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Book Review: Hidden Potential

HIDDEN POTENTIAL: The Science of Achieving Greater Things. Adam Grant. (2023, Kindle Edition)

While many books have chronicled the attributes of superstars who have achieved great things, Hidden Potential focuses on how anyone can rise to achieve greater things. Written by New York Times bestselling author of Think Again, Adam Grant, the book explores how to build the character skills and motivational structures to realize one’s own potential, and how to design systems that create opportunities for others.  

According to Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School, “The true measure of your potential is not the height of the peak you’ve reached, but how far you’ve climbed to get there.” Throughout the book, Grant draws from lessons learned on his personal life journey, insights of others who beat the odds to achieve great heights, and relevant research in the field.

Hidden Potential is organized into three sections, as briefly outlined below. 

  • The first section explores the specific character skills that catapult people to greater heights, described as: (a) become a creature of discomfort, (b) become a sponge for information, and (c) become an imperfectionist. A few thought-provoking gems from this section include:

  • The people who grow the most aren’t the smartest people in the room. They’re the ones who strive to make themselves and others smarter.

  • Becoming a creature of discomfort can unlock hidden potential in many different types of learning. Don’t be afraid to try a new style of learning. … If we avoid the discomfort of learning techniques that don’t come easily to us, we limit our own growth.

  • Being a sponge is more than a metaphor…Growth is less about how hard you work than how well you learn. Seek out new knowledge, skills, and perspectives to fuel your growth.

  • Strive for excellence, not perfection.

  • The second section delves into the art and science of creating structures to sustain motivation. In this section, Grant explores: (a) the concept of ‘scaffolding’ in building support structures to overcome obstacles, (b) the importance of infusing passion into daily practice, (c) the art of taking a roundabout path to progress, and (d) the value of flying by your bootstraps to sustain motivation. A few thought-provoking gems from this section include:

  • With the right support at the right moments, we can overcome obstacles to growth.

  • Research demonstrates that people who are obsessed with their work put in longer hours yet fail to perform any better than their peers. They’re more likely to fall victim to both physical and emotional exhaustion. ...Relaxing is not a waste of time—it’s an investment in well-being.

  • When you hit a dead end, it might be time to turn around and find a new path.

  • It turns out that if you’re taking a new road, the best experts are often the worst guides.

  • It’s often said that those who can’t do, teach. It would be more accurate to say that those who can do, can’t teach the basics.

  • The best way to learn something is to teach it.

  • It’s possible to confront obstacles alone. Yet we reach the greatest heights when we attach our bootstraps to other people’s boots.

  • In the third section, Grant advocates for the creation of systems that invest in and create opportunities for all—not just gifted students and high-potential employees. The structure and content of this section are more disjoint than earlier sections of the book  (at least from the perspective of this reviewer). That said, Grant offers interesting analyses on the design of our education systems, the unearthing of collective intelligence in teams, as well as on opportunities to uncover gems in job interviews and college applications. One topic this reviewer found to be of particular interest was Grant’s comparative analysis of the design and underlying cultural orientation of education systems in the USA and Finland⎯where he compared the “winner take all” culture in the USA to that of “a culture of opportunity for all” in Finland. A few thought-provoking gems from this section include:

  • Don’t waste a brain. Recognize that intelligence comes in many forms, and every child has the potential to excel.

  • The best teams aren’t the ones with the best thinkers. They’re the teams that unearth and use the best thinking from everyone.

  • When evaluating others, beware of mistaking past accomplishments and experience for future potential.

  • The most meaningful form of performance is progress. The ultimate mark of potential is not the height of the peak you’ve reached, but the distance you’ve traveled—and helped others travel.

Finally, in the Epilogue, Grant presents ‘Actions for Impact’, which include a link to a quiz for assessing one’s own hidden potential (both strengths and area for growth), along with his top forty practical takeaways for unlocking hidden potential and achieving greater things. It should be noted that Grant also published a Workbook for Hidden Potential that is intended for use in conjunction with the book. While the workbook was not reviewed by this reviewer, it reportedly provides practical guidance through insightful exercises, thought-provoking questions, and actionable strategies.

Grant’s goal for this book was to illuminate how we can all rise to achieve greater things. Hidden Potential is a thought-provoking read which challenges some of our fundamental assumptions about the potential in each of us.