Discover more from Range Widely
Unlocking "Hidden Potential," with Adam Grant
Q&A with psychologist and author Adam Grant on his new book
I’ve linked to work by organizational psychologist Adam Grant in several recent posts, like this one about director Christopher Nolan’s reading habits, or this one about why it matters what we post on social media after atrocities.
I link to Adam’s work regularly because he is the rare combination of very prolific and very interesting. Plus, we have some significant areas of overlapping interest. For instance: how to get better at stuff; how to enjoy stuff; and how to enjoy getting better at stuff.
Rather than more links, today I’ve got Adam himself, on the occasion of the publication of his new book, Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things. Our conversation starts below the hot-off-the-presses book cover 👇.
David Epstein: I want to start with my favorite story in the book: Evelyn Glennie, the Scottish percussionist who was deemed not pro-musician material by the Royal Academy of Music, which rejected her, less than a decade before she became, as you write, “the world’s first full-time percussion soloist,” and then a three-time Grammy winner. Also, she’s “profoundly deaf”! The story itself is just great, but it’s also emblematic of several lines of research in the book.
For example: early on, you note research that has found that (in a wide range of domains) most prodigies don’t become elite performers, and most elite performers weren’t prodigies. (Since I know my audience, I’ll note here that the studies finding this pattern in sports just keep piling up.) In some areas, like sculpting, “not even one [high achiever] was identified as having special abilities by elementary school art teachers.”
And yet, we’re obsessed with precocity. And I get it; who doesn’t like a head start, or to see a young person do something amazing? But perhaps that obsession gets in the way of better developmental thinking for more people. Based on your research for this book, can you tell us how we should think about precocity in the larger scheme of developing potential?
Adam Grant: Many people believe that if you’re not precocious, it’s a sign that you lack potential. But potential is not about where you start — it’s a matter of how far you’ll travel. And the latest science reveals that we shouldn’t mistake speed for aptitude. Our rate of learning is driven by motivation and opportunity, not just ability. Think of all the late bloomers who weren’t lucky enough to stumble on a passion, or to have a parent, teacher, or coach early on who recognized and developed their hidden potential.
This doesn’t mean we should ignore “gifted” students. We need to think differently about how we nurture their potential too. Empirically, the rate of child prodigies becoming adult geniuses is surprisingly low. I suspect one of the reasons is that they learn to excel at other people’s crafts but not to develop their own. Mastering Mozart’s melodies doesn’t prepare you to write your own original symphonies. Memorizing thousands of digits of pi does little to train your mind to come up with your own Pythagorean theorem. And the easier a new skill comes to you, the less experience you have with facing failure. This is a lesson that chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley drove home for me: the people who struggle early often build the character skills to excel later. We need to start investing in character skills sooner.
DE: One more question from the Evelyn Glennie section. Because Glennie is deaf, she had to find nontraditional ways to learn, like using different parts of her body to feel vibrations that correspond to different pitches. She and her teacher were constantly trying different ways to do that, and different ways to do everything, really. As you write: “Continually varying the task and raising the bar made learning a joy.”
I’ve long been fascinated by this issue of variable practice. Mixing things up constantly might seem counterintuitive, but it turns out to be better for learning. But I had never heard the term “boreout” that you use, which is apparently an actual term in psychology. You note that “burnout” is the emotional exhaustion from being overloaded, whereas boreout is the “emotional deadening you feel when you’re understimulated.”
When Glennie is getting bored, she’ll start bouncing between instruments. “There is absolutely no routine,” she told you. Do you think, even for people who might be spending most of the day in front of a computer, that there are ways to incorporate some of the benefits of variable practice?
AG: As someone who spends most of the day in front of a computer, I hope so! Time management fads haven’t seemed to do much good, but I think we can all improve at timing management. You can try varying the order of your tasks.
If you have a task that’s boring but important, you don’t want to do it right after your favorite project. In our research, Jihae Shin and I found that this sequence can hurt your performance in the dull task. It creates a contrast effect: when it follows a fascinating task, the dreaded task becomes even more excruciating. Goodbye flow, hello boreout. You’re better off scheduling the dull task after a moderately interesting one, which can give a little energy boost.
