In his new book, Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness and Well-Being, Shawn Achor questions what he considers to be a fundamental flaw in our society — namely that the burden we are given from birth to maximize our individual potential actually does a disservice to society. The inherent competitiveness of that pursuit creates a zero-sum game in which you can only achieve your full potential if you perform better than your closest rival. This isolationism causes negative consequences. The case for a contrarian position on potential begins with the idea of a Virtuous Cycle. Instead of the more familiar “vicious cycle,” where “cascading negative events become compounded,” Achor argues in favor of “an upward spiral of potential whereby with each success you garner more resources, which, in turn, allow you to achieve greater and greater successes.” Referencing a broad range of research data and personal experiences, from the behavior of lightening bugs in Southeast Asia, to nudity at Harvard, featherless chickens and dancing with Oprah, the author makes the case for a distinction between small potential, “the limited success you can achieve alone,” and big potential, “the success you can achieve only in a Virtuous Cycle with others.”
The SEEDS of Big Potential
For individuals and organizations seeking to achieve the transformative power of big potential, the author offers a path of five stages, with the acronym SEEDS:
SURROUND yourself with a Star System of Positive Influencers: Avoid the negative peer pressure of toxic co-workers who may resent your success, and embrace the positive peer pressure of creative and highly motivated peers who will support your rise to even greater success
EXPAND your power by helping others lead from every seat: Positive change is not dependent on your being in a leadership role. Helping others to achieve their big potential, even if it means forgoing power and influence that would benefit you in the short term, will expand your power in the long-term: “When we are brave enough to expand power to others, suddenly we find that a huge weight is lifted off our shoulders, increasing our power to lift even heavier loads.”
ENHANCE your resources by becoming a Prism of Praise: Rather than recognizing the highest performer (“Small Potential praise”), shine your praise on the support system that made that high performance possible, and make sure that the journey to that outcome receives as much praise as the destination.
DEFEND the system against negative attacks: Recognize the inevitability of negative messaging from customers, suppliers, the media and especially peers within the organization, and focus your efforts on building your defenses against those “dark arts” so that your team can continue to progress towards the light. Failures may need reframing as learning opportunities, and challenging projects as chances to excel, but the positivity of the messaging is critical to success.
SUSTAIN the gains by fueling the Virtuous Cycle: Leaders carry the responsibility of setting direction, but “the more energy they channel in a positive direction, the more power they have to pull others along with them.” In this context, make sure that momentum is created from building on everyone’s success rather than just recognizing individual performance in overcoming obstacles.
The Power of Interconnectedness
Big Potential supports a logical argument with a fascinating series of research studies that “unites neuroscience, psychology and network analysis to shape the new field of positive systems research.” The clear message is that being hyper-competitive may have served you well through the individual achievements of your school and college years, but success in your professional career will depend on the extent to which you can connect with and support others. When you help others become better, you are able to reach new levels of potential as well: “Rather than fighting over scraps of the pie, we can expand the pie instead.”