One of our obsessions at Charter is how to achieve sustained high performance in organizations and pilot them to get stronger year after year.

Research overwhelmingly shows that a key component—at odds with downsizing fads and short-term shareholder pressures—is investing in people and their ability to do their best work.

A new book by Adam Grant, Hidden Potential, which was released this week, has specific insights and recommendations in this vein. The organizational psychologist at the Wharton School and bestselling author is attempting to shift our societal focus on prodigy and extreme talent to understand how everyone can live up to their potential.

Grant identifies three central components:

  • Character skills—“Character is your capacity to prioritize your values over your instincts,” Grant writes. (p. 20) That includes accepting discomfort as you make mistakes that are part of the learning process and being sponge-like in absorbing new ideas and information. “Character skills equip a chronic procrastinator to meet a deadline for someone who matters deeply to them, a shy introvert to find the courage to speak out against an injustice, and the class bully to circumvent a fistfight with his teammates before a big game. Those are the skills that great kindergarten teachers nurture—and great coaches cultivate,” explains Grant. (p. 11)
  • Scaffolding—Most of us need structure to sustain our motivation amid burnout, boredom, or doubt. Scaffolding, often provided by coaches and mentors, “helps us build the resistance to overcome obstacles that threaten to overwhelm us and limit our growth,” writes Grant. (p. 83) “Deliberate play” is one approach, making practice of a skill more novel and varied. The trainer of NBA star Steph Curry, for example, has him play little made-up games, like one called Twenty-One, where Curry gets one minute to score 21 points and has to sprint to mid-court after each shot. Another type of scaffolding is teaching others, with research showing tutoring or explaining material boosts the tutor’s own learning. Oldest children appear to benefit from explaining to their younger siblings, for example.
  • Systems—Systemic biases often limit the opportunities for people from underrepresented groups or those who are late bloomers or face obstacles early in life. Grant espouses “grade-point trajectory,” for example, as an additional college admissions and hiring criteria alongside grade-point average. “Early failure followed by later success is a mark of hidden potential,” he notes. (p. 214) He details how a call center that employs people with disabilities gives candidates a chance at a do-over if they’re not happy with how their first job interview went. Grant praises “lattice” organizational structures, where workers are allowed to approach people other than their direct bosses with ideas, and “pro-social” leaders who put their own egos aside to listen and unite teams around a common goal.

Here are other helpful tactics and strategies in Hidden Potential:

  • Put yourself into situations that stretch you. “The best way to accelerate growth is to embrace, seek, and amplify discomfort,” writes Grant, citing how people quickly learn languages when they embrace the discomfort of immersion. (p. 26) Research shows that encouraging students to take risks and make mistakes results in ultimately making fewer of them. Perfectionism doesn’t correlate with any improved performance at work.
  • Mix things up. Sports psychologists in Brazil found young players showed greater improvement at basketball when they played a variety of made-up games—such as having a teammate who was allowed to pass but not shoot—rather than focusing solely on traditional skills-building drills. “The best way to unlock hidden potential isn’t to suffer through the daily grind. It’s to transform the daily grind into a source of daily joy,” Grant writes. (p. 89)
  • Ask people to rate your work on a scale of one to 10. Then ask them how you can get closer to 10. Work to get higher marks in priority areas, but accept lower scores for others. Grant shares his book manuscripts with a group of trusted people and keeps revising until every judge gives him at least an eight, and some give nines.
  • Seek guidance from multiple people. You’ll get better advice from different perspectives. And research shows that sometimes experts are less capable of teaching beginners, as their distance means they can’t easily explain how they achieved their expertise.
  • Drop requirements for credentials and experience. One large-scale study found that students who attended high-ranking universities performed only slightly better than peers on consulting projects. Another meta-analysis across a range of jobs found that prior work experience had little impact on performance.

For Grant, the bottom line is clear: “Growth is less about how hard you work than how well you learn.” (p. 44)

To be sure:

  • Some of the material in Hidden Potential is covered extensively by other books and writers, including an extended section about the 2010 mining collapse in Chile that Harvard’s Amy Edmondson, Rutgers’ Marc Aronson, and others have written about.

