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The Potential Principle: A Proven System for Closing the Gap Between How Good You Are and How Good You Could Be

The Potential Principle: A Proven System for Closing the Gap Between How Good You Are and How Good You Could Be

by Mark Sanborn


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You may honestly be able to say (and have others say about you) that you are the absolute best in your field—the best athlete, scholar, CEO, parent, mathematician, teacher, mechanic . . . whatever it is that you fill out the “occupation” box with. But being the best at something only means you are better than everyone else. It doesn’t mean you are the best you. Your potential is higher than where you are right now.Leadership expert and international bestselling author of The Fred Factor and You Don’t Need a Title to Be a Leader, Mark Sanborn invites you to get better. Not better than others, but better than you! By learning to employ Sanborn’s uniquely designed “Potential Matrix” to specific areas of their lives, readers can gain the tools they need to see breakthrough improvements in places they previously thought had reached their maximum potential.Every day, you have the exciting opportunity to be better. To pursue your true potential. To make what you thought was your best, now second-best. And then the next day, start again. You can be better.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780718093143
Publisher: HarperCollins Leadership
Publication date: 09/05/2017
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 1,116,406
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Mark Sanborn is president of Sanborn & Associates, Inc., an idea studio dedicated to developing leaders in business and in life. Sanborn is an international bestselling author and noted expert on leadership, team building, customer service and change. His clients include Costco, FedEx, Harley-Davidson, ESPN, and other well-known brand-name organizations. He is an accomplished speaker and leader and former president of the National Speakers Association.

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The Potential Principle

Wealth, notoriety, place and power are no measure of success whatever. The only true measure of success is the ratio between what we might have done and what we might have been on the one hand, and the thing we have made of ourselves on the other.

— H, G. Wells

In 1985 three-time Olympic athlete John Howard was at the Bonneville Salt Flats, trying to set a new land speed record ... on a bicycle. Howard was not riding your dad's Schwinn. His was a specially built bicycle. One turn of the pedals moved the bike more than 110 feet. When Howard set the land speed record, his monitored heart rate was 195 beats per minute. His top speed? 152 miles per hour.

If you guessed that this is the top speed for riding a bicycle, you'd be wrong. A decade later, a European beat Howard's best by reaching a top speed of 161 miles per hour.

You might have little or no interest in bicycles or land speed records. That's not the point. What's important is this: We have no idea what is possible physically, mentally, or organizationally. Most of us far underestimate our own potential and the potential of others.


Even though I'm no mind reader, I can say with a high degree of confidence that you were at least surprised, if not shocked, that a human could ride a bicycle so fast. Nothing in the average person's experience with bicycles would suggest that anyone could ride one as fast as 150 miles per hour. We've never ridden a bicycle faster than 40, maybe 50 miles per hour. What's more, most of us have never been in a car that's gone faster than 110 or 120. Based on our experience — that is, what we know — most of us would guess the top speed for a bicycle is far slower than what's actually possible.

This means that sometimes our experience — our frame of reference — works against us. In this case our experience didn't lead to a complete failure — we didn't say 500 miles per hour. But we set a limit based on what we thought was possible, only to find out that we didn't have a clue. Of course, most of us aren't terribly bothered that we underestimated the land speed record of bicycles.

But what about when the subject is you and your potential? The hard truth is that we use the same deductive powers on ourselves that we used to determine the speed of the fastest bike ride. In fact, it's actually worse. My question about the top speed of a bicycle was meant to put your imagination to the test. But what if I had asked, "How fast could you ride a bicycle?"

Now your experience is working against you even more. Once again, I can't possibly know how fast you think you can ride a bicycle. But I can tell you one thing: Your answer is probably wrong. You can ride a bike much faster than you think.

Your imagination is limited because of your experience. Maybe that's why Einstein is purported to have said imagination is more important than knowledge, "for knowledge is limited to all we know and understand."

Most likely, in making your estimate you're afraid of being unrealistic: Perhaps you've been criticized for aiming too high or trying to accomplish too much in the past. Or maybe you failed to meet a goal you or your boss set, and the memory still stings. Whatever the reason, experience makes us set the bar a little lower — just a little lower, a little more, and a tad more. There. We can hit that speed.

Now forget about the bike.

How good could you be? How much better might you be than you are right now?


This book isn't about doing the impossible, like defying gravity or flying with no equipment of any kind. I'm not saying you can — or should even try to — ride a bike faster than you've ever ridden one before. This book is about making your best better. It is focused on helping you improve in whatever areas you choose and becoming even better than you were before.

