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With a Little Help from Your Friends: How to Tap into the Hidden Potential of the People Who Surround You Every Day

With a Little Help from Your Friends: How to Tap into the Hidden Potential of the People Who Surround You Every Day

With a Little Help from Your Friends

    Do you have a dream? Is there a business that you’re dying to launch, a story in your head demanding to be told, or an idea you’re frantic to see made a reality?

    If you’re like most people, the answer is “yes.” Or, more likely, “yes, but…” Just about everyone has a crazy dream they’d love to pursue – but they just don’t know how.

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    What you need is a little expert advice, someone with brains and know-how to explain what you need to do and, more importantly, how to do it. The TV line-up is chock-full of shows that promise just that – a worthy but for whatever reason incapable person is selected, a team of experts descends on their life, and bit by bit they’re shown how to make their dreams come true. Trading Spaces, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, The Big Idea, American Idol, and dozens of other shows are based on some variation of this theme.

    But you don’t have to wait for your friends and loved ones to conspire to remake you, in order to tap into a wealth of expert advice. Chances are, you’re already surrounded by people who can give you the knowledge you need to get moving towards your dreams. You can be forgiven for not recognizing it; chances are, they don’t realize it themselves.

    Here’s the thing: everyone develops a body of unique skills and talents in the course of living, almost all of which can be applied more widely than we imagine. It can often take a creative eye to see these hidden potentials for what they are: a lifetime of expertise masquerading as everyday life.

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    Who are these unwitting experts I’m talking about? Your friends, family, and colleagues, of course. How many people do you know who excel at something so much that it’s become a defining part of their character? Instead of just admiring them for it, why not pay them the greater compliment of learning from them, of letting them set an example for you in the pursuit of your dreams?

    What kind of understanding might you find hidden in the strengths of your friends and loved ones? Consider:

    • The natural storyteller: how to weave compelling, “sticky” narratives; how to grab and hold onto people’s attention; how to set people at east.
    • The slacker: how to relax; how to roll with the punches; how to accept criticism without letting it define you.
    • The social butterfly: how to connect with strangers; how to present yourself professionally; how to avoid being defined by your weaknesses; how to listen.
    • The entrepreneur: how to face adversity; how to understand financial data; how to plan for the unknown.
    • The organizer: how to rally people to your cause; how to balance contradictory demands; how to stay cool under pressure.

    These are just a few examples of different types of people that almost everyone knows. Look around you at the people closest to you and try to identify their hidden strengths. Don’t dismiss people’s talents just because their accomplishments are small – even the simplest achievement might be the outcome of an encyclopedic knowledge of the task.

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    For example, maybe you know someone who runs the church bake sale every year. Maybe it’s a parent, or someone on your block, or a friend. Think about what they do every year: they plan the bake sale, they promote it by making announcements at services and posting signs, they round up the best bakers in the congregation and persuade them to contribute their time and money in baking goods for the sale, and they encourage everyone involved to put in their best effort in the service of a goal bigger than their own personal gains. Now, doesn’t that sound like someone who might have a thing or two to teach you in the pursuit of your dreams?

    Pay attention to the people around you and see what you can learn from them. Better yet, tell them what you see as their strengths and ask them a simple question: “How do you do it?”

    You might be surprised what you learn. And, just as important, they might be surprised at what you learn. You won’t be just milking them for whatever they’re worth to you – you’ll be opening their eyes, maybe for the first time, to their own hidden talents.

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    And what could be a better gift than that?

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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