Book Summary – Big Potential (How Transforming the Pursuit of Success Raises Our Achievement, Happiness, and Well-Being)

Laszlo Bock, the head of People Operations at Google, was an architect of Project Aristotle, Google’s initiative to build the perfect team based on data. Achor details how its research examined 180 teams according to thousands of parameters to find the perfect high-performance workers. Achor reports that many experts believe that a perfect team is made up of members with high intelligence, fluency in foreign languages, certain personality traits, mathematical ability, and other qualities that evaluators can quantify and measure. But Google discovered that there is no profile of an individual “perfect performer.” Instead, the best performers were team members with “high social sensitivity” who were positioned to work in a safe environment. Team members who are aware of others people’s feelings, Achor maintains, encourage fairness and equality and perform well as a group.


Achor suggests planting these “SEEDS” to achieve your “Big Potential” by working with others:

  1. “Surround yourself” with people who influence you to be positive.
  2. “Expand your power” by learning to lead regardless of your position.
  3. “Enhance your resources” by praising and recognizing others.
  4. “Defend against negative influences.”
  5. “Sustain the gains” by building on the foundation you’ve started.
  1. Gather Positive Influencers

Achor advises three strategies for building supportive connections: Recognize the power of positive peer pressure, find balance through a variety of relationships and foster reciprocity. Positive peer pressure can be helpful. Surround yourself with people who radiate creativity, engagement and motivation, so you benefit from their positive example. Companies such as IBM, Achor discovered, have reversed their previous telecommuting policies because they’ve found that people are more creative, upbeat and productive when they work with others instead of being isolated at home. To build positivity, Achor suggests creating a “Virtuous Cycle,” or positive feedback loop, the opposite of a negative “vicious cycle.”

The more diverse your social circle is, Achor says, the more resilient you become. Having friends who are all just like you limits your potential and growth. “Cognitive diversity” – diversity of thinking – also matters. Researchers used a mathematical model to measure cognitive diversity on six teams. The teams with the most cognitive diversity had the highest performance scores. The two teams with the least diversity failed the performance objectives. Many firms avoid diversity initiatives because they fear conflict and friction. Achor reports that they erroneously think that vastly different people won’t work well together. He offers research that proves the opposite is true.

  1. Expand Your Power by Leading from Any Position

Achor firmly believes that can become a leader regardless of your job title or salary. In 2016, Kaiser Permanente started the “I Saved A Life” program to empower hospital support staffers to save lives even if they lack medical training. So far, receptionists and representatives in its call centers have saved 471 lives. When Dr. Sanjay Marwaha and Monica Azevedo from the Permanente Medical Group started the program, they trained receptionists to recommend preventive or diagnostic health care options when patients called to book appointments for any reason. Of the 1,179 women who had a diagnosis of breast cancer, 40% booked their diagnostic mammogram appointments at the suggestion of nonmedical support staff.

Achor says you can find meaning and leadership potential in any position, by “leading from the 11th chair,” in the words of Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. In his popular TED Talk, Zander mentions a discouraged cellist who sat in the 11th chair of the cello section. Instead of basking in the thrill of securing the job over thousands of candidates, all she could think about were the 10 chairs in front of her.

Achor reports that Zander asked the cellist how he should conduct a challenging section of an upcoming symphony. He followed her suggestions and received great reviews. Zander said her playing moved to a new level because she felt empowered as a leader, even from her 11th chair. Achor uses this example to illustrate his argument that organizations must encourage real leadership from all employees. Find meaning in your work regardless of your title or official responsibilities. Don’t wait for the perfect job opportunity or a great boss. Create your own path to leadership.

Professor Amy Wrzesniewski of Yale University’s School of Management says that people categorize their work in one of three ways: as a “job,” a “career” or a “calling,” Achor reports. You do a job to make ends meet, and a career gives you a position within society. But, if your work is your calling, it’s an integral part of your life in which you find meaning and purpose. Wrzesniewski also divides employees into thirds: A third will appear bored or apathetic, another third will be efficient but unmotivated to aim for more, and a final third will be enthusiastic and energetic – even if they are grocery store baggers. Achor believes you can find meaning and purpose wherever you are in your career.

  1. Amass Resources by Recognizing Others

People think business and life are zero-sum games with winners and losers. Achor says that the wrong construct. He urges you to enlarge your resources and spread success by praising and recognizing other people. In a competitive business world, many employees become “misers of praise” rather than “praise prisms.” A prism absorbs different wavelengths of light and bends it to create a beautiful rainbow. He offers the example of Sarah and Karen, who were both trying to make partner at their law firm. In her first interview, Sarah tried to sell herself and discussed her accomplishments. At her second interview, she mentioned how great her team was, including her competitor, Karen, and a new associate named Tim. Karen talked only about an acquisition she had handled and her other projects; she never praised her co-workers. The partners hired Sarah.

