Join me as I delve into some interesting corners of the theory that underpins commonly understood notions of human potential. I'll consider the conditions needed to make it possible for people like Elon Musk, and perhaps even myself, to reach our full potential.
We’ve all met people in our lives who, as children, seemed to have the odds in their favour for a future of success, yet failed to live up to our expectations of them. And then there’s the stereotypical “wild child” who ended up kicking drugs only to seemingly fall into a phenomenally successful career of some sort.
We can’t help but be mortally disappointed in those individuals who seem to have squandered their natural gifts, and we equally can’t shake our feelings of shock when the underdog rises up and claims success. Our instincts in these scenarios could reveal new ways of thinking about human potential in ourselves and those around us.
These are the things that us learning and development professionals obsess over.
What determines the limits of our potential? What is the special sauce that determines whether someone can develop from point A to point B?
The commonly accepted beliefs around human potential have morphed over the years. In 1924, Terman created the Stanford-Binet intelligence test to identify children on the high end of the IQ spectrum. At the same time, Goddard identified those deemed “feeble-minded”. These views of human potential were very limiting – as though your potential to learn and grow could suddenly max out once you reach your “capacity”.
However, in 1992, Snow redefined the idea of “aptitude” as something situational. He considered the opportunities and challenges faced by individuals and the extent to which an individual could benefit from them.
This contextual understanding of human potential has continued with Ziegler’s 2005 Actiotope Model of Giftedness, which stresses the importance of human action in developing one’s own potential while still acknowledging that these actions are taking place within (and in turn impacting) a network of contextual conditions.
Associate Professor of Educational Psychology and Methodology Dr David Yun Dai offers a more current perspective. According to Dai, there are two main contributing factors that determine our potential. These are facilitating conditions which make the demonstration of our latent potential possible, and the enabling conditions that make capacity-building possible. Let’s unpack these a bit further.
So, we can see an example of facilitating conditions in action in the child who could play a good tune on a piano at their first lesson, or the junior colleague who can pitch a presentation for the first time with no preparation, and blow everyone’s socks off. These individuals likely grew up in healthy, encouraging environments where they have stable access to nutrition, safety, and opportunities.
As a result, the individual can achieve great things without any formal instruction – their natural ability is flourishing under supportive conditions. These facilitating conditions cultivate a range of cognitive, affective, and motivational attributes, such as our level of interest in a topic, or how much we persevere with whatever we’re working on.
Then there are the enabling conditions that make capacity-building possible.
These conditions are influenced by sociocultural forces (such as our parents, teachers, or managers) and are typically created through training and formal education.
Researchers have argued that enabling conditions can be augmented by dedicated practice to surpass our natural abilities limitations. So, even if you didn’t show up to your first piano practice with the innate ability to play Rachmaninov, you might get there eventually if you keep attending your lessons every week and giving it your best effort.
You could simplify this further by considering facilitating conditions as “being” in the right environment, and enabling conditions as “doing” the right things to further your goals. Of course, you could go even further with adequate access to both.
While creating facilitating and enabling conditions is clearly a positive thing, it must be done with care to avoid accidentally introducing additional limitations. If you’re anything like me, you might feel a little jaded looking back on how your childhood shaped your career trajectory. Perhaps you were a musical prodigy that was forced into business by your parents? Or, like me, you showed an interest in art as a child and were forever labelled the “arty” one, which has followed me my whole life.
This label, while endearing at times, felt constricting and limiting at other times.
If I was ever upset about something it was because I was “creative” or “temperamental”. If I was given the choice between soccer lessons or art classes, I would feel pressured to choose the latter because that was “my thing”.
The truth is, I never got the opportunity to explore the other parts of myself because I was already cast in the role of “misunderstood artist” from the age of eight. I may have had a natural latent talent for art, but there are many ways that my potential could have grown if it were not cultivated like a bonsai tree. Did you know that any tree can be a bonsai if you keep it in a small pot and trim its roots regularly?
Bonsai aside, there’s nothing wrong with natural ability, but perhaps the real human potential is a combination of the two forces of “being” and “doing”. A natural inclination towards creativity could grow into a business leader, or an Elon Musk, if only its roots weren’t tampered with. I guess we’ll never know…or will we?
Because, another important thing about human potential has more to do with being human: humans are able to adapt, and have the ability to be intentional.
This is great news to me! Even though I’m not currently an Elon Musk, I have the ability to set any number of goals that I can work towards within a context that facilitates growth and enables me to learn.
For us in the business of developing human potential, it’s always useful to spot the areas in which employees are naturally talented. But that which we consider to be someone’s natural talent is not the only indicator of their human potential.
We need to consider employees holistically, and with empathy.
Our natural talents are one aspect of who we are, but we have hopes and dreams – ambitions – and it would be dangerous to forget that we have the ability to rise above our current situations and adapt to new possibilities.
We need to think about how we can create both the facilitating and enabling conditions that empower our employees to believe that their potential is not what they were born with. Rather, it is something outside of themselves that they can work toward through dedication, hard work, and the right opportunities.
Dai, D. Y. (2020). Rethinking Human Potential From a Talent Development Perspective. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 43(1), 19–37. https://doi.org/10.1177/0162353219897850