Hidden Potential, by Adam Grant Summary: Implications for L&D

There’s no doubt about it, Adam Grant is more than just a non-fiction author. He’s a true storyteller.

His book, “Hidden Potential,” takes apart the myths and concepts surrounding success. And as I was reading it, I found plenty of learnings for us, as L&D professionals.

The book focuses on three concepts: grit, flow, and building a growth network.

And while these themes aren’t exactly straight-off-the-press ideas, his approach is exciting. Grant takes complex psychological concepts and spins them into short stories that get under your skin.

And that, my friends, is what great learning experience design does too.

In fact, I felt so inspired that I created a whole post summarizing how the contents of this book can impact the way we approach learning and development. Here are my thoughts.

10 takeaways for you as a learner from Hidden Potential

Listen up, lifelong learners! Grant’s book has some pearls of wisdom to help you become a more efficient and engaged learner. Here are my personal favorites.

1. Create an advisory board for your projects

Most of us work on projects at some stage of our careers. And most of us struggle with things like scope creep, gathering feedback, and perfectionism.

One of my favorite nuggets of wisdom was Grant’s suggestion to gather a group of trusted people to evaluate your projects.

He suggests having them score the project on a scale of 0 to 8, collecting their insights into how you can get your work closer to that perfect ten. I also like the idea of setting two target scores: 8 is fine, and 9 is excellent. Sometimes 8 is enough (more on perfectionism later).

The beauty of this hack is that it opens the doors for more targeted feedback from a diverse range of reviewers. 

2. Cultivate multiple mentorship relationships

Why have just one mentor when you can have multiple? That’s what Grant says in the book, and I tend to agree.

According to Grant, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to just one mentor. Instead, we should try to connect with different ones to gain access to more diverse perspectives, wisdom, and experiences.

This gives you access to a diverse network of skilled coaches from different backgrounds. And while you might identify with one mentor in one aspect of your development, you may resonate more with another in another scenario.

The result is enhanced learning and growth potential.

3. Ask mentors to share their journeys

Sometimes when we ask our mentors for direct advice, we sell ourselves short. Instead, Grant suggests encouraging our mentors to tell us about their own experiences and career journeys. 

Here’s what he had to say, “Instead of seeking feedback, you’re better off asking for advice. Feedback tends to focus on how well you did last time. Advice shifts attention to how you can do better next time.” 💡

When we do this, we get a better picture of the choices they made, the ones they said “no” to, and their struggles.

As a result, we learn valuable lessons about decision-making and the struggles of navigating success. This struck a a chord with me, sometimes, the answers are in the stories.

4. Teach to learn

The best way to learn something is to teach it to someone else. This is a tried-and-tested idea. 

In “Hidden Potential,” Grant encourages us to embrace these teaching opportunities. When we do this, not only do we root out our own knowledge gaps, but we also get the benefits of the “coaching effect.”

This is a phenomenon where we boost our own confidence, motivation, and skills by helping someone else tackle a challenge. As we coach them through their problem, we get better insight into the process and feel more secure about our ability to handle similar challenges. 

I’m definitely going to take this on board for my own personal development.

5. Take breaks

In the words of Adam Grant himself, “The strongest known force in daily motivation is a sense of progress. You can’t always find motivation by staring harder at the thing that isn’t working, sometimes you can build momentum by taking a detour to a new destination."

I couldn’t put it any better myself. 

A few strategically placed breaks and pivots can give you the momentum you need to keep going when you’re running out of steam. 

6. Rethink how you like to learn

I know how I like to learn. I need to write things down, I need repetition, and I need context. But what if the way I like to learn isn’t necessarily the best way for me to achieve my goals?

That’s what Grant gets at in this book.

He encourages us to throw our learning technique out the window and embrace discomfort. Apparently, that discomfort zone is where the growth happens.

Here’s what he has to say about it:

“Comfort in learning is a paradox. You can’t become truly comfortable with a skill until you’ve practiced it enough to master it. But practicing it before you master it is uncomfortable, so you often avoid it.”

And in order to speed up our learning, we then need to be brave enough to use our new knowledge as we acquire it. In other words, before we’re comfortable we really know it.

7. Let go of imposter syndrome

The idea of imposter syndrome is not a new one. It’s something I regularly consider in my work and how it impacts our colleagues in their career development.

