For decades now, we’ve seen two types of movements unfolding around the world. They’re having impact, but they’re limited by their separation. Scalable and sustainable impact will hinge on finding ways to more effectively connect these parallel efforts.
The human potential movement is one of these movements. In its current incarnation, it began to take shape in the 1960’s and 1970’s and has been steadily evolving since then. While many view this as a movement, the truth is that it’s actually a collection of strands that are addressing different dimensions of human potential – everything from stress reduction and bad habit elimination to spiritual growth and enhancing physical wellness.
What connects all these strands is a focus on the opportunity to help each of us achieve more of our potential as human beings. Participants in this movement are driven by the view that we as human beings have only tapped into a small portion of the potential that is available to all of us. There’s so much more potential to be accessed and drawn out.
But there’s another set of movements that have been unfolding in parallel. These movements are focused on driving broader change in our economy and society. Once again there are many strands in this set of movements. Many of them are focused on addressing “wicked problems” like climate change, discrimination, disease, and unemployment. Others are focused on driving institutional change – think of movements to drive change in our schools or to cultivate more social responsibility in our commercial institutions. And many have broader social or political agendas, like challenging autocratic regimes or reducing barriers to movement across national boundaries.
Regardless of their specific focus, these movements are driven by the belief that we need to evolve beyond the institutions, economies and societies that today are often viewed as barriers to human development.
Barriers to impact
These two sets of movements have been moving in parallel over decades. But, here’s the thing. There’s very little interaction across these two sets of movements. One set of movements appears to believe that it’s all about us as individuals (or small self-help groups) and that it’s completely up to us to achieve more of our potential. The other set of movements seems to believe that it’s all about the institutions, economy and society that surround us and, if only we could change those, we would eliminate the forces that are creating massive problems for humanity.
I have a very different perspective. I believe that, until we find a way to more effectively connect these two sets of movements, we will only achieve a small fragment of the unlimited potential that is truly available to us.
Let’s dive into this. Look at the human potential movement. It’s absolutely the case that we need to recognize that we have far more potential than we have so far achieved, and it is up to us to take action to improve ourselves. But we can only do so much. If we’re surrounded by institutions, economies and societies that are seeking to limit our potential, we’ll soon run into roadblocks and obstacles that, at best, will limit our ability to advance and, at worst, will undermine our efforts and eventually lead us to give up in frustration.
On the other side, let’s look at the broader change movements. If we seek to transform our institutions, economy and society to remove obstacles to human development, we’ll see limited impact from these efforts unless all of us as individuals are motivated to achieve more of our potential. If we as individuals fail to see the potential that is ours to achieve, we’ll continue to live our lives as before and fail to enjoy the potential benefits of our new surroundings. Even worse, we may join calls to return to our earlier institutions, economy and society because we find this new environment so alien and uncomfortable.
Connecting human potential and change movements
Now, imagine what we could accomplish if we connected these movements. On the one side, we would be cultivating a hunger within individuals to achieve more of their potential and launching them on a quest to grow and develop so that they can have much more of an impact that matters to them. On the other side, we would be transforming our institutions, economy and society with the specific intent to create environments that will encourage the efforts of everyone to achieve more of their potential and, most importantly, provide them with opportunities to accelerate their growth and amplify their potential.
We would be launching a virtuous cycle. The more people see obstacles and roadblocks to their development being removed, the more motivated they will be to raise their aspirations and pursue their quest with even more energy. And the more we see how our institutions, economy and society are drawing out more of the potential that resides within all of us, the more motivated we will be to continue on the transformation journey and evolve our environments in ways that draw out even more of that potential. Rather than limiting our impact and undermining our ability to sustain it, we would be creating the conditions to unleash exponential potential, forever.
Focusing on the opportunity that can bring us together
But there’s more. One of the challenges facing the broader change movements is they have tended to adopt an approach that plays to fear and anger. The reason we need to change is because, if we don’t, we’re all going to die or, worse, fall into some dystopia that will never end.
