out those who show early promise (the supposedly “gifted” students) from those who don’t. He points to Finland, where schools have focused on making education playful, while paying teachers well to be experts on student learning (not just on their subjects) and helping students to pursue their interests and develop skills (instead of just trying to test well). Their approach has led to some of the best education results in the world.
One interesting proposal Grant makes is to encourage schools to adopt more teacher “looping”—meaning, letting the same teacher teach the same students over the course of many years. This allows teachers to really get to know their students and what they need, ultimately augmenting learning.
He also challenges how colleges and workplaces evaluate applicants, suggesting ways to make them better at spotting future potential. One provocative idea he mentions is not putting so much emphasis on past credentials or performance and, instead, looking more closely at how someone may have improved over time (as well as what they’re capable of doing now). Allowing applicants do-overs if an initial interview doesn’t go well could help uncover someone who just had a bad day but can learn from mistakes and succeed if given a second chance.
“By favoring applicants who have already excelled, selection systems underestimate and overlook candidates who are capable of greater things,” he writes.
All in all, Grant’s message is that there is much we can do to bring out our own potential and to see the potential in others. By recognizing setbacks as a part of learning and character-building, and supports as necessary for growth, we can allow more people to do great things and so add their particular gift to the world.