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Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-Being Hardcover – January 30, 2018
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"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
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About the Author
Shawn Achor is one of the world’s leading experts on happiness, success, and potential. His research has graced the cover of Harvard Business Review, and his TED Talk is one of the most popular of all time, with more than 15 million views. Shawn spent twelve years at Harvard before bringing this research to nearly half the Fortune 100, as well as places like the Pentagon, impoverished schools in Africa, and the White House. His research has also been published in top psychology journals and featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Fortune. His interview with Oprah Winfrey and his PBS program have been seen by millions. He now serves on the World Happiness Council and continues his research.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Power of Hidden Connections
The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Miracle of the Mangroves
When dusk slowly crept upon a mangrove forest lining a river deep in a jungle in Southeast Asia, a biologist far from his home in Washington State looked out over the lush, alien landscape lining the snake-infested waters. While drifting slowly in his boat, Professor Hugh Smith surely heard the calls of the nocturnal creatures uncoiling from their dens or taking flight from their nests and beginning their nightly hunts. I can envision how the water must have shimmered under the light from the stars, unspoiled by the light pollution that existed in the remote cities. What happened next on that humid day in 1935 is part of recorded academic history. Smith looked up at one of the mangrove trees, and suddenly the entire canopy glowed as if a lightning bolt had shot out from the tree instead of striking it. Then all went dark, leaving a burned image on his vision.
Then lightning, as it sometimes does, struck twice.
The entire tree glowed again, then went entirely dark again twice in three seconds.1 Then, in a reality-bending moment, all of the trees along the riverbank suddenly glowed in unison. Every tree on one side of the river for a thousand feet was flashing and going dark at exactly the same time.
Something deep inside me warms at the thought that such a patient, careful, and scientific observer, whose curiosity about the world led him so far away from his normal life in the Pacific Northwest, could be rewarded that night by such a magical moment of nature.
Once his capacity for mental reasoning returned, he realized that the trees were not, in fact, glowing; rather, they were covered with a critical number of bioluminescent lightning bugs, all illuminating at the exact same time. Upon returning home, Dr. Smith wrote up a journal article on his discovery of the synchronous lightning bugs. It seemed too good to be true, like something out of a storybook. I’m sadly unsurprised by the next part of the story. He was not believed. Biologists ridiculed his account, even calling it fabricated. Why would male fireflies glow in unison, which would only decrease their chances of distinguishing themselves to potential mates? Mathematicians were equally skeptical. How could order come from chaos in nature without a leader to direct it? And entomologists asked how millions of fireflies could see enough other fireflies to create the exact same pattern, given the limited visibility in the mangrove forest. It seemed physically, mathematically, and biologically impossible.
Yet, it wasn’t. And now, thanks to modern science, we know how and why. Turns out that this puzzling behavior actually serves an evolutionary purpose for the fireflies. As published in the prestigious journal Science, researchers Moiseff and Copeland found that when lightning bugs light up at random times, the likelihood of a female responding to a male in the deep, dark recesses of a mangrove forest is 3 percent. But when the lightning bugs light up together, the likelihood of females responding is 82 percent.2 That’s not a typo. The success rate increased by 79 percentage points when flashing as an interconnected community rather than as individuals.
Society teaches that it’s better to be the only bright light than be in a forest of bright lights. After all, isn’t that the way we think about success in our schools and companies? We want to graduate at the top of our class, get the job at the best company, and be chosen to work on the most coveted project. We want our child to be the smartest kid at school, the most popular kid on the block, the fastest kid on the team. When any resource—be it acceptance to the most prestigious university, an interview with a top-ranking company, or a spot on the best athletic team—is limited, we are taught that we have to compete in order to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the pack.
And yet, my research shows that this isn’t actually the case. The lightning bug researchers discovered that when the fireflies were able to time their pulses with one another with astonishing accuracy (to the millisecond!), it allowed them to space themselves apart perfectly, thus eliminating the need to compete. In the same way, when we help others become better, we can actually increase the available opportunities, instead of vying for them. Like the lightning bugs, once we learn to coordinate and collaborate with those around us, we all begin to shine brighter, both individually and as an ecosystem.
