How to reach your full potential in your career

Most people are capable of achieving far more than they realize, says author Mark Sanborn. His new book, ‘The Potential Principle,’ details how you can always be improving.

How to reach your full potential in your career

Are you living up to your full potential?

The short answer to that question is, no, you’re not—regardless of whether you’re the youngest person in the C-suite or have shelves teeming with industry awards.

“I’ve met titans of industry, billionaires, fantastically successful entrepreneurs, and all kinds of superstars,” muses leadership coach Mark Sanborn, president of consultants Sanborn & Associates. “But I’ve yet to meet anyone who is fulfilling 100% of his or her potential.”

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

“I think humans are an improvement-seeking species,” Sanborn says. “Our firm’s research shows that at least 80% of us want to get better at what we do, but only about 30% have a definite plan for exactly how we’re going to get there.”

That’s why his new book, The Potential Principle: A Proven System for Closing the Gap Between How Good You Are and How Good You Could Be, spells out a step-by-step method for pushing the envelope of our own capabilities—pretty much a means of survival in today’s cut-throat job market. “When you’re good at something, it’s tempting to rest on your laurels,” Sanborn says. “But no one can afford to be complacent these days.”

Monster recently spoke with Sanborn about how to take your talents to the next level when you’re already pretty darn good.

Q.  While it’s important to have a long-range career plan, you seem to put more emphasis on the short term. Why?

A. I’m not opposed to long-range plans, but you need to refocus day to day. Too often, plans change, but actions don’t. Plans tend to have a short shelf life, while habits persist much longer.

That’s why, for instance, [Great-West Financial Head of Global Talent] Peter Lynch describes in the book his “what today” technique, where he writes down what specifically he is going to do today to move him a little closer to his goal. The key is to keep asking yourself what you need to do differently right now to make the long-term plan a reality?

Q. Your advice on learning from others seems to point to the importance of mentors. Could you elaborate?

A. Emulation is one of the quickest ways to learn, and the best people in your field can be examples you can look to for ideas. If you want to be a better speaker, for instance, study the best, and pay as much attention to how they say something as to what they say.

Having the right mentor is useful because it gives you the chance to ask how and why. Don’t just study what the best do—make sure you learn how they think. By understanding how they analyze situations and make decisions, you’ll be better able to evaluate your own thinking and assess what you should be doing.

Q. You write about how vital, yet difficult, it is to take the time to stop and think. Any tips on how?

A. We live in an age that seems marked by attention deficit. Thinking is what gives people a competitive edge in everything we need to do, from solving problems, to spotting trends, to clarifying both a purpose and a direction. Yet, as Henry Ford once said, “Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason so few engage in it”—and that was before technology turned us all into multitaskers.

One thing that helps is setting aside a good place to think. It could be a home office or a study, but it doesn’t have to be. Any area that provides calm and a lack of interruption is good. 

The reason for having a specific place is that it quickly gets you into thinking mode. As soon as you’re there, your mind is conditioned to tune out distractions.

Q. Most people fear failure more than anything, but you write that it can be useful, or even necessary, in getting better at what we do. Why is that?

A.  The main reason is that we generally don’t improve unless we’re challenged, and success doesn’t challenge you. The only thing success teaches you is to keep doing what you’re already doing. By contrast, what people see as failure usually offers an important lesson. The trouble is that, often, the negative emotion that comes with failure can blind you to what you need to learn.

But if you can process that emotion and get past it, you’ll find that a failure shows you specific steps to take that will move you forward. And that’s what continuous improvement is really all about—making that decision, and then sticking with it.


Anne Fisher has been writing about career and workplace trends and topics since 1996. She is the author of If My Career’s on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map?