Achor offers several strategies you can use to recognize others more effectively. The first strategy is to stop “comparison praising,” that is, saying such things as, “Your report was better than Jack’s” or “You’re the smartest person in the room.” These aren’t compliments. They’re comparisons – if one person is “better,” another must be “worse.” Comparison praise places an unconscious limit on achievements and feeds into a Small Potential mind-set. Eliminating superlatives from your vocabulary – “best,” “fastest,” “smartest,” and the like – can put a stop to comparison praising.

Achor urges you to highlight what others do right. If you’re a manager, praise employees for what they do correctly rather than focusing on what they do wrong. If praise is hard for you, try this exercise: Take two minutes to write a text message or email thanking or praising someone in your life, such as a teacher, friend, co-worker or parent. You will inspire others who may create their own praise prisms.

Achor recommends that you “praise the base.” Too often, he says, people recognize only high performers, but all leaders have both top and average but sustaining employees who help them get where they are and who deserve recognition. Don’t misconstrue this advice as “everyone gets a trophy.” Simply take time to praise supporting players for their real gains. Achor reports that Nick Saban, head coach of the University of Alabama football team, doesn’t praise individual players, because that wouldn’t elevate the team.

  1. Defend Against Negativity

Achor urges you to remember that negative emotions such as sadness, fear and anger are part of life. Sadness is a wake-up call that you need to make changes. If your negative emotions overpower your positive ones, see that as a serious issue to address. Work to build up your defenses against negativity. Negative feelings such as stress and apathy are contagious. The author cites research findings that simply seeing another stressed person can raise your level of the stress hormone cortisol by as much as 26%.

Achor recommends strategies you can use to defend yourself against negativity: build a moat by creating a quiet zone around potential stressors; develop a mental stronghold; take a vacation from your problems; and pick the right battles.

Because negative emotions are contagious, Achor warns that you absorb online stress easily. He cites a study by Michelle Gielan and Arianna Huffington in which people who watched only three minutes of negative news in the morning were 27% more likely to report unhappiness six to eight hours later that day. To build a moat around this stressor, Achor advises that you shouldn’t read the news, social media or email when you’re waking up and your blood sugar is low. He says to wait until after breakfast. Do the same thing before bed: 30 minutes before you want to sleep, turn off electronic media. Quiet your cellphone’s notifications for text messages and emails, and use headphones to cancel out noise.

Achor suggests building resilience by feeling gratitude, being optimistic, staying positive and trying to be mindful. Become more optimistic by thinking of three good things that happened during the last 24 hours or the last week. When you call friends or meet with co-workers, lead with something positive. You might, according to Achor, say how happy you are to see them or to work together rather than complaining about how busy or stressed you are. Take some time out. Try meditation, yoga or even a few deep breaths to relax.

Achor describes the way you redirect the energy of an attack instead of blocking it in the martial art form Aikido. He says practicing “Mental Aikido” is similar in that you acknowledge stress but redirect it positively. Regard failure as part of your learning process.

Americans don’t take as much time off as they should because they think it will hurt them at work, but Achor reports that employees who use all their vacation leave have “a 6.5% higher chance of getting a promotion or a raise” than people who don’t take as much time off.

  1. Sustaining Big Potential 

Sustaining your Big Potential is hard. Achor advises you to keep moving forward with positive momentum by finding meaning in your work. Rather than seeing your job as an obligation, find the purpose behind it. Teachers are so much more than “just” people who grade papers. Lawyers do more than “just” write briefs and bill clients. Teachers train future generations of leaders, and lawyers help clients navigate difficult problems.

Achor urges you to visualize where you want to go. Envisioning your goals makes you more likely to achieve them. He suggests you make time to celebrate small wins as well as major milestones. Four hundred employees on work teams at Toyota’s North American parts center went through a yearlong program that celebrated their strengths. Afterward, Toyota saw a 6% increase in warehouse productivity. The two teams who did more intensive strength-based training increased their productivity by 9% after only six months. Instead of trying to change your employees, celebrate their strengths.

Chill Pill

Achor collects illustrative research to underscore his thesis that it’s better to feel good than to feel bad, better to be up and optimistic than dragged down. While this may not be breaking news, it’s also not a message that working people hear nearly enough. As Achor points out, driven employees often thrive on suffering for their work and, thereby, they undermine their mental, physical and spiritual health for scant rewards. He offers a welcome, readable, friendly – if not profound – chill pill. His strategies are worthwhile, and if you’ve read similar advice before, at least he pulls it all together. It also follows logically, that if you use his methods and tactics for staying mindful, alert, aware and appreciative, you will indeed have a better chance of actualizing your greatest potential.