Many of us were living in fear, even before the current pandemic hit. But it’s interesting to me that, even in times of great fear, we have a hunger for hope. That’s been brought home to me by the number of people I’ve encountered (virtually) over the past several months who have observed that this crisis is prompting them to reflect on what really matters to them. And. most interestingly, they are actively seeking to accomplish more of what really matters to them, not just hold on to what they have today.
Let’s explore where this drive to achieve more of our potential might lead us.
As humans, we all have infinite potential – we can cultivate a vast array of potential talents and accomplish amazing things. But, as motivated and talented as we might be, we’ll never be able to cultivate all those talents. We have to focus. Which of the infinite dimensions of potential will we choose to cultivate?
Passion can help us to focus. I’ve written extensively about passion, including here and here. To be clear, I’m focused on a very specific form of passion, something that I call the “passion of the explorer.” I encountered this form of passion in my research into arenas where there is sustained extreme performance improvement – I found that participants in these arenas had this specific form of passion.
People with this form of passion have three attributes: a long-term commitment to making an increasing impact in a chosen domain, a questing disposition and a connecting disposition. People with this form of passion have chosen a domain that deeply excites them – it could be anything from manufacturing or healthcare to knitting or big wave surfing.
This commitment to a domain, and to making an increasing impact in that domain, focuses us on the potential talents and abilities that we must develop in order to make an increasing impact in that domain. In my view, it is the most powerful motivation to learn and achieve more of our potential. If we find and cultivate this passion of the explorer, we will be driven to achieve the potential required to make a continually increasing impact in the domain. We will never let up – people who have this passion often talk about being in a marathon rather than a sprint because they recognize this is a long-term effort.
It’s the subject of another post, but I believe we all have this passion within us, waiting to be discovered. Some of us see it at a very early age but, for many, we still have not found it. In part, that’s because many of us have been told to forget about passion and simply acquire the skills necessary to earn a good living. In part, it’s because most of the institutions we work for are deeply suspicious of passion – people with this form of passion are not good at following orders and they are prone to take big risks in pursuit of the impact that matters to them. We’ve simply given up looking for the passion because our institutions and society discourage it.
That’s a tragedy, because that passion is there, waiting to be discovered and unleashed. And finding that passion will help us to achieve far more of our potential than any extrinsic motivations or simply grit or determination could make possible. By finding and focusing on our passion, we’ll achieve far more of our potential than randomly trying to cultivate as many of our talents as possible.
Achieving potential through impact on others
One interesting thing about passion is that it focuses us on increasing impact. That takes most of us outside of ourselves, because the impact is in the world around us, not inside us. That’s important because, many people, when they talk about achieving more of their potential, seem to be talking about going inward and just focusing on themselves as individuals. I’ve come to believe that the best way to achieve more of our potential as individuals is to connect more effectively with others in the world around us. And passion helps us to do this.
This happens in at least two ways. First, the way we measure increasing impact in a domain usually focuses on impact on others. Let’s say we’re passionate about designing tools and equipment that can help construction workers build better buildings. That requires a deep understanding of the context confronted by construction workers and the challenges they face as they go about their work. To develop that understanding, we would need to connect deeply with a broad range of construction workers. And, it would not be a one-time connection – we would need to stay connected so that we could explore how to have increasing impact on their work over time.
This doesn’t just apply to passion about designing products or interacting directly with customers in a marketing or sales context. Think about those who are passionate about fulfillment center operations (yes, there are those who are deeply passionate about this). Those people are driven to connect with both suppliers and logistics operators to understand how they can make more of a difference in their operations.
Now, I can hear the skeptics come up with examples of passion that are very much solo activities that don’t seem to involve impact on others. Think about people who are passionate about gardening – and it’s about cultivating their own garden, not the gardens of others. Or people who are passionate about woodworking and who don’t sell or share their extraordinary wood art with others.