As I’ve written before, I’ve been studying (and participating in) movements for most of my life and the most successful movements throughout history have been driven by something I call opportunity-based narratives. As many of you know, I make a key distinction between stories and narratives, even though most of us view these two words as meaning the same thing.
For me, the distinction (briefly) is that stories are self-contained – they have a beginning, a middle and an end – and they’re not about the audience, they’re about other people. In contrast, narratives for me are open-ended. There is no end, yet. There’s a major threat or opportunity out in the future and it’s not yet clear how this will be resolved. The resolution of the narrative hinges on you – it is a call to action to the audience, telling them that their choices and actions are going to play a key role in resolving the narrative. (For those who want to read more about this, check out here and here.)
Narratives differ in terms of whether they focus on a threat or opportunity out in the future. I believe the most successful movements have relied on opportunity-based narratives because opportunities can inspire and motivate people to come together, overcome their fear, take risks and make bold moves. If we focus on threats, this tends to intensify fear, erode trust, polarize, and increase risk-aversion.
The broader change movements will have much more impact if they shift from threat-based narratives to opportunity-based narratives. By focusing on opportunities, these movements can help to overcome the polarization that increasingly challenges our societies and motivate people to come together in a quest to achieve an inspiring opportunity. They will help to connect us in ways that scale rapidly and harness the network effects that are required to drive fundamental change.
Framing broader opportunities
But there’s even more. As I mentioned before, both the human potential movements and the social change movements are not single movements, but instead a diverse set of movements that are at risk of becoming siloed. Take the example of the human potential movements. While they broadly fit under the umbrella of “human potential”, their focus tends to be on more narrowly defined opportunities like physical wellness or cultivating creativity.
While it’s certainly OK to target these specific opportunities, the ability to connect and scale more broadly hinges on framing an inspiring opportunity that embraces all these more specific opportunities. It would show how our efforts are part of something much bigger and that we are ultimately all in a quest for the same thing.
The umbrella name “human potential” needs more attention and effort to frame the broader opportunity to help all of us achieve more of our potential. We need to understand that human potential is a many-faceted opportunity and that we will be limiting our potential by focusing only on one dimension of our potential. It would also help to underscore that human potential is ultimately unlimited, especially if we take a more holistic view of that potential and come together to help each other achieve that potential.
Social change movements tend to be even more siloed, driven by their focus on very specific threats like pollution, poverty and sickness. There’s an opportunity here as well to expand our horizons as we shift from threat-based narratives to opportunity-based narratives. Once again, it’s fine to frame a specific opportunity like finding ways to more effectively integrate marginalized portions of our population into our economy and society. But how does this specific opportunity connect with a range of other opportunities driving the need for social change?
We need to invest more time and effort in framing an over-arching opportunity that can show how a growing range of social change movements are in fact connected and that they are all ultimately driven by a quest for a much broader opportunity. What if the bigger opportunity is to evolve a society, economy and institutions that helps all of us to come together in ways that will achieve more of our potential?
The biggest opportunity of all
And the biggest opportunity of all is one that can help to foster greater connection across personal growth movements and social change movements. What if the bigger opportunity that inspires all of us is to foster the motivation and conditions that will help all of us come together to achieve more and more of our infinitely expanding potential? In part, this is driven by a recognition that our potential as individuals will be dramatically expanded when we find ways to connect and collaborate in our quest to achieve greater impact. And, in part, this is driven by a recognition that achieving more and more of our potential hinges on both intrinsic motivation and environments that provide us with the support we need to have even greater impact.
The good news is that we have growing movement to unleash more of the potential that resides within us. We need to find ways to connect all this activity so that it can achieve even more impact. That begins by framing a broader, inspiring opportunity that shows how many of the initiatives already under way are in fact helping us to address a much bigger opportunity. By focusing on that broader and inspiring opportunity, we also will be able to attract a growing number of participants who see that they too can make a difference on something that matters to all of us.