In standout news of 2018, happiness expert Shawn Achor released a new book. (This is standout news; don’t you dare tell us otherwise.) The book’s called Big Potential and it’s kind of a big deal. So we did what any other happy-focused blog would do—we read it. And in a plot twist that perhaps everyone saw coming, we learned something, and we think you can too.
In the review of Big Potential that follows, you’ll find out why being an army of one is a bad call, how to shift your perspective to hit new heights, and what we learned about togetherness that changed our view on success—permanently. Let’s get to it.
Shawn Achor Thinks our Solo-Focused View of Success Sucks: Here’s Why We’re Listening
Before we get in too deeply, we should mention that Shawn Achor is a legit expert. He’s the author of The Happiness Advantage, an early advocate of and researcher in positive psychology (i.e., the study of what makes people thrive), co-founder of The Institute for Applied Positive Research, frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review, Oprah-interviewee, among other credentials.
He’s also human—and this is important. In Big Potential, along with talking about the path to success, this happiness researcher also opens up about times he struggled with depression and how he found his way out. In our humble opinion, this adds legitimacy to Achor’s arguments, that anyone can struggle with loneliness, isolation, and darkness, even people who study happiness. And conveniently enough, he bounced back from depression using one of the key points in his book—by connecting with and getting support from others.
Achor’s whole idea here is that we do better together than we do alone, and with our powers combined, we all reach higher highs than we could individually. This applies not only to personal matters but also to how we succeed professionally. And he has plenty of research to back it up. Here are our top takeaways.
1. We can do more together. Period.
We’re a society that believes in and reaches for solo success, even when it’s detrimental to us. And Shawn Achor thinks it’s detrimental to us. We’re taught that success means superstar status—the best player on the team, the student with the highest standardized test score, the salesperson with the top numbers. But this culture of competition isn’t doing us any favors: We’re less happy, more stressed, and even more disconnected. It also has an underlying implication that fosters a whole lot of self-esteem issues: If there is a best, there is also a worst. And if success only goes to the best, then there is only so much of it to go around.
But Achor argues that this is totally wrong—success, like happiness, isn’t a limited resource. If you succeed, that doesn’t mean that there’s less success out there for others. In fact, our success, at its heart, is about other people. So we should probably start acting like it.
Skeptical much? Achor isn’t saying that individual successes are futile goals. What he is saying is that our success isn’t diminished by others’ success; it’s enhanced by it. The bottom line? We can’t hit our highest potential alone. This is the running theme of the book and one he comes back to over and over. By the end of the read, you’ll have a tattoo of it on your face. Or just a better understanding of how to succeed. (But that’s so much less interesting than a face tattoo, yeah?)
He brings this point home in a number of ways throughout the book, but these are the ones that stayed with us:
Competition in the workplace causes isolation. And that limits all of us.
- If you’re always trying to beat out Betty from Bookkeeping, you’re probably not going to ask for her help, even if her skills balance yours in a way that would make the end result much better. Competition breeds teams of one—individuals looking to do everything on their own so they’re the standout. But that produces limited results.
- What research says: A recent study looked at star investment bankers at top firms. If their success is all about their own individual strengths, talents, and intellect, you should be able to drop them in any firm and see the same results, right? Except that’s not what happened. These high-performers switched teams or firms and 46 percent of them couldn’t hit the same numbers elsewhere. And this remained the case five years later. Achor’s conclusion: Your success isn’t yours alone. It’s about the environment you’re in and the team you’re part of.
Differences in your team, even ones that cause conflict, lead to better results overall.
- Sometimes differences are scary. And we’re not just talking differences in gender, ethnicity, religion, or political affiliation. We’re talking about differences in approach, thinking, and perspective. A lot of managers shy away from hires who are different from their current teams, thinking that similarity will breed cohesion. But they’re wrong. And they’re missing out on better results.
- What research says: Shawn Achor references a study from Harvard Business Review looking at differences in thinking that found that teams with more diverse perspectives were more successful than teams with similar ones. How much more successful? Well, let’s just say that the most similar teams didn’t even pass the performance measures. Woof.
