Maximizing Personal Potential
August 2014 (assistant professor)
A title like this one will understandably cause a fair share of eye-rolling. After all, a multi-billion-dollar self-help industry already devotes itself to this goal, so why would I want to pile onto the fray? I don't claim to have any expertise here, but I do want to share a few stories from my childhood to see where it leads ...
As a kid, I was terribly out of shape. I wasn't overweight or in bad health, but I knew that I was in worse shape than most other boys. Physical education (P.E.) classes in school were daily reminders of my inferior physique. I was never able to:
Of those, running was my worst fear. In middle school, I even went as far as getting medical notes to excuse me from a few of the dreaded monthly mile-runs that all students had to do. (I did have asthma, but in reality it wasn't bad enough to be debilitating.) And in high school, I tried but failed to get out of P.E. class entirely by petitioning to have my after-school karate classes count for P.E. credits.
The most demoralizing part of P.E. class wasn't that I couldn't do pull-ups, push-ups, or run a mile. It was that most other boys in class could do those things without even trying. There were always a few athletes in each class, whom everyone expected to excel. But most boys didn't train at all for P.E. class, yet they could still do a few pull-ups, a dozen push-ups, and run a mile in 8:30 or 9 minutes. There was no way to sugar-coat the truth: I was objectively in worse shape than almost all other boys my age. As far as I was concerned at the time, that was just my natural bodily limitation – something that was fixed by genetics.
Then during 11th grade, I joined the cross-country team at my high school, mostly because my friends were doing it. It was a nutty decision for someone who had grown up with such a deep fear of running. But it was one of the most pivotal points in my life. As a team, we practiced intensely four to five days per week throughout the year, usually running anywhere from 4 to 8 miles. At first, it was as excruciating as I expected, but then it started getting easier and more enjoyable. The most wonderful feeling was that I could see my mile-run times improving, first from 10 minutes, to 9 minutes, to 8 minutes, and eventually down to 7 minutes per mile.
To put these numbers into perspective, a 7-minute mile is pathetically slow for a 16-year-old male runner. Most of my teammates could run a mile in 6 minutes, and some in even 5 minutes. (The current men's world record is around 3:43.) But still, this was a tremendous improvement for someone who, just a year earlier, never imagined running a mile without stopping.
Fast-forward to college. I started lifting weights at the gym with a few friends, mostly as a social activity. I started off not being able to lift anything. But just like my cross-country training in high school, I started noticing myself improving week after week. I still looked scrawny, but eventually I was able to do several pull-ups and a few dozen push-ups. None of these accomplishments are amazing in any objective sense. Any in-shape 21-year-old male can do pull-ups and push-ups. But I had grown up never even imagining that I could do those things, since I thought my naturally inferior physique wouldn't ever allow it.
Maximizing personal potential
OK I admit that this story sounds a bit boring. An out-of-shape kid decides to get in shape by running and weightlifting. What's so surprising about that? Of course anyone can improve their physique through the proper targeted training and practice. That's so obvious!
Want to run faster? Simple. Learn some basic form so that you don't hurt yourself. Run with some friends, start out at a slow pace, then incrementally push yourself more and more, and take regular breaks to recover.
Want to get stronger? Simple. Learn some basic form so that you don't hurt yourself. Go to the gym with some friends to lift weights, start out light, then incrementally push yourself more and more, and take regular breaks to recover.
Following this basic regimen won't turn you into an Olympic runner or weightlifter, but it will certainly lead to improvements and bring you closer to your full physical potential.
Now here's my point: Very few people apply these same obvious principles to their intellectual, emotional, and social development.
When it comes to our bodies, we all understand that we have untapped potential for getting into better physical shape if only we put in disciplined effort. But when it comes to our minds, a lot of us just accept a fixed mindset like “that's just how I've always been,” or “well that's my natural personality, I'm being myself” or “I don't want to be a phony by trying too hard.” So few of us are willing to, for lack of a better analogy, “work out” our minds in the same way as we work out our bodies.
We all start out with different levels of certain intellectual, emotional, and social abilities, just like how we all start out with different physical abilities. But we can all substantially improve over our “natural” baseline just by learning the proper technique and putting in adequate practice, ideally with a coach providing targeted feedback.
Of course, we might never become great in any objective sense, and many other people will always be better than we are. But the only thing that matters is that we will be a heck of a lot better than if we didn't try in the first place. I might never run a 5-minute mile like my high school friends could, but disciplined training enabled me to reach a 7-minute mile, which I never even thought was possible.
So why don't more people try to improve their intellectual, emotional, and social abilities? Because it's deeply uncomfortable and embarrassing. Just like how running or lifting weights was excruciatingly painful for me at the beginning, since I started off so far behind everyone else. It's much easier to coast along with the status quo and hover at one's natural level of competence.
For many kinds of jobs and personal relationships, the status quo might be alright. But when things start getting really hard – intellectually, emotionally, or socially – that's when great people stand out. And if you dissect how those people become great (not just great at a job, but also great as a personal partner, great as a parent, great as a friend, great as a caregiver), it's not because they're just “naturally gifted” at what they do. Yes, they might have some amount of inborn strengths, but I bet that they've worked hard over many years to hone those strengths through some form of disciplined training.
Most people never come close to their full potential in important facets of their lives – their careers, relationships, or well-being. We can't all become the best, but we don't need to be. We just need to be better than where we started. And it doesn't take a superhuman level of effort to improve upon the usually-mediocre status quo. It all starts with a willingness to learn proper technique, to consistently practice, and to get the right feedback.
Mandatory postscript about privilege
I recognize the massive role of implicit privileges in determining our fates. But that's something we can't help. The only thing under our control is how much we practice and improve to approach our maximum potential. Yes, life is unfair, and everyone's level of potential is different depending on the unique circumstances of their birth and upbringing. But no matter what, maximizing our personal potential is the best we can do in life. The rest is up to luck.
Last modified: 2014-08-29