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power points

Adam Grant, the well-known Wharton School psychologist and author, was a diver in high school, making the All-American list although never getting anywhere near selection to the Olympic team. But he exceeded his goals and his proudest moment was when the coach declared he got further with less talent than any diver that coach had ever worked with. “I realized that success is not so much how close you come to perfection as how much you overcome along the way,” he writes in Hidden Potential.

That has animated his recent research, as he tried to figure out how we can unlock our talents, becoming the person we want to be. “What counts is not how hard you work but how much you grow,” he says, echoing his coach. And critical to that are virtues of character like being disciplined and proactive. “Character skills do more than help you perform at your peak – they propel you to higher peaks,” he says.

Travelling great distance in your career, he has found, requires the courage to seek out the right kinds of discomfort, the capacity to absorb the right information, and the will to accept the right imperfections.

Start with discomfort: To grow, you must learn and improve, and there can be a tendency to fall back on preferred styles to make it easier. But often it’s the learning style you are least comfortable with that will propel you furthest ahead, largely because it makes you work harder to overcome the discomfort. He points to comedian Steve Martin, who hated writing, so tried to become successful by watching and listening to other comics and performing as much as possible. Only when he started writing regularly for a TV show did his own stand-up comedy markedly improve, however. Polyglots, who speak many languages, tend not to wait until they have a basic proficiency before speaking the newest language; they throw themselves in immediately, embracing awkwardness and embarrassment. Seeking new skills and learning new things will inevitably bring discomfort; it’s a critical part of improving yourself that can’t be avoided.

You also need to become a human sponge, building the capacity to absorb new information and adapt to new challenges. “Improving depends not on the quantity of information you seek, but the quality of information you take in. Growth is less about how hard you work than how well you learn,” he says.

The two key habits of successful sponges are whether they are proactive and growth oriented. You must seek out new knowledge, skills and perspectives. And when you are exposed to that new information, you should not focus on feeding your ego, but instead be intent on fuelling your growth. That makes you coachable and teachable – like a diver named Adam Grant.

A tip he offers here is to never ask for feedback, which focuses on the past and may be censored to not offend you. Instead, ask for advice, which is future-oriented and will be more bountiful. For every project that matters to him, he sets up a five- to seven-person judging committee and asks them to score his results from zero to 10 and then advise him how to get closer to 10.

Finally, he urges you to be an imperfectionist. Be disciplined in knowing when and where to push for the ultimate, to be your best, and where that’s a waste of energy and you can accept imperfection. While conceding that we all want our heart surgeon to be perfect, he notes that perfectionists tend to obsess over details that don’t matter; avoid unfamiliar situations and difficult tasks that might lead to failure; and berate themselves for making mistakes which makes it harder to learn from those lapses. “If perfectionism was a medication, the label would alert us to common side effects. Warning may cause stunted growth,” he writes.

To unleash your hidden potential be an imperfectionist, a sponge for new information and be willing to cuddle up to discomfort.

Quick hits

  • We’re told to be good listeners when someone else is talking, but Basecamp software chief executive officer Jason Fried says we should be better listeners of ourselves when we’re talking. Often we fumble about trying to express an idea and then not hearing ourself continue to pour out inferior suggestions.
  • New research shows our Zoom backgrounds shape first impressions of us. Novelty backgrounds lowered ratings of competence and trustworthiness. Plants or a bookcase fare best, while a blank wall or blurred background were also positive. But beware of a simulated home background which may imply you are secretive about your home space.
  • Ros Atkins, host of the BBC’s Explainer series, says the two sentences he most rewrites to make himself better understood are the first and last. The beginning sentence must set out what you are trying to do but must also gain attention. The final sentence must crystallize the thought you want to leave with the reader or listener.
  • Nobody is wrong 100 per cent of the time so author Mark Manson urges you to always look for the nugget of truth in those you disagree with. He also cautions that nobody is right 100 per cent of the time so always look for the faults and mistakes in those you agree with.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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