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The History (and Future) of Human Potential in 1000 Words

Are you setting your own limits?

Now I’ve really gone around the bend. After a year and a half of blogging I am going to explain where we have been and where we are going—and what it means to you—in the space of one article.

Human potential has a three part history. Most of human history took place in phase 1, where your potential was fixed at birth and nothing you could do would change that. For the last five hundred years or so, we have been in phase 2, which has been an ongoing struggle for the liberation of human potential. We are now poised on the verge of Phase 3, where personal potential is potentially unlimited.

Phase 1: In which everyone knew their place

In the beginning and long after, the world “potential” would have been meaningless because people knew their place in the world. They all lived in a Great Chain of Being, with God at the top, down through the angels to kings to nobles, to commoners, to peasants, and down to slaves. You looked up to others or down on others according to your natural place in the world, and the circumstances of your birth determined the arc of your life. It was not an easy or comfortable world to live in by any means, but at least you had the comfort of knowing you were part of a plan and didn’t have much choice in the matter.

Phase 2:  The great struggle

In the second phase, beginning about 500 years ago, the Great Chain of Being began to unravel. We figured out that the universe does not revolve around the earth, books became more widely available, religious dissension opened the door to questioning sacred beliefs, and a few smart people began using scientific methods of thinking to form their own opinions and explanations. But despite astounding leaps in human knowledge the standard of living remained stagnant, and Malthus proved mathematically that things would never get better, because as even as output grew, population would always expand faster than production.

And yet, the seeds were planted for the idea that maybe there was a way out. 1776 was a miraculous year, as Jefferson told us all men are created equal, Adam Smith explained how free markets create abundance, and James Watt finally got his improved steam engine working in commercial enterprises.  Freed from dependence on animal power, the standard of living began to take off.  Not everyone was better off, because people had to leave the glorious countryside to work in dark satanic mills, and slaves had to grow and pick the cotton that fed those mills. Yet, people began to eat better and live better, got better educated, and realized that their own efforts and abilities could take them to heights their ancestors could not even dream about. This second phase seemed to promise that no one had to accept any limits placed on them by the circumstances of their birth.

Unfortunately, science can be used to shackle as well as to liberate. No sooner did Darwin publish his theories than his cousin Francis Galton used science (or at least something resembling it) to claim that intelligence is hereditary and to propose social engineering based on eugenics to improve its well-being. Intelligence tests were introduced in the early 20th century and some leading early proponents advocated using them to allocate peoples’ places in society. Eminent scientists such as Charles Spearman told us we could no more improve our given intelligence than we could train to be taller. A version of the GCB still existed, this time with a scientific veneer.

But not all scientists believed this. Alfred Binet, who invented IQ testing, said, “A few modern philosophers…assert that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased. We must protest against this brutal pessimism.”

Many unscientific voices also chimed in. The proponents of a positive mental attitude told us there are no limits on what we can achieve. They infused a can-do attitude and inspired millions to great efforts and unexpected accomplishments. Simple belief can work wonders:  Carol Dweck, among others, showed that just believing that you can accomplish far more than you are currently able to accomplish, as long as you work hard, keep learning, and persist in the face of failure, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s called a growth mindset.

The only problem is that not everyone has that belief; according to Dweck, approximately half of us still have a fixed mindset—we believe fundamental abilities like intelligence are inherited and unchangeable. We limit ourselves and others.

Phase 3: From belief to certainty

We are now entering the third phase of our history where we don’t have to take it on faith anymore. A tremendous amount of scientific evidence has been gathered to show that many of the qualities we consider to be innate and genetically determined are substantially within our control. Studies of identical twins raised apart show that environment can cause a swing in IQ between 12 to 18 points, which could be the difference between a career as a professional or a more modest position. MRIs have demonstrated that acquiring large amounts of knowledge and skill can physically affect the size of various structures in our brains. Anders Ericsson has showed us how “natural genius” can be produced with lots and lots of deliberate practice. (I could go on and on, but I would exceed my limit.)

Speaking of limits, the evidence shows that most are self-inflicted. There is no need to accept natural limits, and certainly no excuse at all for anyone in a position to influence impressionable young minds, to allow this pernicious belief to take root in their minds.

If we can give everyone a growth mindset, we will liberate and energize the energies of half of mankind, and imagine what that will mean to our future. Imagine what it could mean to your future.

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  • […] surprising that our self-control can be affected by our mindset. Dweck has already shown us that our beliefs about whether intelligence is fixed or malleable can have a significant impact on what we attempt and achieve, and in effect can become […]

  • […] Newport offers the craftsman mindset in place of the passion mindset. The passion mindset asks what the world can offer you in terms of fulfillment and fun; the craftsman mindset forces you to look inside and ask what you can offer the world. You have to create value to get value, and that takes time and deliberate practice. It’s the only way to get so good that they can’t ignore you. The nice benefit is that rather than being good at something because you love it, you love doing something because you’ve gotten good at it. (Note the similarity to Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.) […]

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