The Power of Others

Ants working together carrying a piece of watermelon

Illustration by Michael Korfhage

What is big potential? Author and happiness expert Shawn Achor explains in this excerpt from his latest book.

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 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 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 22 years of our lives being judged and praised for our individual attributes and what we can achieve alone, when, for the rest of our lives, 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 50 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.

Thanks to groundbreaking new research you will read about in this book, we now know that achieving our highest potential is not about survival of the fittest; it is survival of the best fit. In other words, success is not just about how creative or smart or driven you are, but how well you are able to connect with, contribute to, and benefit from the ecosystem of people around you. It isn’t just how highly rated your college or workplace is, but how well you fit in there. It isn’t just how many points you score, but how well you complement the skills of the team.

We often think if we can just work harder, faster, and smarter, then we’ll achieve our highest potential. But scientifically in the modern world, the biggest impediment to our success and realizing our potential is not lack of productivity, hard work, or intelligence; it is the way in which we pursue it. The pursuit of potential must not be a lonely road. The conclusion of a decade of research is clear: It’s not faster alone; it’s better together. …

By creating hypercompetitive environments in which only individual achievements are celebrated, companies and schools are leaving enormous amounts of talent, productivity, and creativity on the table. Overemphasizing the individual and removing others from the equation places a “soft cap” on our potential, an artificial limit on what we can achieve. But the good news is that I call this a soft cap for a reason: Because it can be lifted. Because when we work to help others achieve success, we not only raise the performance of the group, we exponentially increase our own potential. This is what I describe later in this book as a Virtuous Cycle—a positive feedback loop whereby making others better leads to more resources, energy, and experiences that make you better, fueling the cycle again. Thus, making others better takes your success to the next level.

SMALL POTENTIAL is the limited success you can achieve alone. 

BIG POTENTIAL is the success you can achieve only in a Virtuous Cycle with others. 

… We can no longer be content competing for the scraps of Small Potential; we must seek new frontiers of human potential and invite others to follow. A challenging world demands that we put “the force of others” back into our formula.

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Adapted from Big Potential. Copyright ©2018 by Shawn Achor. Published by Currency, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.

 

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