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It can be difficult to pinpoint your place in the “new world of work.” Media is buzzing with predictions as to what the future will look like, how remote work will affect us, and whether automation will steal our jobs. We struggle to find the right balance between enough technology and too much screen time (looking at you, Zoom happy hours).
But as human beings, we haven’t changed all that much. At its heart, everything we invent and everything we do is to fulfill the same basic needs. We need to have food, water, and shelter. We need to feel supported and connected to others. And we need to do meaningful work in the world that feels like a true expression of who we are — our human potential.
This journey to live life with more purpose, clarity, and passion is called self-actualization. Understanding our human potential is a key part of that.
What is human potential?
It might be easier to start with an understanding of what human potential is not. It's not quick fixes, corporate training programs, or continuing education. It doesn't happen overnight. You can't buy the right book or listen to the right podcast to ensure your transformation — although these can be helpful ways to kick-start your self-actualization journey.
Human potential is the innate ability of every person to live and perform in alignment with their highest self. It's a combination of both outer and Inner Work®.
There’s a tendency to think of human potential — or, in fact, every effort at personal growth — as linear and bottom-line-focused. Human potential is a unique journey in the sense that both the journey and the goal are “the point.” In other words, there’s really nothing to “get to” or “accomplish.” The goal is to live in a way that’s congruent with the best version of yourself — a you that you’re proud to be every day.
Abraham Maslow is considered to be the father of human potential and self-actualization research. In his well-known hierarchy of needs, he hypothesized that all human beings strive towards self-actualization. But we are unable to move towards our higher selves if certain foundational needs aren't met. These include our safety, security, and connection with others.
What is the human potential movement?
Maslow's research started the human potential movement in the 1960s. His findings emphasized the importance of self-actualization, exploring what it meant and how to achieve it. Maslow felt that certain behaviors and mindsets were critical to human development.
His work helped to launch the field of humanistic psychology, a holistic approach that focuses on developing the whole person. Unlike Freud's psychoanalytic theory and Skinner's behaviorism, humanistic psychology was more closely related to philosophy and existentialism. Humanistic psychology is similar in some ways to positive psychology. However, the American Psychological Association (APA) notes that there are some critical differences in methodology.
The human potential movement emphasizes that people have an ideal self. We all have an image of who it is that we want to be. In order to live our best lives, we must live and act in a way that we feel is congruent with that image.
That doesn't mean that we necessarily cross everything off of our to-do list or that we think we're perfect. It means that we live in alignment with our values and that we feel that we are making progress toward our goals.
Is there a limit to human potential?
It's human nature to put things and ideas into boxes. That means we have a tendency to fall into linear thinking. When we use words like “limit” and “potential,” we reinforce the idea that certain ways to live are better than others.
The truth is, we have no limit to our potential. In a practical sense, the brain can continue to grow and change for our entire lives. But awakening human potential isn't really about the process of development or neuroplasticity. Human potential is about seeing an ideal self in alignment with your core values, and then working every day to be just that.
So no, there is no limit to human potential. It's just getting a little bit closer every day to who you want to be.
How do you unlock human potential?
What does unlocking human potential look like, and how do you know you’re on the right path? Your sense of well-being is a powerful clue.
How do you reach your human potential?
Developing your human potential requires a whole person approach. You have to work on your physical well-being as well as your inner self.
Inner Work® helps you become more focused and productive, but not by tackling your list. When you develop self-awareness, empathy, and psychological flexibility, you’re free to bring your best self to work. You’ll find yourself more creative, engaged, and less prone to burnout.
Above all, developing your human potential is a proactive process. You're not fixing — you're growing.
How do you identify your potential?
Growing up, I always heard people say that if you “do what you love, the money will come.” The idea is that when you’re passionate about something, you shine. You naturally have more energy, enthusiasm, and momentum — an excellent recipe for success.
A similar thought process could be applied to human potential. Here are some steps to take (and some questions to ask yourself) to understand and identify your potential:
1. Start with Maslow’s pyramid
Imagine for a second that all of your needs were met. You had food, water, a beautiful home, a happy network of loved ones, and money to last a lifetime.
What’s left over are your values. What work would you still care about doing? What would you give your time and money to? And what does that show you about yourself?
By the way, you don't have to wait till you win the lottery to knock out this first step. Manage your well-being as if you were your best self. What would they eat? What would their sleep schedule look like? And more importantly, how kind would they be to themselves?
2. Define your goals
Once you understand your values, you can determine your goals. Many of us think that what we want can’t — or won’t happen — until we meet some other criteria. Ask yourself: what are the steps to getting to that “peak experience?” Are there ways that I can begin embodying the future, best me?
3. Make time for Inner Work®
Most people turn self-improvement into a to-do list. While goals are important, Inner Work® is what makes everything else you do more successful and sustainable. Read (or listen) to books, meditate, and pay attention to what lights you up. We often need a hefty dose of passion to truly feel like we’re living well.
4. Be kind to yourself
Human potential is not a pass/fail course. Many of us (myself included) have been sensitized to the word “potential” because — by definition — it means we’re not quite there yet. Develop self-compassion and pride in the work you’re doing. Remember that this is a journey for you and no one else.
5. Work with a coach
It’s much easier and more likely that you’ll achieve your goals with some support. Because self-actualization is intensely personal, you may not want to talk to friends or family about your journey. A coach can provide the right blend of feedback, accountability, and guidance to keep you motivated and empowered. Coaching is also a powerful way to develop your self-awareness.
It's easy to get caught up in thinking that human potential is a linear process. This is especially true when we're not satisfied with our life. We might think if we were better, did more, or just read the right book, life would be different.
But that's not what human potential is about. Human potential is about finding what's important to you and becoming the best you can be at it. It's a lifelong journey, but a worthwhile one.
BetterUp Staff Writer