Letters To A Much Younger Me: On Realizing Potential


Dear 13-year-old self:

Over the years, I’ve learned so much about what it takes to maximize potential.  At your age, it won’t be completely obvious.  At 13, you’ll assume that it’s the rock-star jock, the A-student, or the beautiful cheerleader who seem to have mastered their potential.  At my age, however, you realize that there isn’t as much of a correlation between those things and ultimate success in life as you might think.

As I’ve considered the *controllable* factors that, in my experience, do predict success, I can think of five.  Please take note of my use of the word “controllable;” you don’t control a lot of things so it does me no good to tell you that being a certain race, height, or gender helps you in life.  Below is a list of the five factors that conveniently create the acronym, ‘CHAMP’.

1. Confidence

It’ll take you a long time to appreciate just how important self-confidence is to realizing your potential.  As you progress through life, you’ll encounter many people who will have achieved substantially beyond what their natural talent would otherwise imply.  They will do this simply because they have a high dosage of confidence.  It’s true: there is such a thing as over-confidence but, admittedly, you’ll get much further being over-confident than under-confident.  You should be just a bit more confident than your are competent; that extra confidence will drive increased competence over time.

2. Hard Work

I’m afraid the age-old guidance of hard work being a significant contributor to achieving potential is absolutely true: those who practice improve; those who work hard achieve progress.  Enough said.

3. Ambition

Ambition’s major contribution to this equation is to guide the hard work.  Yes, you should practice and work, but you should do so guided by initiative and ambition to ensure that your hard work is being effectively leveraged.  One of my favorite pithy quotes on this topic is credited to Peter Drucker: “there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”  Don’t just work hard; make sure your hard work is toward the right things.  Being ambitious and constantly evaluating alternative options and paths will ensure your hard work pays off.

4. Multi-Dimensionality

While it’s certainly useful to become the world’s leading expert on a very specific discipline, it’s my contention that it’s even more useful to be multi-dimensional and capable at many things.  I’ve come to really appreciate my father’s advice: “know one thing about everything, and know everything about one thing.”  Play a variety of sports. Learn to play an instrument or two. Read both fiction and non-fiction. Explore the social sciences and not just the physical ones.  Consider soft skills.  Appreciate art and architecture.  Be open to new things.  Multi-dimensionality is critical to your achieving your potential because it allows you to both maximize the chances of discovering the discipline in which you excel, while also providing you a great deal of context within which to practice that discipline.  You’ll start out loving computer science and mathematics, but you’ll quickly learn that your passion for the science of business has a broader appeal.  And, by the time you reach my age, you’ll surprise yourself by realizing you’ve become a social scientist who is interested understanding the social ecosystem humans have created.

5. Polish

You didn’t pick your face, your skin, your hair, or any other physical feature.  You inherited those.  You can, however, polish yourself: you can control what you wear, how you speak, how you eat, and how you carry yourself.  Social polish goes a long way toward allowing you to maximize your potential.  This world is exceedingly socially-aware: appearances mean a lot.  Make sure to maximize your polish from the onset even as objectively unreasonable as that may seem.


Your 42-year-old self

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