What You’re Really Meant to Do: A Roadmap for Reaching Your Unique Potential

by Robert Steven Kaplan

“The key to achieving your aspirations lies not in ‘being a success’ but rather in working to reach your unique potential… Remember, lots of people will tell you what you should do and what you should want, but they don’t have to live your life. Chances are, moreover, that they’re not very happy with their own lives.”

While this book does make some general observations on how to succeed, it stresses self-awareness exercises to help readers find a personal path in which they will thrive. “It is uncanny how much more likely you are to recognize opportunities if you’re aware of what you’re looking for.”

One exercise is called Your Best Self—you think back to a time when you enjoyed what you were doing, excelled at it, and received positive reinforcement. Another exercise is called Competing Narratives—the success narrative and the self-doubt narrative are different ways people can filter the same life story.

“I encounter many people who fervently believe they want to maximize their money, status, power, and position. These motivators—sometimes referred to as extrinsic motivators—can’t be ignored. At the same time, you can’t make the fundamental mistake of ignoring intrinsic motivators. These include learning, a passion for the cause, relationships, skill development, culture, a feeling of belonging, comradeship, and other intangibles.”

Kaplan writes about assessing your specific skills, as opposed to personal characteristics. “In my experience, the reason people often fail to grow and improve isn’t necessarily that they lack the ability. Instead, they lack awareness of their skills and skill deficiencies… Strengths and weaknesses are not absolutes… In a job, they are relative to the task requirements of a job.”

“Many folks are in the right company or industry but not the right function. For others, the right match between job and skills may require going to another company or industry… It bears repeating: you don’t have to be good at everything… As you become more senior, interpersonal and communication skills become more important. At that point, conceptual skills also become more critical.”

The author also stresses “understanding your passions… It’s about excitement… In my experience, your intellectual capability and skills will take you only so far. Regardless of your talent, you will have rough days, months, and years. You may get stuck with a lousy boss. You may get discouraged and feel like giving up. What pulls you through these difficult periods? The answer is your passion… I have seen this situation over and over during my career: if you put people in jobs they love, the will shine in ways that astound you.”

The author emphasizes the importance of meaningful business relationships. “I am constantly struck by how isolated people are, despite being hyperconnected on Facebook or closely followed on Twitter. In my experience, one of the key impediments to reaching our potential is isolation.”

“It is critical to develop relationships with people who care enough about you to tell you the truth—things you need to hear even though you don’t want to hear them… I have learned that a beneficial relationship requires three things: mutual understanding, trust, and respect. Creating this type of relationship is likely to require time, face-to-face interaction, and hard work. It also requires a mix of inquiry, self-disclosure, and candor.”

“Networking has its uses, but it is not a substitute for real relationships—the kind you can count on when it’s crunch time.”

Kaplan makes a distinction between mentoring and coaching. “Mentoring… involves the mentee telling the mentor a story and getting advice from the mentor in reaction to that story. The problem is that the mentor’s advice is only as good as the story… Coaching, in contrast, requires direct observation on some regular basis. The coach observes the individual in action and, based on that observation, identifies specific skill deficiencies and other behaviors that may need attention… A good coach also gives you one or two specific suggestions for ways you can improve a particular skill. To do this, you coach needs to know your job well enough to offer good advice and needs to have thought about it sufficiently to make the advice specific and actionable.”

The author encourages readers to demonstrate leadership qualities. “It’s darn near impossible to build a superb and sustainable effort and accomplish something of significance without leadership… You don’t need a written invitation to be a leader; it is based on your actions in the context of your situation.”

Kaplan defines leadership as “the ability to figure out what you believe and then summon the courage to appropriately act on those beliefs. These actions must be geared to adding value to an enterprise and making a positive impact on others.” In his first book, What to Ask the Person in the Mirror, Kaplan argued that “leadership is much more about asking the right questions than having all the answers.” He recommends another book, True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership by former Medtronic CEO Bill George.

Kaplan also writes about the “power of an ownership mind-set… Great organizations depend on people having the guts to speak up—even though the boss may disagree with them, and they may sometimes feel a bit stupid for having opened their mouths… Great companies seek to develop and promote people who act like owners. This requires an ability to think like a decision maker and have the courage to speak up when appropriate.”

Robert Steven Kaplan is the senior associate dean at Harvard Business School. He was previously vice chairman of Goldman Sachs.

Kaplan, Robert Steven. What You’re Really Meant to Do: A Roadmap for Reaching Your Unique Potential. Boston: Harvard Business Review, 2013. Buy from Amazon.com

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