But this book made me view it in a new light.

According to Grant, imposter syndrome is a paradox. Other people believe in us, but we don’t believe in ourselves. So why, then, do we believe ourselves instead of them?

This kind of thinking can help us break out of that mindset and trust others’ high opinions of us over our own doubts. When it comes to personal development, this empowers us to put ourselves forward for opportunities even if that voice in our heads is telling us we’re not experienced enough.

And the more often we put ourselves in new and challenging situations, the more we learn.

8. Create a mistake budget

Following on from this idea of reframing imposter syndrome, I find Grant’s views on developing a growth attitude interesting from a learner’s perspective.

In the book, he says “Create a ‘mistake budget’: Set goals on how many times you should FAIL.”

The idea is to develop grit in the face of setbacks and to learn to leverage discomfort as a springboard for deeper knowledge.

Not exactly a novel idea, but the mistake budget is something I’ll be keeping in my back pocket. As learners, we can get bogged down in our mistakes. So, setting ourselves “failure goals” can help us see past this and focus on the big picture.

9. Leave perfectionism at the door

I have a confession. I am a perfectionist. And until recently, I secretly thought it was a good thing (you know, the “positive” character flaw you mention in a job interview).

I have since come to realize just how much perfectionism can hold you back as a learner and professional.

According to Hidden Potentials, perfections often get three things wrong:

  • They obsess about details that don’t matter and miss the big picture. Sometimes they’re so fixated on solving tiny problems that they lack the discipline to identify the right problems to solve.
  • Their fear of failure makes them avoid unfamiliar or difficult situations. This can hold them back from expanding their skill set and experience, leaving them in the dust.
  • They’re too hard on themselves when they make mistakes, making it harder for them to learn from them. Too much focus on what they did wrong distracts them from educating their future selves

As a recovering perfectionist, I have to agree with Grant. When it comes to learning efficiency, how we approach our past mistakes can make or break us.

10. You’re responsible for finding your flow

We’ve all heard about the amazing benefits of getting in a state of flow. You’re completely absorbed in what you’re doing, captivated, and unaware of time or other distractions.

As a learner, that’s where the magic happens.

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I liked Grant’s techniques for finding your own path to flow. In particular, the importance of surveying yourself to determine:

  • Your interests
  • Your strengths
  • Goals and objectives
  • What engages you 

When you understand this, you take more accountability for your learning. And when you do this, you become active in your learning journey rather than a passive spectator.

As Grant says, “The best moments in our lives aren’t the passive, receptive states. The best moments are usually the moments when you’re fully engaged in what you’re doing, your body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort, and you know you’re not going to fail.”

10 Takeaways for L&D Professionals from Hidden Potential

Here’s where I put my L&D hat on and get stuck into the golden nuggets that can make us better learning designers. These are my top ten takeaways.

1. Balance deliberate practice with deliberate play

Deliberate play is when we do activities that we enjoy, even if there’s no set goal. They are an essential part of growth.

Grant defines it as “the combination of practice and play, where you take the skill you’re trying to build, break it down into core elements, and make those elements fun.” 

Importantly, it’s not the same as gamification. While gamification is all about adding elements to make learning tasks more engaging, deliberate play “often involves introducing novelty and variety into practice.”

He uses the example of pro basketball player Steph Curry who plays a game he made up called “21” to practice his footwork. Curry has to score 21 points in under a minute.

It’s a great reminder to incorporate deliberate play into your training courses to give learners opportunities to create, explore, and focus.

2. Foster advisory boards for career development

When reading the section about advisory boards, I got to thinking about how well they fit with career development. When we, as L&D professionals, offer employees the opportunity to create advisory boards for their career paths, we empower them.

These boards give staff a support network they can lean on for constructive feedback from diverse perspectives. There’s also a greater sense of accountability for their own personal and professional growth. All we have to do is provide the framework.

Here’s a quote from the book that really resonated with me:

“Your social network is like the soil in which your potential grows. The quality of your relationships directly influences your chances of success.”

3. Encourage knowledge sharing

Knowledge sharing is certainly not a new idea for most of us, especially those in the L&D field. Facilitating the effective sharing of knowledge in your company can do wonders for your learners, reinforcing their skills and confidence.

It also ensures that key knowledge is spread across your organization and doesn’t walk out the door with experienced colleagues.