Memorable facts and anecdotes:

  • Having an experienced kindergarten teacher adds an average of over $1,000 to a student’s annual income in their 20s, according to research by Harvard’s Raj Chetty.
  • The US Army came up with the distinction between “hard skills” and “soft skills” in the late 1960s to distinguish between those related to operating “hard” tanks and guns and for “soft” broader leadership and teamwork that didn’t involve machines.
  • Students who listened to a science article enjoyed it more but learned significantly less than those who read it.
  • Yo-Yo Ma tries to avoid early-morning and late-night practicing, and keeps his total practice time to just three to six hours per day.
  • In a study of over 28,000 basketball games, NBA teams got worse after star players were injured. But once the player returned, their team did even better than before the injury. “They rearranged their roles to enable peripheral players to step up and drew up fresh plays to leverage their strengths. When the star came back, their shot balance improved. They were less dependent on one hero to carry the entire team,” Grant writes. (p. 110)
  • Researchers found that lawyers who were guided by multiple mentors are more likely to make partner.
  • Former Mets baseball pitcher RA Dickey defied his team’s wishes and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro during the 2012 off-season. He then went on to have the best season of his baseball career, which he credited to a boost in confidence provided by the climb.
  • Leaders who spend 5% to 10% of their time doing the work of their teams—such as a hospital administrator continuing to practice as a doctor—are higher performing. “It’s a powerful way to stay connected to what’s happening on the ground—and signal that what people do below us is not beneath us,” writes Grant. (p. 166)
  • The team trying to free the trapped Chilean miners solicited ideas from around the world and wound up using a novel approach recommended by a young engineer who was on the site to deliver equipment. They used a “lattice” approach, Grant concludes. “If we listen only to the smartest person in the room, we miss out on discovering the smarts the rest of the room has to offer.” (p. 198)
  • Finnish students’ top results on international tests are the result of a reform effort launched in the 1970s that included paying teachers better and giving them more autonomy. “Finnish schools create cultures of opportunity by enabling students to build individualized relationships, receive individualized support, and develop individualized interests,” Grant writes. (p. 161)

Choice quotes:

  • “You can’t tell where people will land from where they begin. With the right opportunity and motivation to learn, anyone can build the skills to achieve greater things. Potential is not a matter of where you start, but of how far you travel. We need to focus less on starting points and more on distance traveled.” (p. 6)
  • “Progress is rarely noticeable at a snapshot in time—it unfolds over extended periods of time. If you focus your attention on a specific difficult moment, it’s easy to feel stuck. It’s only when you look at your trajectory over the course of weeks, months, or years that you appreciate the distance you’ve traveled.” (p. 126)
  • “Teaching others can build our competence. But it’s coaching others that elevates our confidence. When we encourage others to overcome obstacles, it can help us find our own motivation.” (p. 137)
  • “It’s more important to be good ancestors than dutiful descendants. Too many people spend their lives being custodians of the past instead of stewards of the future. We worry about making our parents proud when we should be focused on making our children proud. The responsibility of each generation is not to please our predecessors—it’s to improve conditions for our successors.” (p. 150)
  • “Weak leaders silence voice and shoot the messenger. Strong leaders welcome voice and thank the messenger. Great leaders build systems to amplify voice and elevate the messenger.” (p. 196)
  • “Instead of trying to trip people up, we should give them the chance to put their best foot forward. How they respond in a do-over is a more meaningful window into their character than how they handle the first try.” (p. 221)
  • “The most important lesson to teach students is that learning is fun.” (p. 242)

The bottom line is that Hidden Potential provides useful reinforcement of good practices for achieving sustained performance, such as creating safe team environments for colleagues to share their ideas and to make mistakes in order to get better. As organizations grapple with worker burnout and disengagement, it offers approaches—such as “deliberate play”—for achieving results without resorting to exhausting or grinding work.

You can buy Hidden Potential from and Amazon.

Read our 2021 briefing on Grant’s previous book, Think Again.

Read all of our book briefings here. (We’re resuming publishing book briefings after a break for part of this year.)

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