If you want to reach your full potential you must constantly evaluate yourself. There are always obstacles. Sometimes, it might be a lack of skill, so you go back to school. At other times, it might be interpersonal skills that you need to develop. However, one of the biggest hurdles is something that doesn’t get much attention. I’m going to call it a social glass ceiling.
Whether we admit it or not, our ideas about what we can accomplish are very much related to the capabilities of the people we are around. It is as if we have an internal bell curve that we use to compare our performance with our peers. If you outperform everyone around you in a certain area, it is going to be difficult to reach your full potential.
I’ve been in classes where I was the top student. I don’t mean I was in the top 10%. I mean I was hands down the best student in the class. It would take me 15 minutes to complete the tests that were scheduled for 60 minutes, where most of the other students would run out of time. In one of these classes, I had earned an A for the entire class after the first two weeks. The professor told me I didn’t need to show up anymore if I didn’t feel like it.
In another class I was not the best student. In fact, I had serious doubts as to whether or not I could even pass the class. I loved the material, but everyone else seemed so much further ahead than me. They could grasp the concepts easily that required so much effort for me. Halfway through the class, I dropped it because I was having such a hard time and took it again the next year. I studied very hard and still ended up with a “B”, with which I was absolutely thrilled.
Of these two classes, the second one pushed me closer to the limits of my potential than the first. That push resulted in greater growth, not only in that area of study, but in my general abilities. Obviously, I did better in the first class from a grade standpoint, but from a personal development standpoint the second class made me push myself further than I had ever been required before.
To really challenge ourselves, we must be surrounded with people who are better. It is said that your salary is usually equal to the average the salaries of your 10 closest friends. This is a good general rule for everything–not just finances. The capabilities of our friends average together to create a social glass ceiling. Even if you work hard and break through the ceiling, it will still exert constraints on your progress. If you want to truly push the limits of your potential, the people with whom you interact must be people who significantly challenge you in the areas where you want to excel.
The first version of this post was originally published October 20th, 2005
I appreciate this essay because it expresses an issue I’ve often thought about, but have never seen discussed anywhere.
For high school students thinking about college, I’d recommend going to the most selective school you can get into. That may seem obvious, but I’ve met people who are clearly very smart and went to schools that were not the best they could get into. If you see yourself as one of the smart kids in highschool, I believe its better to give up that sense of pride in college.
If as a sophomore you are in the top 10% of your class, you should transfer to a more selective school. The most important thing is not the curriculum (which are remarkably similar everywhere), or the professors, but who you surround yourself with.
I went to Brown, the most selective school I could get into, and I’m glad I did because even though I was a very average Brown student, I was challenged to the hilt. It often means feeling like you’re failing, though. I remember a particulr chemistry exam that I walked out of feeling like I failed. Sure enough, I got a 39, but with the curve it was only a B-.
The difficulty is worth it, as it is unlikely that you will get a chance professionally to be totally surrouned by peers who will help you grow like this.
Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I was talking with some professors at Harvard who were talking about using the internet for classes. They were mentioning the need for protecting the students and giving them a safe environment to fail. They pointed out that many of the incoming students had never failed in their entire life–getting a B could be devastating. The point was that students were being pushed to new levels of what they were capable of and that the university needed to take care to protect the privacy of the classroom.
I think we spend too much time trying to avoid situations where we might fail instead of seeking out experiences that stretch us enough that failure is a real option. If it wasn’t for grade inflation, students should try to find a school where their best work results in a C average. That means they have plenty of room for improvement and still have the realistic possibility of failure.
Executive Intelligence , by Justin Menkes, provides more information on the idea that stars do better when they’re surrounded by other stars. In addition, Menkes’ research found that despite the faults of IQ testing, IQ is a better predictor of job performance than “past behavior descriptors” or “emotional intelligence.”
Simon Middleton says
Very thought-provoking post. I accept the general point that we have a tendency to stick with comfort zones (and comfort people) and should stretch ourselves by associating with tose who challange us… but I’m not at all convinced by the idea that our friends work as a social glass ceiling. My closest friends have a very different lifestyle and outlook to me, and substantially lower financial clout: but we don’t judge each other or restrict each other because of it. I think we’re all mature enough to be the people we want to be.
Mark Shead says
@Simon – I would argue that your friends restrict you even if you don’t realize it. I’m not suggesting that you get rid of your friends, but if you only hang out with people who make significantly less than you I would be amazed if you are reaching your full financial potential.
