Book Notes – The Plight of Potential

Book Cover of The Plight of Potential


There is an allure to our belief in potential, allowing individuals to live in what could be, rather than what is.

Our wished-for lives limit self-examination in important ways.

Millennials seek purpose, meaning and impact in their work, and so an entire industry has been created built on the facilitation of purpose.

Hyper-connectedness is our default state. Millennials are the first generation confronted with the challenge of navigating online and in-person identities.

Universities encourage the ability to sell and take action rather than to inform oneself and ask questions.

The Spirit of Work

Being busy all the time pushes out time for reflection. People do stuff because it seems like they should, or even need to, in order to keep up. It’s important to think about the moral aspect of what you’re doing and why it’s meaningful to you. Hyperconnected society makes solitude very difficult and non-default.

Misunderstandings of Knowledge and Skill

“Skills” are only a part of being human. Wisdom is as important. Adaptability is seen as vital, but it’s difficult to quantify and describe.

We must commit ourselves to building a deep understanding of a subject to be truly adaptable – gaining a fingertip-feel so that we just know how to apply our skills when faced with a novel situation. Our lack of attention and focus on adaptability do not allow us space to do this hard work. We just build a broad but brittle foundation.

There’s a lot to be said for learning from elders – people with wisdom. We don’t cherish this nearly enough to build meaningful mentoring relationships. We try to express and promote ourselves rather than listen and reflect.

Businesses people drive much of the desire for adaptability, but should universities just be training schools for the workforce? Our work is packaged into projects, but we never take the time to assess the experiences as a whole. It becomes difficult to feel settled.

Precarious Work and Narratives of Uncertainty

Precarious work with high income instability is materially and psychologically damaging. Media narrative increases the perception of instability. We are restless. Comfort feels like falling behind; yet we crave stability and deeper meaning.

Slack – time & money buffer – enables an individual to think and experiment more freely. In this mindset we often double down on productivity hacks rather than to pause and contemplate. We think about success in terms of how much we’ve done rather than whether it was meaningful.

Busyness is a form of outward expression. It can be difficult not to feel lonely without a packed calendar, but it warps our sense of time. We can rarely remember a busy day. They feel empty without a sense of coherence. It’s the modern “keeping up with the Joneses”.

We want to create impact in our work – make the world better somehow – but impact becomes more of a rhetoric. Not all impact happens at scale, and how it happens is as important as the end result. The impact mindset risks individuals overestimating their abilities, creating unrealistic aspirations and ambitions, leading to disappointment and frustration. Meaningful change requires decades of collective action. Worthwhile impact is more likely to occur when expectations are modest and effort is sustained over time.

Modern life encourages thinking in options, creating constant stress about what we could be doing instead. This leads to downtime being completely avoided, but constant doing strains our ability to reflect when no time is set aside for aloneness.

Hyper-connectedness and the Perils of Being “On”

Being “on” is to be showing our best selves, but hyper-connectedness promotes a false sense of authenticity. Networks promote more but offer less. Likely to make you less productive, more confused and more anxious.

Many take the view that much of an activity’s value is in the sharing of it. Not just doing X, but sharing parts of the experience. This creation of personal brand can corrupt the message through an excessive awareness of one’s audience.

Few consider what is lost through the online sharing of an activity. Undertaking things with a view to how it will be seen chips away at our integrity and diminishes our autonomy. Comparison gives us FOMO.

Being oneself is about confronting our limitedness. To be oneself is difficult when performance is so often mistaken for reality. Learning is ultimately social.

Impact and “High-Potential Networks”

These networks are mostly a waste of time. They give members an inflated ego and focus on short term action and impact (which can be measured) over long term dialogue and building understanding.

They insulate the already successful and mostly attract the most confident and ambitious, rather than the most humble and intelligent. They risk becoming playgrounds for the average.

Comparison, Success Stories and Lists

Comparison to others creates a belief that success comes quickly and that we can achieve our goals by understanding how others achieved theirs. Comparison entices you to look outside yourself to find meaning, purpose and definition of success.

Comparison can happen across 3 dimensions:

  1. Self: Compare against our own performance standards
  2. Other: Compare against actual perceived performance of others
  3. Time: Compare against past performance or future expectations

A focus on others takes us away from comparison against our own absolute performance over time. The comparisons we make are often based on incomplete information, which is especially true of Social Media highlight feeds.

Journalists who stay in the industry seem to be those with modest expectations of themselves.

Solitude and Aloneness

Solitude is about cultivating a private self rather than about using aloneness with an aim to maximise productivity.

Aloneness is not solitude. It is possible to be alone but virtually tethered. It’s not fleeting aloneness while waiting in a queue. the difference is in the quality of self-reflection that one can generate while in it.

Solitude is philosophical – where we make time and space for considering the formulation of questions of significance to us and the responses they engender. It has purpose, but not a purpose to do. The purpose is to contemplate.

Solitude must be approached with seriousness; and embrace of frustration and patience, and a resilience against sharing.

We must ask “Why?” (p121), listen to responses, and continue to dig deeper. Solitude is largely about repetition. Not all responses will be positive. Solitude, as a search in aloneness, involves consideration as to which questions are worth asking, in addition to the reasons why.

Access, Community and Education

Much of the modern discourse is around bringing people together rather than encourage them to spend time in solitude. Those in a scarcity trap (of time and money) suffer a bandwidth tax that inhibits the prioritisation of solitude. That said, material advantages do not in themselves enrich solitude. What matters instead is how a person uses social experience in the formulation of questions and the subsequent listening that takes place.

Millennials do not like to acknowledge external sources of wisdom. Communities that involve commitments in which tradition and authority play important roles are avoided. We lack communities that offer individuals a sense of their history and how they contribute to a bigger picture.

Family, in all its forms, can be where we find our richest experience of love and belonging. It provides the existential security needed to practice solitude, secure with ourselves and with our questions and responses, without feeling the need to perform and share results.

Universities should drop all language about competitiveness, prosperity and economic contribution to society and remove themselves from rankings which only institutionalise the needless focus on competitiveness. They should no longer refer to students as “customers” and the course selection should be more limited and done for them, with the university demonstrating conviction as to the courses that it believes matter. Students should have more time off to spend thinking about what they learn.

Solitude and community are mutually reinforcing concepts.