Editor’s note: This post was written by Zen Habits contributor Jonathan Mead.
Most of us have heard something like this before: “You have a lot of potential,” or in school, “You have so much potential, work hard and you might realize it.”
The only problem is no one seems to tell us where to start or how to achieve our fullest potential. After all, potential is such an ominous term. You can’t measure it. You can’t quantify it. You can’t define potential.
Even though we may not ever be able to measure our potential, we can develop habits to help us grow. Here are 7 essentials I’ve found to ensure that you are the best possible version of yourself:
1. Have an open mind. Everyone talks about how important having an open mind is. But what they don’t say is how much having an open mind can affect your potential. A lot of opportunities pass us by because we’re stuck in a limited pattern of thinking, or we’re afraid to take a risk. If there’s no actual real (or perceived) danger, take the risk. The worse that can happen is you’ll look silly. Having an open mind is the first step to reaching your potential, because it gives you the willingness to take risks. We’ll never be the best we can be by playing it safe. As the saying goes: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always be where you’ve always been.”
As a musician, when I make a mistake, I’ll cringe and think I sounded terrible. After I’m done playing and ask someone if they heard my mistake they usually say “What mistake?” There’s a good chance you see yourself more critically than other people do.
2. Seek out new perspectives and contexts. The more perspectives you seek out, the more you push the boundaries of your mind. If you only focus on one thing, you’ll likely become an expert before long. But if you stay inside your box, you’ll be like a stiff bridge, waiting to collapse when the first hurricane comes through. A well built bridge has give; it has a certain amount of flexibility to it.
Try to push the borders of your thinking. Here are some suggestions:
Get inside someone else’s mind. Pick their brain and try to see things from their point of view.
Listen to music that you never would have dreamed choosing. Give it a chance. If you don’t like it, you can always turn it off. I know there are some types of music I can’t stand, no matter how much I try to give it a chance.
Change your routine. If you buy the same jelly donut, the same coffee, and drive the same way to work everyday, try something different. Be adventurous. Try the bear claw. Drink blueberry tea instead. Take the scenic route home.
Learn a new language. Learning a different language forces you to think in that language. It pushes your mind to make new connections between ideas, phrases, and thought patterns that never would have been pushed.
Travel. What better way to stretch your mind than by completely immersing yourself in another culture?
3. Ask for what you want. Everyone’s heard the saying “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” It never surprises me how many people fail to get what they want because they’re too afraid to ask for it. Their fear of rejection and embarrassment holds them back from asking for help. In order to get what you want, you have to have the courage to ask others for assistance. That doesn’t mean you mooch off of other people. It means you have the wisdom that by working together, you can accomplish far more than you could alone. Which brings me to number 4…
4. Help other people succeed. The best way to reach your fullest potential is to help other people as much as possible. When it’s your time to ask for help, other people will be more inclined to help you in return.
If you find yourself falling short of your best, it’s likely because you’re not giving enough of yourself. The more you give of yourself to others, the more value you create. The more value you create, the more other people will want to give value back to you.
By helping others as much as possible, you create a wide network of support. Most great people you’ll meet will tell you they didn’t achieve greatness alone. They had many mentors, and they stood on the shoulders of giants.
5. Think different. You won’t be surprised to find that those who have reached their greatest potential have often been the most prolific. They aren’t afraid to step outside of the norm. In fact, most of these people would consider the norm as something to vehemently avoid. Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Ralph Waldo Emerson (to name a few) were considered radical thinkers. Now they’re just considered geniuses.
Thinking different doesn’t just mean intentionally going against the grain, though. It doesn’t mean swimming upstream blindly, just because you want to revolt against authority. What it does mean is having the courage to express your individuality. It’s in developing and unabashedly accepting your unique strengths and talents that you’ll reach your highest potential.
6. Work smart, not hard. By working smart you can save a ridiculous amount of time you would have otherwise been spinning your wheels. Working smart is about paying attention and taking the time to do your research. It isn’t, however, obsessing over getting every little detail figured out. That’s obsession.
Working smart means modeling other experienced people and doing your homework. It’s the difference between first watching an experienced mechanic, and then haphazardly trying to wing rebuilding an engine. Working hard at that point becomes irrelevant when you don’t have a clue to what you’re doing.
7. Change your auto-response. When you want to do something, don’t think about it, just do it. Many of our opportunities in life pass us by simply because we can’t make a decision. We’re wrapped up in an effort to figure out all the facts and gain enough experience before we take the plunge.
The truth is, most experience comes from making things up as you go along. You’ll inevitably make mistakes and achieve less than perfect results. If you can develop a keen ability to ignore fear of the unknown, you can take years off your learning curve.
Instead of thinking “I don’t know,” think “I’ll figure it out.”
It will help you overcome you fear, and can be very liberating.
Jonathan is the author of Illuminated Mind – The less boring side of personal development. His articles include Living Freestyle: Life Without a Template and Liberate Your Life: Put Yourself on Auto-Response. You can subscribe to his blog here.
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