Again, none of this is groundbreaking stuff. But it’s certainly a welcome reminder to prioritize implementing an effective knowledge-sharing strategy and platform. 

4. Mindful mentor matching

84% of Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programs. That’s quite a substantial number.

In this book, Grant reminded me of how important it is to pair the right mentor with the right mentee.

It can be easy to assume that any pair will work, provided one has the experience, and the other wants to learn it.

But the truth is, there’s an art and a science to mentor matching. For instance, if they are too far apart in their career stages, they may struggle to connect. Grant says that mentors who are closer in experience to their mentees may be able to relate to their challenges and goals better. 

As a result, the mentor can offer more effective guidance and support. On the flip side, a mentee will be better able to see themselves in a mentor that’s closer to their experience level.

5. Be aware of the Golem Effect

The Golem effect is a psychological term that describes where low expectations result in poorer performance.

For instance, if your teacher or boss doesn’t think you’ll amount to much, the chances are you won’t. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you’re familiar with the Pygmalion effect, this is the exact opposite.

Here’s how I plan to combat the Golem effect from seeping into my own L&D processes:

  • Prioritize personalized learning experiences to empower but not overwhelm learners
  • Set high expectations for learning outcomes and provide the necessary support to help colleagues reach them
  • Examine my own assumptions about employees’ performance or abilities
  • Carefully consider how my learners’ limiting self-beliefs could be holding their learning back and look for ways to address this
  • Make sure all learning initiatives are embedded with specific and actionable feedback that focuses on progress, not perfection

6. Provide a clear path

I’m going to start by sharing a quote from “Hidden Potential” with you: “It’s often said that where there’s a will, there’s a way. What we overlook is that when people can’t see a path, they stop dreaming of the destination.”

I’m a big advocate for transparent career development plans. I think they’re one of the most influential tools in our L&D arsenal to motivate and empower employees. 

So, Grant’s words align pretty well with what I already know to be true. That is, when we provide our colleagues with a clear path to success, they’re more likely to achieve their goals. 

In practice, I’m taking this as a reminder to work together more with learners to remove any barriers standing in the way of their goals. This partnership should support them as they carve out a visible learning path and set actionable goals to help them get there.

It also made me think about how I set learning goals. Can I do more to break skills down into achievable steps? Are there ways to offer learners different paths to mastery based on their needs and preferences? How can I identify learners’ roadblocks and support them?

These are questions I’ll be meditating on for the foreseeable future.

7. Don’t confuse ability with motivation

It can be really easy to conflate a person’s natural ability with their level of motivation (and the opportunities they’re given).

Sometimes as L&D specialists, we see employees who are killing it. They’re racing through learning programs and steaming ahead of their peers. That leads us to believe they’re just naturally more talented or capable. In turn, we give them more learning opportunities.

In the book, Grant raises an interesting question: Is it really a case of ability, or is motivation the real driver? This is an important question for two reasons. 

Firstly, it suggests that if we tap into what motivates other employees, we can bring out their true abilities and help them gain more opportunities.

Secondly, it makes us question how we hand out these learning opportunities in an organization. Is it time to rethink our selection processes for leadership training and internal promotions? 

Whatever the answer, it definitely opens up an interesting dialogue for L&D teams.

8. Reframe failure and the language we use around it

Grant talks about how progress isn’t always a straight line. Sometimes we bounce backward, and other times, we propel forward. It’s both the peaks and the valleys that reflect progress.

Again, we all know the theory. But what are the implications for L&D professionals?

My take is that we can play a huge role in reframing failure for our learners, helping them build resilience (a form of growth).

One way I’ll be applying this is by focusing on process over results. It might be time to analyze our programs to see where we’re too focused on the final outcome and not the learning process itself. This might mean removing any mention of “pass” or “fail” in assessments and offering multiple attempts and feedback loops to help learners get there on their own.

Simulations will be top of my list for encouraging learners to fail in a controlled environment, building resilience in the process. 

Finally, I’ll be publically celebrating learners who show perseverance during their learning programs (rather than just for perfect scores).

9. The loudest voice isn’t usually the most competent 

The more a person talks in a meeting, the more likely they are to be selected as the team leader. This is known as the Babble effect.

We tend to reward the loudest voices in the room, even though they may not be the best leaders or the most competent.

