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In his latest book, star Wharton professor Adam Grant argues that realizing potential is not about innate abilities.

Adam Grant boosted his admission chances at Harvard by demonstrating his mastery of card tricks to an alumni interviewer. But it wasn’t the magic itself that mattered—it was the initiative and courage he showed, the interviewer later told him.

The Saul P. Steinberg Professor of Management and professor of psychology at Wharton relates the anecdote in Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things (Viking). His latest big-idea book, released in October, melds social science research with insights from comedian Steve Martin, architect Tadao Ando, and retired knuckleball pitcher R. A. Dickey, among others.  

Grant catapulted to media stardom in 2013 with his first book, Give and Take, about the practical benefits of generosity [“Good Returns,” Jul|Aug 2013]. Four more bestsellers followed. A regular contributor to the New York Times Op-Ed section, he has given wildly popular TED talks, hosted two TED podcasts, consulted for high-profile clients (such as Google, the Gates Foundation, and the NBA), and appeared on the Showtime series Billions. Along with both popular and scholarly recognition, he was ranked as Wharton’s top-rated professor for seven straight years.

In Hidden Potential, Grant makes a surprising argument: that native ability is a much smaller factor in achievement than we think. “When we judge potential,” he writes, “we make the cardinal error of focusing on starting points—the abilities that are immediately visible.” He argues instead that given “the right opportunity and motivation to learn, anyone can build the skills to achieve greater things.” The point, he says, is not where you start but “how far you travel.”

Frequent Gazette contributor Julia M. Kleinspoke to Grant about the steps in that journey.

What was the genesis of this book?

I was talking to my [high school] diving coach, and he said that I got farther with less talent than any diver he’d coached. What he was telling me was that I had squeezed pretty much every ounce out of my potential. The raw talent, or lack thereof, that I brought to the table was not something I had control over. But how much of my potential I realized was something I could change. And it made me realize also that my proudest achievements have generally come in areas where I initially struggled. I think people miss out on those opportunities, those accomplishments, because they’re encouraged just to play to their strengths.

How does Hidden Potential relate to your previous work?

All of my works have been about helping people reach their potential or unlock potential in others—whether it is enabling people to be both successful and generous in Give and Take; helping people find the strategies and the confidence to not only generate new ideas but act on them in Originals; not getting stuck in the way that you’ve always done it but actually being willing to change your mind [in Think Again]. All those topics are different angles on potential. I’m somebody who’s always been motivated to reach potential, to try to unleash it in the people around me. There are few things more satisfying than seeing other people realize their potential.

Your success must make it easier to get big names to talk to you.

I could not have gotten a conversation with Steve Martin before, that’s for sure. One of the things I learned early on is that there are two kinds of stories that people love to read in an idea book. One is about someone who’s already famous who has an unexpected insight or approach. The other, which I’m especially partial to, is about someone who isn’t famous but could be because their approach is particularly clever.

What do most of us get wrong about potential?

Most people think it’s about innate abilities. I thought the research by [Harvard economist] Raj Chetty was just stunning—that it’s the character skills you learn in kindergarten, not the cognitive skills, that ultimately help to foreshadow your success. The patterns were replicated in an experiment with African entrepreneurs: the ones who are taught character skills end up growing their businesses more successfully than the ones who are taught cognitive skills. I think that really highlights that we get something wrong here.

Were you surprised?

I was shocked. Coming into this research, if I were going to bet on one variable that would set people’s potential, I would have placed a strong bet on cognitive skills. It was a great example of a finding that at first challenges your intuition. But we all know people who have great cognitive skills and were not able to make good use of them because they lack character skills: they avoid discomfort, they can’t take feedback, and in many cases they end up becoming so perfectionistic that they lose the forest in the trees. On the flip side, we all also know people who, despite shortages of what seem like natural assets, end up going on to achieve extraordinary growth and accomplish great things because they’re willing to expand their comfort zone, know the importance of absorbing and filtering new information, and have the skills to decide what really matters.

You seem to be redefining character as skills that can be developed rather than innate moral tendencies. It’s been said that character is destiny, but, unlike destiny, it appears that it’s not fixed. 

Character skills are taught, and that shows just how learnable they are. I think your values are part of your character, but I have come to see character much more as a matter of skill than will. The real question is: How do you show up on a hard day? Can you stay generous when somebody has been unkind to you? Can you stay humble when your ego is threatened? And can you find discipline in the face of temptation? 

You mention in the book that you’re a recovering perfectionist. How did you recover?

I thought diving was perfect for a perfectionist because I could aim for a perfect 10. That was an obstacle and a liability. I spent all this time trying to perfect very easy dives instead of pushing myself to learn harder ones. [High school diving coach] Eric Best taught me how to be an imperfectionist. He would constantly ask, “Did you get better today? OK, then it was a good day.”

You discuss the value of “scaffolding” as a way of boosting performance. What are some examples?

Character skills don’t operate in a vacuum. One of the things we know from the classic marshmallow test of willpower is that the kids who were able to delay the gratification of eating one marshmallow now for the reward of eating two later have these little bits of scaffolding they set up: they’ll sit on their hands, or they’ll smoosh the marshmallow into a ball and start bouncing it around, so it doesn’t look like a tasty treat. They’re trying to change the situation, so they don’t have to rely as much on character skills. In construction, we all know scaffolding is a temporary structure that allows you to reach a greater height that you couldn’t scale on your own. In life, scaffolding is something you get from a teacher or a coach or a book or an observation that does the same thing.

The third factor you discuss, along with character skills and scaffolding, is systems of opportunity. What do you mean by that?

I think everyone knows that talent is evenly distributed but opportunity is not. The household you grow up in, the country you’re lucky to be born into, the mentor that you have access to, that can all make the difference between a door being opened or slammed shut. I wanted to explain how we can build schools, teams, and workplaces that create opportunity as opposed to limiting it. Many people see potential as rare, so they try to invest in high-potential students and athletes and child-prodigy musicians, and high-potential leaders at work. What a good system of opportunity does is recognize that potential is widespread and open the door for many more candidates to build and demonstrate character skills.

How does fostering group potential differ from fostering individual potential?

You look at the smartest groups: they’re not composed of the smartest individuals but rather of the people who are most focused on making the group better. It’s a reinforcement of the importance of character skills.

You’ve said that we tend to make errors in identifying potential, including in college admissions and hiring practices. How can the process be improved?

Pretty much every university and many workplaces look at your grades as a determinant of both your motivation and your ability. The problem is that no two students face the same degree of difficulty. What we ought to be doing is moving from grade-point average to also consider grade-point trajectory. If your grades have risen over time, it suggests that you’ve faced and overcome obstacles. Those students are likely diamonds in the rough. 

You’ve also found that affirmative action can have an adverse effect on members of disadvantaged groups by causing them to doubt their worth.   

One of the problems with affirmative action is that it focuses on group advantage and disadvantage. My proposal is that we start looking at individual advantage and disadvantage. I’m [also] intrigued by [psychologist] Barry Schwartz’s suggestion that we take everybody who meets a certain standard and put them in a lottery for college and then roll the dice. It would teach students that life is not always a meritocracy.

What’s a good starting point for someone trying to realize his or her potential?

I put together a fun Hidden Potential Assessment quiz ( I took it and found out the character skill that I end up using most frequently is discomfort-seeking—I’m constantly looking for situations that will challenge me and stretch me. On the other hand, my lowest character-skill score was being an imperfectionist. I still sometimes have a hard time convincing myself that it’s OK to just do a good job. I think most change starts with self-awareness.

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