The same thing happens in college. People who get good grades don’t usually surround themselves only with people who are failing. If you aren’t around people who stretch you, it is easy to overlook the areas where you can improve.
I agree with this. I think I read somewhere before (not very helpful, I’m sorry) about how people need acceptance, and attain it through being similar to their social circle, be it in terms of earning power, sense of humor, interests, and even weight!
Surround yourself with the best (in every sense) and it will challenge you to become better.
Meh. Classist silliness mixed with puritanical self-defeating advice which sounds much better on paper than it works in reality. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – unless it cripples you and wastes a lot of time.
If your suggestion works, it works because class and the markers of class are incredibly important. Getting to know the right people helps you get better jobs (it’s called networking). Plus you learn how to act in a certain way and you learn the Shibboleths that open the doors – or at least forestall their being slammed in your face.
But otherwise – just pretending that this is about challenging yourself or expanding your comfort zone? Come on. If you want to expand your comfort zone work in a homeless shelter. If you want to challenge your mind take a course in quantum mechanics – you’ll get absolutely nothing out of it career-wise, but it sure will be intellectually demanding. Or at least take a lot of time.
But for the most part – you shouldn’t be wasting lots of time and energy on things you suck at. It’s like telling kids they should be “well rounded.” Bunk. There’s more percentage (not to mention happiness) in focusing like a laser on the things you excel at. If you’re great at something, work it. Even if that means (poor you) that you’re surrounded by people you’re constantly outstripping.
The time you spent to earn that “B” – where did it get you? It couldn’t have been a field you were going to go into. Hopefully. You spent huge amounts of effort learning something that you weren’t going to use, would forget in six months, and which undermined your self-confidence. You trained your brain to do something it wasn’t particularly good at and maybe even lost some of your sense of self. You certainly took time and energy away from becoming better at the things you were good at.
I’m not saying challenging yourself is bad, but it’s not inherently good. Sometimes pain is actually there for a reason – to tell you you’re not doing what you should be doing and you’re slamming your head against a wall for nothing. It’s just not very productive.
Mark Shead says
@Kate Actually that B was in a class on computational theory and it has been extremely helpful in a variety of other areas not related to computers. The knowledge from that course of study has increase my hourly billing rate somewhere around 400%.
Lets say I’m an alligator wrestler and everyone I hang out with wrestles 2 to 3 foot alligators. I wrestle 4 foot alligators, so I’m considered the best alligator wrestler in the area. Once I even wrestled a 5 foot alligator, but everyone knows that you don’t want to go much bigger than that.
One day I move to a place where there is a whole group of people who wrestle 6 and 7 foot alligators. Suddenly my ideas about what is possible are going to shift dramatically.
The same thing happened with the first acrobats to do triple flips from a trapeze. People thought it was impossible until one group started doing it–suddenly everyone else was able to do it as well and you even have people doing quadruple flips without a net now.
The point I was making with this article is that your definition of average and above average is going to come from looking at the people around you.
Well I’m glad that the course actually had a practical use in your field. *That* seems like a good reason to beat your head against the wall a bit.
But let’s not confuse ourselves. If you want to learn triple flips – you don’t hang out with the wealthy. You don’t take a course on computational theory. You don’t go to Harvard. You hang out in the circus tent with the clowns and the carnies. And you stay there.
Because the important thing isn’t being with people you think are your betters and osmosing their brilliance. The important thing is focusing on what you’re doing and not wasting enormous amounts of time on extraneous pursuits.
If you want to be successful do what you do it because you like it and are good at it – not as a self-improvement exercise. Not because you have a superstitious faith that playing golf with people you don’t enjoy will subliminally make you a better patent attorney.
Bill Gates didn’t build Microsoft by “challenging himself” at Harvard. He did it by dropping out and hanging out with the kind of losers who built computers in their garages. They may have challenged each other – but only incidentally. It’s not what they set out to do. What they set out to do was what they liked and were good at.
Not that following your bliss can’t lead to poverty and failure too. I’m not that much of a romantic. But what I am sure of is that the only reason to worry about hanging around successful people qua successful people is because they have connections. The only reason to go to Harvard is because Harvard Graduate is the closest thing we have to a peerage title in the United States. It’s just a class thing. Building it up to anything more than that is a recipe for wasted time and distraction.
Like my dad would say “a small fish in a big pond or a big fish in a small pond?”
The latter would be the easy way out but the former gives you the chance to be the big fish in a big pond.