DE: Ok, I can’t get away from the Evelyn Glennie chapter. I’m looking at that section right this second — while thinking about blazing a trail of development that avoids both burnout and boreout — and the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother just sprang to mind.
You note that concert pianists who reach international acclaim by age 40 typically were not obsessed early on, and that they usually had a slow but steady increase in their commitment to music. It just made me think of the first page of Battle Hymn — in which the author promises the secrets to raising stereotypically successful children, and recounts assigning her daughter violin and soon she’s supervising five hours of deliberate practice a day. That part was excerpted in the Wall St. Journal, and it was the Journal’s most commented upon article ever! It really seeped into the public consciousness, I think. What didn’t make as much of an impression was the part later in the book where the author (to her credit) recounts her daughter turning to her and saying: “You picked it, not me,” and more or less quits.
That part didn’t seep into the public consciousness, but it seems quite well aligned with how you write about the distinction between very focused, often monotonous deliberate practice — which can lead to burnout or boreout — and “deliberate play.” Deliberate play is still focused on improving skills, but, you write, “it often involves introducing novelty and variety into practice.”
Can you share an example of deliberate play in so-called knowledge work that might give readers inspiration for embarking on some of their own deliberate play?
AG: Deliberate play is about injecting fun into skill-building, so the daily grind becomes a source of daily joy. Let me start with a personal example: my communication style tends to be abstract and cognitive. Over the past decade one of my goals has been to make my sentences more concrete and my paragraphs more emotionally evocative. (If I’d mastered that skill, I would’ve said: I’ve been striving to make my writing less nerdy and less heartless.)
Deliberate practice would’ve involved taking a paragraph and revising it over and over. Add more imagery. Practice varying sentence structure to create a melody. Meh. Deliberate play has meant rewriting paragraphs in the voices of different authors I admire. Try developing a character the way John Green might. Take a crack at unfolding the narrative like Margaret Atwood would. Choose the kinds of words that Maya Angelou or Maggie Smith might use. And thanks to generative AI, I can now prompt Claude or GPT4 to rewrite my paragraph in their styles and compare my results to what came back.
This isn’t unique to writing. Whatever kind of knowledge work you’re doing, it can be a delightful experiment to try emulating your role models. If you’re a programmer, practice coding like Linus Torvalds. If you’re an architect, try sketching the Zaha Hadid or Tadao Ando version of your building. The benefit of this kind of deliberate play is that it’s both motivating and developmental at the same time.
DE: And now I’ll use Glennie for a segue! She obviously had some unique learning styles because of her hearing impairment. But it was cool to see early in the book (in a chapter delightfully subtitled with a Milan Kundera allusion: “Embracing the Unbearable Awkwardness of Learning”) where you took head on the issue of “learning styles.” This is the very popular idea that some people learn best by listening, others by reading, others by looking, etc. Maybe someone prefers podcasts to books because they style themself an “auditory learner.” Trouble is, a mountain of research has failed to back this idea up.
People may indeed have a style of learning that feels most comfortable, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually learning more that way. In fact, to use a line from Range, in many cases, difficulty is not a sign that you aren’t learning, but ease is. As you write: “Sometimes you even learn better in the mode that makes you the most uncomfortable, because you have to work harder at it.”
I was just reading a study (“Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning”) which showed that Harvard physics students preferred lectures from highly-rated instructors to active learning exercises. But they learned more from the latter. The main difference in the active group was that students had to try to solve problems in groups before they really knew what they were doing, and so they would discuss, generate questions, and hit dead-ends, all before seeing correct solutions. We know that forcing learners to try to generate solutions before seeing them enhances learning (the so-called “generation effect”), but it doesn’t feel great, so we may avoid it.
You specifically call out writing as a great way for people to basically prototype their thoughts, and find holes, and yet many of us avoid it because it feels hard. (Says this guy with two thumbs right here who should’ve started writing his third book a month ago…) What can we do to avoid getting fooled by our own comfort when it comes to learning?
AG:I’m a little disappointed that you’re procrastinating on #3. Your readers are counting on you, David. Don’t leave us hanging!
