Letter from Shawn Achor, Author of BIG POTENTIAL

By Tim Cheng | February 7 2018 | College & University Reads

A message from Shawn Achor:

My parents are educators of first-year students. My father taught freshman Introduction to Psychology for 39 years at Baylor. My mom taught freshman English for 30 years. And I spent eight years as a first-year proctor at Harvard, where my job was to counsel freshmen students through their transition. Long after graduating, I still lived in a dorm room and ate all my meals in the dining hall; and while that had its obvious downsides, it also gave me rare and precious insight into how students experience that tumultuous and magical first year. Those insights would later shape Big Potential.

I believe the rising depression rates, high levels of anxiety, and social isolation that affect so many incoming college students are rooted in a myth our society perpetuates about the pursuit of success. We have been taught that success is a zero-sum game; that those around us must “lose” in order for us to “win.” The result is an unhealthy, hypercompetitive environment in schools and universities and on social media 24/7, accompanied by the constant feeling that we are not “enough.”

And yet, the conclusion of a decade of research is clear: when we help others succeed, we ourselves achieve far more, not less. It’s not faster alone; it’s better together.

One of my favorite studies in the book reveals that if you look at a hill alone, your brain perceives it at 20% steeper than if you are standing three feet from a friend. Our perception of challenge literally transforms when we include others in our pursuit of happiness and success.

While happiness is a choice, it is not just an individual choice; it is an interconnected one. When you choose to act with gratitude or joy, you make joy and gratitude easier for others, who in turn give you more reasons to be grateful and joyous. In the same way, every attribute of your potential—from intelligence to creativity to leadership—is interconnected with others. Think about it: when you are around funny and creative people, don’t you get funnier and more creative yourself?

This book is based upon over a decade of research as well as my work in 50 countries. But that research is pointless if the book is not fun and engaging enough to pull in the very readers we need to reach. So I weave together stories of synchronous lightning bugs, the ice cold “primal scream” tradition at Harvard, what I learned from my 3-year old son’s love of Inside Out’s “Sadness” character, trespassing at Camp David, featherless chickens, and an awkward dance with Oprah.

Big Potential is already having an effect in education. In the book, I describe how creating a “star system” at a bottom 10% school in the poorest county in Iowa resulted in a 3.5 point increase in ACT scores, a 92% graduation rate, and how, for the first time in history kids from the richer counties are coming to the poorest school in Iowa for a better education, thanks to the principles outlined in Big Potential. We have now replicated those findings at schools across the country with dramatic increases in optimism, resilience, and social connection for students AND for the teachers.

And, the book is practical, outlining five SEEDS that lead to our Big Potential: Surround yourself with a diverse positive “star system.” Enhance others. Extend power to every seat. Defend the gains. And Sustain momentum. Each of these SEEDS contain 3-6 practical steps that students can take to help pursue interconnected success. I’m also working with educational leaders and students to design a companion resource to help track daily progress in making these habits.

I conclude the book and this note with Maasai warriors who, when asked how they are doing, reply, “All the children are well.” This is the heart of Big Potential. Things can’t be fully good for one individual unless everyone in the community is thriving. I believe this is especially true at our schools and would be honored to share this book with your community.


Shawn Achor