Diamonds in the Rough

Diamonds in the Rough

A couple of months after my father died, a letter showed up at our family home. It was written by one of his oldest friends, someone he knew growing up but had since lost touch with. I remember it was a beautiful and heartfelt letter – exactly the kind you’d hope to get when someone you love dies. In this letter, his old friend reminisced about their youthful misadventures in West Orange, New Jersey, extolling some of my dad’s best qualities. He talked about what a superb and gifted athlete my father was. How he almost broke the High School 1500-meter record, at only fifteen years of age.

Of course, this was news to me. My dad, a track and field star? Really? The only time I ever saw him run was if a cop was about to write him a parking ticket – and even then it was more of a quick two-step shuffle. My dad was a working-man, a product of his time and place – the Great Depression, Catholic school, Army. He married young and soon had a bunch of kids to feed. Then, like a Bruce Springsteen song, he went to work for the electric company. I knew him as a man of honor who worked hard, drank even harder, and could sing all six verses of “American Pie” at family gatherings. But an athlete? This got me thinking: what else didn’t I know about him? What other hidden talents might he have had?

It can be difficult sometimes to see the hidden potential in anyone, including even ourselves. Who knows what my dad could have achieved had someone taken even a passing interest in his early athletic ability, or if a teacher had encouraged him to think about college instead of mitching off school, which is mostly what he did. How different might his life have been. In his new book, Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Great Things, author Adam Grant offers some useful ideas for how we can tap into these hidden abilities. His basic premise – that you don’t have to be a genius or a superstar to achieve great things in life – is supported by several real-life examples and a three-part framework for uncovering our potential.

Developing Character Skills

It begins very early in life, as early as kindergarten – with the development of such skills as task persistence, discipline, cooperation, curiosity. We may be born with certain innate personality traits, but “character skills” are the foundational building blocks of all future success, and these can be taught (and learned).

In one of the more fascinating tales in the book, he outlines something called “The Tennessee Experiment,” basically a decades-long research study tracking achievement over many years as children moved through school. And what it found is that one of the chief determinants of a person’s success later in life is the experience of that person’s kindergarten teacher. Just think about that for a second! It wasn’t college or high school that set them up for life, but the ability of that person’s kindergarten teacher—the one who effectively helped them “learn how to learn.” Now consider what we pay those same teachers!

Building Scaffolding

As most of us know, it’s very easy to start something new, but much harder to stick with it, especially when the going gets tough. We hit roadblocks, run out of gas, lose our mojo. The daily grind wears us down and doubt begins to creep in. To keep our motivation going, it helps to have some “scaffolding” in place – temporary structures of support that help us weather these inevitable storms and stay the course. These might include: mentors, coaches, therapists, friends or indeed anyone who understands what we are trying to achieve.

In teaching my own children, I have often noticed that anything that is “fun” tends to get repeated and hold their interest more. And so it is with us. Building fun into any sort of routine or daily practice is one way to make sure it is repeated. Another way to maintain our interest in a subject is to teach it! Whenever you teach someone what you already know, you are expanding and reinforcing your own learning. By giving away your education, you usually receive another one in return. A win-win!

Mining for Gold

In order to bring out the best in ourselves, it requires a willingness to be uncomfortable sometimes, to risk looking foolish, getting things wrong. It means putting yourself in the ring before you feel ready, and sometimes getting a pummeling! It means seeking out (and listening to) constructive feedback, being open and curious, basically a sponge for new information and ideas. Above all, it means treating ourselves with care, as someone we wish to see succeed.

Creating opportunities for others requires that we dig a little deeper, looking past the outward shell for the hidden talents that may lurk inside someone. It means looking carefully at our systems of admission, hiring and promotion. It’s one of the many reasons why representation is so important. According to Grant: “When people can’t see a path, they stop dreaming of the destination.”

I often coach business owners and new managers, that instead of focusing on only the “superstars,” maybe we can enrich our companies by cultivating the untapped capacity in everyone – esp. the overlooked, the late bloomers, the also-rans and the teenage delinquent track stars. The expectations that we hold for others can sometimes be the key that unlocks their latent abilities. The expectation that we hold for ourselves can be our ladder to the stars.