There are certainly some extreme examples of people who are totally inwardly focused, but I would be cautious about whether those people are really passionate or driven by an obsession. There is a difference, something that I have explored here. One key difference is that passion helps build relationships and obsession inhibits them.
In this context, passionate people who are pursuing solo activities are still seeking to make an increasing impact, but the impact they are seeking is to inspire others and enrich the lives of others. Truly passionate gardeners show their gardens to others, not because they are showing off, but because they are driven to see what really has impact on others and to learn more about how to have even greater impact over time.
So, one way that the passion of the explorer helps to connect us with others is by inspiring us to achieve increasing impact on others. This passion motivates us to connect with others to understand the impact we are having and the potential for even more impact by addressing unmet needs or aspirations.
Achieving potential through collaborating with others
But the passion of the explorer motivates us to connect on another dimension as well. As I mentioned earlier, one of the attributes of the passion of the explorer is a connecting disposition. When confronted with new challenges and opportunities, people with this passion are driven to connect with others who might be able to help them come up with even better approaches to addressing those challenges and opportunities. They realize that, no matter how smart and talented they are, they will learn a lot faster and achieve more impact if they connect with others who share their passion or simply have expertise and insight that might help them come up with new ideas. People with the passion of the explorer are connected into much broader and more diverse networks than people who have not yet found their passion of the explorer.
So, passion motivates us to achieve more of our potential and drives us to connect with others on two levels. Rather than narrowing our horizons and isolating us, the drive to achieve more of our potential provides a powerful fuel to broaden and deepen our connection with others.
The power of diverse networks
That fuel becomes even more powerful when we begin to realize the network effects that it can unleash. As we’ve all come to realize, the value of participating in networks increases exponentially as the number of participants grows. In this context, we’ll begin to see that we can accelerate our ability to achieve more of our potential as we connect with more people, especially if they are motivated by a similar passion to achieve increasing impact in a given domain.
We can achieve even more of our potential if these expanding networks have greater diversity in terms of the backgrounds, skills and perspectives of the participants. If we’re just connecting with people who are similar to us, we’ll never learn as fast as when we connect with a more diverse set of people.
Of course, diversity can lead to fragmentation and loss of focus, but what makes this diversity so powerful is when everyone shares a commitment to achieving increasing impact in a specific domain and agrees on ways to measure that impact. Then we unleash the productive friction that can be a powerful driver of learning.
The need for institutional change
As we begin to realize the power of connection in helping us to achieve far more of our potential, we’ll begin to see how our institutional environment today limits our ability to connect, rather than expanding our ability to connect. As I’ve written about in the Big Shift perspective, our institutions today are driven by scalable efficiency models that focus on protecting existing stocks of knowledge, rather than helping us to participate in a broader range of flows of knowledge.
That’s why people with the passion of the explorer are often deeply frustrated within our existing institutions. They are often pounding the table, upset about the barriers that are preventing them from connecting in ways that will help them to increase their impact. That’s also why people with the passion of the explorer are often deeply suspect within our existing institutions – they’re the discontents and the troublemakers.
The growing realization that achieving more of our potential requires broader and richer ways of connecting with others will lead those with passion to see that our existing institutions are limiting our ability to achieve more of that potential. We need to shift from institutions that are driven by scalable efficiency models to institutions that are driven by scalable learning models, as I’ve written about here. This is a key reason why those who have been drawn into the human potential movement will eventually join forces with those who are drawn into social change movements. While largely separate today, these movements will need to come together to achieve their full potential, as I’ve written about here.
Achieving more of our potential is not an inward looking and isolating aspiration. If we truly understand that our potential is to make more of a meaningful difference in the domains that matter to us, we will begin to see that achieving more of our potential will require us to connect much more deeply and broadly with others. If we get this right, we will unleash powerful network effects that will enable us to learn at a much faster rate than we would have ever imagined possible and that will finally enable us to achieve exponential potential.