I spoke to Shawn Achor, author of Big Potential: How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-Being, about why he wrote the book, the connection between his last book and this one, how our potential is influenced by who we surround ourselves with, how to unlock your true potential, how different countries view potential and his best career advice.
Shawn 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 over 15 million views. Shawn spent 12 years at Harvard before bringing this research out to nearly half the Fortune 100, including places like the Pentagon, impoverished schools in Africa, and the White House. 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.
Dan Schawbel: After writing The Happiness Advantage, why did you decide to pursue this new book on human potential? What’s the connection between the subjects and what was the inspiration behind Big Potential?
Shawn Achor: I have now spent nearly a decade sharing positive psychology research showing that creating and sustaining individual habit changes can significantly increase our levels of optimism and happiness. During this time, the CDC has found that depression rates have doubled and suicide rates for every age group—including 8 year olds—have doubled as well. When I read that study, my heart broke. We are going the wrong direction. I believe some of that change is due to hypercomparison on social media and hypercompetition for zero sum success in our schools and work. During this time, I became a father, which changed the focus of my happiness from me to another. And I became fascinated with Big Data and how it reveals that nearly every dimension of potential is interconnected. The conclusion I came to was this: while I believe happiness can be a choice, it is not an individual choice—it is an interconnected choice. When we choose to be grateful or optimistic even when life is hard, we give others the license to be grateful and we make it easier for them to be positive around us. This creates a virtuous cycle where it is easier to choose happiness. Happiness is a team sport. But, it wasn’t just happiness, if we stop trying to pursue success individually, we can lift the burden of feeling like we are alone. The pursuit of happiness and success must not be a lonely road if we are going to see our full potential. And thus Big Potential was born.
Schawbel: Why and how is our potential influenced by those we surround ourselves with at home and at the office?
Achor: If you stop smoking, your health improves, but if everyone around you is still smoking, you will never see your full health. Similarly, initial research coming out of the famous Framingham heart study revealed that not only was happiness “contagious” so was obesity, heart disease, divorce, smoking habits, and depression. Thus, our happiness, health and success are interconnected with others. Moreover, think about it, you are more creative around certain friends. You are funnier or more extraverted around certain people. Yet, when science has measures you, we make you take creativity and personality tests alone and in isolation. We have been measuring potential incorrectly. Now with Big Data we can see that even moral choices spread. If you donate a dollar with a group of strangers, those strangers give a quarter more in their next group, and that group then splinters out into third tier groups that give a nickel more. You may never meet those people two degrees separate from you, but you have influenced them, and they you. We also know that productivity, energy, sales are all interconnected traits. And from the Happiness Advantage we know that the greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged brain. Now that’s contagious too.
Schawbel: What are a few of your strategies for unlocking our potential, while not giving up our happiness? What’s the trade off between potential and happiness?
Achor: First, surround yourself with people who bring out the best in you not the stress in you. In other words, look at the eight people you spend the most time with and see if they deplete or supply energy to you. Then spend more time with–or recruit more people into—the part of your social support network that supports your success. The goal is to not separate ourselves from others. Stars in isolation collapse in on themselves. You can see this in sports. You can see this with kids who ace exams at Harvard in isolation then can’t manage a team or bring a product to market because it requires others. Second, if your “ecosystem of potential” predicts your success, you need to activate them. When we do this we usually praise, but in my work, I’m finding that we don’t praise, we compare—you were the best sales person, you worked harder than anyone else, you’re the smartest kid. Bringing only the top performers up on stage diminishes the 95% who are not on stage. The worst kind compliment I get is “you were the best speaker today.” Sometimes I’m standing next to other speaker friends who were just diminished, and often I won’t be the best speaker, so now I’m unbalanced in the future. It is better to praise qualities (like comedic timing) rather than engage in comparison praise. And we need to refract the light; if you receive praise, accept it but also shine it on someone who got you there. You like my book? My wife Michelle Gielan is an amazing editor. Your daughter scored a goal…thanks to mom getting us out on a rainy day and her brother cheering her on. We need prism praise not comparison praise. Finally, all the happiness habits from my TED talk can be done WITH others instead of alone. Share your gratitudes at the dinner table. Exercise with someone instead of alone. Meditate with a group, etc. This magnifies the benefits.
Schawbel: After studying 50 countries, what have you learned about the differences and/or similarities by how different cultures measure their own potential?
Achor: I’m only starting to understand this, but with my limited knowledge now, I’d say that some Western cultures often judge potential by how much better you are than everyone in a group. Whereas I believe a better approach is to not just see who the fastest on the team is, but who makes everyone around them play better. At BYU researchers found that shooting percentage did not predict wins nearly as well as the ratio of assists to turnovers. The better you are at assists, the stronger the team. I don’t just want my son to be creative, I want him to make others around him creative too.
Schawbel: What are your top three pieces of career advice?
- Don’t try to pursue happiness and success alone. Happiness is a team sport, and the majority of our potential can only be unlocked with others.
- If you want to do something, tell everyone. I learned this from my mentor Tal Ben-Shahar. I have found this really opens doors.
- Happiness is not pleasure, it is the joy we feel pursuing our potential. If you know this, you’ll be okay feeling discomfort and having to push hard because we can find joy and growth even when life isn’t fun.