DE: Ha, well, whether I’m ahead or behind, I assure you it’s getting turned in within ten minutes of the end of the workday on the deadline specified in the contract…
AG: Your observation about difficulty versus ease was one of my favorite points in Range. What I learned while writing this book is that learning doesn’t just come from stretching beyond our strengths — we can accelerate learning by actively seeking and deliberately amplifying discomfort.
One approach is to start using a skill before you’ve mastered it. My favorite example from the book is a man who struggled to learn a single foreign language in school but can now converse in ten different languages. When he shows up in a foreign country to start studying a new language, he doesn’t worry about building his vocabulary or honing his grammar. He memorizes a few sentences in the new tongue and starts striking up conversations. He calls it “social skydiving.”
Another option is to coach others on how to overcome the very challenge you’re facing. Psychologists find that giving guidance is more motivating than receiving it. So David, what guidance would you give to a writer who’s avoiding the discomfort of taking on a daunting new book project?
The advice you give to others is probably the advice you need to take yourself.
DE: Obviously I would tell them to get out while they still can. …Kidding! Sort of… Alright, last question. In the “Transforming the Daily Grind” chapter, you note that we often work until we’re exhausted, and then, once the gas tank is empty, take a break. But really we should be taking a break to recharge before we hit empty. The idea is captured in this great illustration by Marissa Shandell, who made some of the art in Hidden Potential (although this specific illustration is not from the book).
I definitely used to do the former thing, like: “I SHALL NOW WORK 12 STRAIGHT HOURS WITHOUT BLINKING!” And it doesn’t work. Or, maybe a few days a year I can pull it off, but for the most part it doesn’t work. Now I tend consciously to work in intervals, and I really try to learn my own rhythms of attention rather than acting like I can just focus endlessly. I really like it, even though it can feel less diligent at times. Is this the right way to go about work, and why or why not? I’m also curious what your personal approach is, if you care to share.
AG: I doubt that there’s a right way, but forcing yourself to concentrate for 12 straight hours definitely sounds like the wrong way. We all need attentional resets. The extensive evidence on microbreaks suggests that even just 5-10 minutes is enough to replenish energy and improve performance.
Here's what that often looks like for me, combining breaks and task sequencing. After our kids leave for school, I spend 8-10:30am drafting an article or chapter on a topic I love. Then I take a break and do a four-mile run. Afterward I’ll read a (fairly interesting) manuscript I’m due to review. From there, I turn to editing (ugh… but less ugh in this order) and aim to take a 5-minute break every 30-45 minutes.
DE: I lied, one bonus question: In the “Getting Unstuck” chapter, you tell the incredible story of pitcher RA Dickey, who was bouncing between Minor and Major League Baseball for years until he had a breakthrough at 35, an age at which most players are long retired. At 37, he’s the best pitcher in Major League Baseball. The key was switching to become a knuckleball pitcher. It was a disaster at first, but he stuck with it and it became a revelation. The same thing happened to pitcher Tim Wakefield, who passed away earlier this month. He basically wasn’t making it as a position player, so he switched and became a knuckleball pitcher and had a fantastic career. I’m pretty surprised that more players don’t try this. What do you think it teaches us more generally about how people do and should respond to hitting performance plateaus? I can see just trying to push through plateaus as an admirable approach, but perhaps it’s not the most useful one.
AG: Back in December, you helped me get in touch with RA Dickey, and he was every bit as stellar of an interview as you promised. His story helps to illuminate why so many people fail to try new methods when we get stuck. It’s not so much that we’re stubborn or resistant to change. We hate the thought of giving up the gains we’ve already made. We forget that sometimes, the best way to move forward is to go back to the drawing board. If your fastball is slowing down and your career is stalling, you have nothing to lose by tinkering with the knuckleball. We shouldn’t be so afraid of failing that we fail to try.
Thanks to Adam for answering six questions when I explicitly told him that this post was going to be titled “Five Questions About ‘Hidden Potential’”! Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things is out today.
And thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this post, please share it.
If a friend sent this to you, you can subscribe below. If an enemy sent this to you, you can subscribe below.
Until next time…