But pause to think for a moment. How did lightning bugs even do it? How did they all coordinate their flashing lights so perfectly, especially given their limited visibility and vision? Researchers Mirollo and Strogatz from Boston College and MIT found in the Journal of Applied Mathematics that, amazingly, the fireflies do not have to see everybody to create coordinated action; so long as no group of fireflies is completely out of sight of any other group, they can sync up with one another’s rhythms.3 In other words, it only takes a few nodes to transform the entire system.4
Our new understanding of “positive systems” teaches us that the same is true for humans. As you will discover in this book, by becoming a “positive node” in your workplace, company, or community, and helping those around you improve their creativity, their productivity, their abilities, their performance, and more, you are not only helping the group become better; you are exponentially increasing your own potential for success.
There is one final important detail to this intriguing story. Biologists who have explored these jungles now know that the glow emanating from those mangroves can be seen for miles. This means it is even easier for other fireflies to find their way to the light. So the brighter it shines, the more newcomers join and add their light. This is true just as much for humans as it is for fireflies: The more you help people find their light, the brighter you both will shine.
The Power of Others
When George Lucas originally wrote the script to the billion-dollar Star Wars franchise, the most iconic line in movie history—“May the Force be with you”—was not in it. Instead, the earliest versions read, “May the Force of Others be with you.” Why start a book on the science of potential with an arcane piece of movie history? Because as the children’s book author Roald Dahl wrote: “The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.” And because I believe that hidden in this tiny line lies both the problem undergirding our broken pursuit of potential as a society and the secret to exponentially increasing our success, well-being, and happiness.
Our society has become overly focused on the “power of one alone” versus “the power of one made stronger by others.” Of course, Hollywood glorifies individual superstars; where else are the streets literally paved with their names? But when we adopt this script in our companies and schools, focusing only on individual achievement and eliminating “others” from the equation, our true power remains hidden. But what is hidden can be revealed.
Three years ago, as I was researching the hidden connections that underlie success and human potential, I had a breakthrough. I became a father.
When my son, Leo, came into the world, he was quite literally helpless. He couldn’t even roll over by himself. But, as he got older, he became more capable. And with each new skill he picked up, like any good positive psychology researcher would, I found myself praising him, saying, “Leo, you did that all by yourself! I’m proud of you.” And after a while, Leo began parroting it back to me in a soft but proud voice: “All by myself.”
That’s when I realized: First as children, then as adults in the workplace, we are conditioned to disproportionately value things we accomplish on our own. As a father, if I stopped my praise and guidance there, my son might come to view independent achievement as the ultimate test of our mettle. But in reality it is not. There is a whole other level.
The cycle begins at a young age. At school, our kids are trained to study diligently and individually so they can best others on exams. If they seek help on projects from other students, they are chastised for cheating. They are given multiple hours of homework a night, forcing them to trade time with others for more time working in isolation. Over and over they are reminded that their future success in the workplace hinges on individual metrics, including their grades and standardized test scores. Statistically it doesn’t, but this approach to learning does do one thing: It dramatically raises their stress levels while robbing them of social connection, sleep, attention, happiness, and health. Yet, instead of questioning the system, we judge those who can’t keep up with this feeding frenzy for individual achievement. By the time students finish school they are frazzled, fragile, and lonely, only to find that the success and happiness they had been promised did not lie at the end of that rainbow.
Suddenly, those same people who tested so well individually struggle when they need to work with others to bring a product to market or get their team to hit a target. Meanwhile, the people who rise to the top are not those who try to do everything all by themselves, but, rather, those who can ask others for help and rally others to grow. Parents who support a balanced, connected approach to pursuing success for their children are rewarded for their persistence, while parents who urge individual achievement at the cost of connection find themselves unprepared for their child’s burnout or loneliness.