According to Grant, “We mistake confidence for competence, certainty for credibility, and quantity for quality. We get stuck following people who dominate the discussion instead of those who elevate it.”

I’ll definitely be bearing this in mind when organizing future leadership training programs. Could we be overlooking great potential leaders because they don’t dominate in meetings? 

You can hear more about this concept in this short video.

10. Boreout

Have you ever heard of “boreout”? It’s a psychological term used to describe when employees feel chronically understimulated and unchallenged in the workplace. 

It’s burnout’s ugly twin.

Grant speaks at length about this phenomenon. He cites research that shows how work-obsessed people often fail to perform better than their peers, despite long hours and extra effort. In fact, the monotonous deliberate practice makes them more susceptible to both burnout and boreout.

The big lesson here is that while practice makes perfect, overdoing it can suck all the joy out of an activity and make you hate it. 

Here’s how I’ll be applying that to learning design:

  • Adding more pre-assessments to tailor learning experiences better (reducing the risk of under- or overwhelm)
  • Keeping a closer eye on learner metrics to spot early signs of low engagement and boredom
  • Exploring my current gamification strategies to measure how impactful they are and where I can level up
  • Analyzing the cadence of learning materials to ensure lessons are varied in both length and the type of activities (simulations, collaborative projects, practice tasks, etc)
  • Giving learners “test out” options if they feel they’re ready to move on or starting to get bored

5 other books you should read

If you enjoyed Hidden Potential and are looking for similar titles, here are five more books to add to your reading list.

1. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

This is a must-read if you’re interested in the science of memory of learning. It’s aimed at educators and learners, presenting a compelling case for why we’re drawn to the wrong learning strategies.

For learning designers, there’s gold in here. Understanding how the human brain works allows us to design learning experiences that promote active learning through approaches like spaced repetition and retrieval practice.

I honestly think every educator, L&D specialist, and learning designer should give this a read.

2. The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance

If you subscribe to the “do less and accomplish more” school of thought, you’ll want to grab a copy of this book.

Waitzkin shares his own story of personal achievement, illustrating how the principles of learning and performance have shot him to success (twice).

From winning his first National Chess Championship at the age of nine to becoming World Champion of the martial arts Tai Chi Chuan, Waitzkin knows what he’s talking about.

And the secret to his success? 

He admits he’s not the best at chess or Tai Chi, “What I am best at is the art of learning.”

3. How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens

Get ready to debunk everything you know about the science of learning and how our brains assimilate information.

Backed by years of research, the author roadtests theories like studying in a quiet room is best, or that distraction is bad. He also argues that we overlook naturally enjoyable learning tools like daydreaming, sleeping, and forgetting. 

It’s a great read if you’re ready to have your brain bent and your ideas about learning well and truly put under the microscope.

4. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know

If you enjoyed “Hidden Potential,” you’ll love this other book by Adam Grant. In this entertaining read, Grant dives into the idea of a growth mindset and intellectual humility.

He encourages us to question our assumptions and to actively search for information that challenges what we know and believe. At its core, it's all about staying curious about the world so we can continue to grow and maybe even change it. That means following his approach of arguing like he’s right but listening like he’s wrong.

Grant suggests that if intelligence is the ability to think and learn, a new set of cognitive skills may be even more important. That is, the ability to rethink and unlearn.

5. How People Learn: Designing Education and Training that Works to Improve Performance 

This book is an exciting read that examines the common root of marketing and learning.

It demonstrates how L&D, like marketing, is heavily informed by psychology and contemporary neuroscience. Then, it shows us how to use these principles to create better learning experience designs and avoid common learning pitfalls.

There’s so much gold in here, on everything from push and pull techniques to storytelling to observation.

Final Thoughts

Grant’s “Hidden Potential” is a treasure trove of new and battle-tested approaches to success. And woven throughout these stories are some gems that can make you a better learner or L&D professional.

From emotion-driven storytelling to deliberate play to reframing failure, I hope these takeaways inspire you to apply some of Grant’s ideas to your current learning experience design practices.

And if you’re all about the tl;dr, you can get the highlights in this video.

Nicki Wylie has been working in and writing about L&D for 7+ years. As an experienced instructional designer, she makes it her mission to stay up-to-date on the latest trends and technologies. She loves learner-centric experiences and hates "one-size-fits-all" training courses.

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