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I just got the memo that Adam Grant’s next book is available for pre-order: Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things.
Adam is a genuinely nice person, and I’m sure it’ll be great. I have not read the book.1Having not read the book, I also need to make it perfectly clear that there’s a good chance that a lot of what follows won’t actually relate to the book itself.
And yet… I have some things to say.
For starters, Serena Williams liked it enough to blurb it. Who better to comment on achievement than the tennis GOAT?
“This brilliant book will shatter your assumptions about what it takes to improve and succeed. I wish I could go back in time and gift it to my younger self. It would’ve helped me find a more joyful path to progress.”serena williams
Yes, we respect the hell out of Serena. But how relatable is her relationship to achievement? Why are we using her as a proxy for other readers?
One of my favorite chapters in my first book, Can You Learn to Be Lucky?, was on achievement; I argued that reaching the pinnacle of any objective, quantifiable goal (e.g., an Olympic medal) is much more than the result of one lucky thing—genes, good timing, nice weather. International-level success requires a perfect storm of absolutely every variable unfolding in the best possible way. Throughout your entire life.
One of these, of course, is how people approach the very act of improvement and mastery itself. There are lots of frameworks for understanding the interplay of learning, progress, perfectionism, and improvement.
“Mastery goals” refer to those who want to improve on their own performance, whereas those with “performance goals” use dominance over others to measure improvement.
Mastery goals are said to be better in the long run—making people less likely to burn out or quit—because of the decrease in felt social stress. If you’re genuinely pleased that you’ve improved and tried your hardest, and don’t have all of your self-esteem eggs in the “achievement” basket, losing doesn’t sting as much.
On the other side of the “books about success” coin are new releases like Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic—and What to Do About it.
It seems like Grant is throwing a bone to people who know that they’re not going to the Olympics but still want to get better at something—ALL OF US. The problem is that it still falls victim to Destination Addiction: the idea that we have to reach some milestone, some variable, do some thing.
It’s still implying that the way we are isn’t enough. Once again, the dominant discourse is being set, modeled, and written by workaholics who fail to see that their perspective is just one perspective.
The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World. -David W. Orr
Normal is extraordinary.
Our obsession with achievement
My modest proposal: there’s nothing wrong with being, ya know, yourself. Achieving what you’re doing, right now?
Derek Thompson has recently written “We’re Missing a Key Driver of Teen Anxiety: A culture of obsessive student achievement and long schoolwork hours can make kids depressed,” in The Atlantic:
I’ve overlooked a key factor that helps explain why adolescent distress is rising not only in the U.S. but also in many rich countries. It’s pressure-cooker schools.
True! But incomplete: adults are just as prone to these stressors. It’s not just pressure-cooker schools, it’s a pressure-cooker, winner-take-all economy. Most Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, a few missed paychecks away from financial oblivion.
Manufactured insecurity erodes our ability to connect with others.
- 1Having not read the book, I also need to make it perfectly clear that there’s a good chance that a lot of what follows won’t actually relate to the book itself.