We spend the first twenty-two years of our life being judged and praised for our individual attributes and what we can achieve alone, when, for the rest of our life, our success is almost entirely interconnected with that of others.
Over the past decade I have worked with nearly half of the Fortune 100 companies and traveled to more than fifty countries to learn how people everywhere approach the concepts of success, happiness, and human potential. One thing I’ve found to be true almost everywhere is that the vast majority of companies, schools, and organizations measure and reward “high performance” in terms of individual metrics such as sales numbers, résumé accolades, and test scores. The problem with this approach is that it is predicated on a belief we thought science had fully confirmed: that we live in a world of “survival of the fittest.” It teaches us that success is a zero-sum game; that those with the best grades, or the most impressive résumé, or the highest point score, will be the ONLY ones to prosper. The formula is simple: Be better and smarter and more creative than everyone else, and you will be successful.
But this formula is inaccurate.
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From the time we take our first steps, through all our schooling and most of our work, we are shown that our individual skills, attributes and knowledge are at the center of our success. The story we tell is that the more we are seen to stand out and excel on our own, the more successful and productive we will be. But the research tells a very different story. It turns out success is not just about how creative, smart or driven we are but much more about how well we are able to connect, contribute to -- and benefit from -- the ecosystem of the people around us. Shawn shows that almost every attribute of our potential - from intelligence to creativity to leadership to engagement is interconnected with other people. "We need to stop trying to be faster alone and start working to be stronger together."
I've spent the last decade coaching individuals and organizations on how to apply positive psychology research into actionable steps. Here are the two most powerful and actionable concepts (in my opinion) from Big Potential.
1) Change the way we praise.
o Be generous and consistent with praise. It is a renewable and self-expanding resource. Use it constantly and consistently. Authentic praise, even about the smallest, most rudimentary strengths and actions helps everyone find more things that are going right and creates a virtuous cycle of positive emotions, motivation and engagement.
o Stop comparison praise: for example, forced ranking or telling people they are doing a better job than their coworker, colleague or team member. Comparison saps motivation and sets up artificial expectations of perfection. Use praise and recognition to raise all boats rather than push one down to bring another up. Convert comparison praise into direct positive reinforcement of actions and/or noting progress.
o Pursue the collective win. Praise the whole team, not just the superstar. No one shines alone. For every top performer there are less visible people who provided the resources, knowledge, skills and energy to make that success happen. Acknowledge, celebrate and reward all the people who contributed. And anytime you receive praise, ask yourself who helped you get to that place and pass some of that recognition along to them.
2) Surround yourself with a diverse set of positive influencers. "The conclusion of a decade of my work is clear. You can be a superstar; you just can't be one alone. What you need is a star system: a constellation of positive, authentic influencers who support each other, reinforce each other and make each other better."
o The people around us matter - a lot. And while we don't get to pick our family or all the people we work with, we CAN strategically choose who we spend a lot of our time with. Make sure you bring into your circle 1) Pillars - those who have your back no matter what 2) Bridges - those people who have connections outside your world and provide new perspectives and 3) Extenders - those people who push you out of your comfort zone, make you take risks and try new experiences.
o Give to get. It's tempting to only reach out to people in our networks when we need something. But to get the most out of our relationships we should make a habit of reaching out to offer something to them. The more reciprocal a relationship the more impact it has on our happiness, engagement and creativity.
o Give in all directions yet selectively. Takers at work typically only give to more senior people who will provide obvious benefit towards raises or promotions. This is a path to small potential. The most successful people are those who give up and down the line, who not only look to get mentored but also provide mentoring and support. "The more you help others find their light, the more you both will shine." However trying to be all things for all people is a surefire path to burnout. So be somewhat selective - give to your circle of Pillars, Bridges and Extenders and to those people who make you a better person, those that make you feel good, strengthen you and leave you hoping for more. Find these people in your life and go all in.
Of course, a 5-paragraph review is not enough to convey the depth of the research and the arguments that are so beautifully crafted in Big Potential. Go get a copy of the book, read it and start putting some of the practices into your work and into your life.
The Happiness Coach