Pay attention to those around you
- You want to succeed? You need people around you who lift you up and push you in a positive direction. Achor calls these positive influencers; we call them amazing. He categorizes them in three ways: people who have your back no matter what, people who push your limits, and people who connect you to other people. And you need all three to have a shot at hitting your goals. Find them; love them; feed them. (Because food is love, right? Right.)
2. Leadership is about all of us, no matter what position we hold.
Let’s talk about hierarchy. Most organizations have one, and we’d argue that there are reasons for this. The problem isn’t the structure as much as it is how we feel about it. People in lower positions often feel disempowered—they’re “just” updating spreadsheets or booking appointments. But we all have power to lead positive change, no matter where we are in the org chart. And Shawn Achor thinks we need to tap into it.
In probably the most powerful example in the book, Achor talks about a medical group who inspired their appointment-bookers to create positive change—to save lives. Kaiser Permanente trained their support staff to prompt people making medical appointments to schedule preventive screenings they were overdue for (mammograms, cervical exams, and colorectal exams).
The remarkable part? Of nearly 1,200 women who were diagnosed with breast cancers in their hospitals, 40 percent of them were detected during appointments scheduled by the support staff. So the people who “just” booked appointments are now responsible for saving lives. This, in turn, gave their jobs more meaning—they were life-savers. And if that’s not leadership, we don’t know what is.
This goes back to the theme of the book—no successes happen in isolation.
What does this mean for you? It depends on your goals and your position. If you’re running an organization or team, it means you need to empower people from all sides in order to hit your goals. If you’re an individual within the organization, it means that you’re not powerless. Your position matters and can have huge effects, no matter how menial you think it might be. You have an opportunity to help the organization succeed, which in turn, will look favorably on you too. I.e., overall company success = your success.
3. Praise matters. And so does what you do with it.
Terrible at receiving praise? Same. But Shawn Achor argues that receiving praise is important and so is what we do next.
Turns out there’s a right way to receive kudos—and it doesn’t involve denial. Rather than attributing success to luck, external forces, the fact that we ate kale that day, we should accept it, recognize who else helped us get there, and pass it along.
The second and third parts are probably most important there. None of us succeed alone, so we shouldn’t let the praise stop with us. Achor tells us to think about our support system and then hand that praise to them. But we have to be real about it and we have to be specific. If we’re thinking about the success of our super-awesome blog, we’d break down our praise like this:
- Our writers—for expertly and enthusiastically tackling topics and approaches from the depths of our content manager’s brain
- Our social media manager—for getting the word out on our platforms and constantly thinking about new ways to connect with our audience
- Our community manager—for sharing links with the community group that fit relevant themes and stepping in to add expertise to various posts
- Our operations manager—for making sure the blog processes run smoothly, implementing more efficient processes, and ensuring that there are processes to begin with
- Our web developers—for staying on top of load times and back-end details so the whole thing, you know, actually works
- Our founder—for giving us so many opportunities to experiment, learn, and execute and supporting the whole endeavor wholeheartedly
Now we have to be sure to share that with them. In fact, we’re writing a heartfelt Slack message about this post right now.
The big picture on Big Potential
Confession: We had to limit ourselves to three takeaways or this blog post would reach an epic word count, and quite frankly, we don’t want to do that to you. In fact, we want you to find your way to Amazon, a real live bookstore, or the library to grab a copy. Because Shawn Achor put together the go-to for goal-hitting. And he’s doing more than telling you about it—he’s showing you how to apply it.
We’re already trying some of the strategies ourselves, and we’re pumped to see how much higher we can go by tapping into the power of everyone around us. It’s sort of like Captain Planet—with more research and less spandex.
And while we’re at it, we want to share some praise with you, readers, for keeping us excited to do this every day and for stopping by so often. We see you, we hear you, we appreciate you. Thanks for helping us realize some of our potential. Now go out and do the same.
Your turn: Ever read Big Potential by Shawn Achor? What about another book that inspired you to make some changes for the greater good? How’d it go? Share in the comments.
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Author: Chelsey Taylor
Chelsey likes words, especially adjectives, and has been perfecting her perfectionism since infancy. She’s an endorphin-gatherer, top-knot connoisseur, and content manager at Panda Planner.