This book also isn't about achieving your dreams, whatever they might be. If you've always wanted to start a business, this book won't tell you how. Many readers may have already achieved their dreams: mastered the skill, run the marathon, started a successful business, or published a book. The message of this book, however, is this: No matter how good you've become, you can become better. No matter what you've done so far, you still haven't fulfilled your potential.

For some of us, doing something we've never tried or always wanted to do is an achievement in its own right. We do the thing, and then we move on. But do you ever move on from being a parent? Do you ever move on from having a career? Do you ever move on from living a meaningful life? These are pursuits without end. They don't have a finish line. You can't brush the dust off your hands and say, "Well, that was fun. What's next?"

Improvement in the important areas of your life can and should be an ongoing journey.

Consider this example: John isn't just any doctor. He's the chief cardiac surgeon at one of the best hospitals anywhere. This means that John is one of the best cardiac surgeons in the world. Patients and colleagues come to John when they have the toughest problem, the hardest case, the most formidable challenge. Although self-effacing and humble with others, John knows he's the best. To be a surgeon requires a certain confidence — a firm belief in your own talents. John has this. He wants the toughest cases, because he knows he is the best.

At this stage in his career John has two choices. One, he can believe that he has reached the highest pinnacle of professional success. With nothing left to prove to himself or others, John can rest assured that he will always be considered one of the best surgeons in the world. He can, as the saying goes, rest on his laurels.

Or two, John can challenge himself to become better than his best. He could strive to improve his already excellent skills and continue to be challenged and stimulated. But here is a question: When you're the best, who can help you get better? It's a daunting challenge. Why? Because John is the standard against which other surgeons compare themselves. He has no one ahead of him to emulate. To get better — to get closer to his true potential — he will have to raise the bar he's already set.

Consider this quote from one of the most popular movies of the last fifty years: "Gentlemen, you are the top 1 percent of all naval aviators — the elite. The best of the best. We'll make you better." (Did you recognize the movie? It was Top Gun.)

I assume that if you're reading this, you are already good, perhaps even among the best, at what you do. So what's my job? To show you how to keep improving, to get closer to fulfilling your potential. Or, most accurately, to make your best better.


If you are a naval aviator, professional athlete, world-renowned surgeon, or movie star, I'm delighted you're reading this book. But most of us don't work in such rarefied fields. We're executives, vice presidents, CEOs, CFOs, directors, managers, salespersons; we're fathers, mothers, employees, friends, associates, peers; we're athletes, coaches, teammates, and mentors. This book is for all of us. In this book I make little distinction between, say, being the best president and being the best mother. What goes into making both better is the same.

And that raises the most basic question: Better at what? Better at what matters to you. Better at being someone whom others respect, emulate, and trust. Better at being someone who continues to improve and achieve. A person who motivates, challenges, and inspires others through his or her example. You may not have considered it, but these qualities and others define leadership; and they make up the little metrics that allow us to start gauging how and where we're actually getting better, actually reaching more of our potential.

You certainly can measure being better than your best in dollars: increased sales, revenue, and income. Those are legitimate metrics of success, and ones that you need to use to keep your job. I hope to show, however, that monetary improvement is usually the result of improving what you are already the best at.

As we'll see, the skills that people must improve to be better than their best are often different from the ones that got them to their current positions. While most people think about improving their jobs or performance skills, the more important thing to focus on is improving your mental, contemplative, and reflective skills. These are the metrics that can't be measured by employer evaluations, but they measure the skills that allow us to move beyond what we have ever thought was possible.

I can't teach John, our chief cardiac surgeon, about medicine or surgery. But I can teach the process that he or anyone else can use to improve. I can challenge his thinking and understanding and provide new insights he can then apply to his highly specialized area. And that's what we'll be doing in this book. Just as I have nothing to say to John about medicine, I'm unlikely to have anything to say to you about your profession. But in getting better than our best, whatever the thing is — the job, the hobby, the pursuit — is almost beside the point. The point is us. You. Me. If the goal is for us to be the ones to get better, then what needs to improve is inside of us.


In the cognitive sciences there is a phenomenon known as the Pygmalion effect. Also known as the Rosenthal effect for one of the psychologists who discovered it, the phenomenon is simple enough: It reveals that higher expectations lead to better performance. The phenomenon is more than a theory; it has been demonstrated in the lab.

So why don't we expect more from ourselves? This can be especially difficult if we're already good (even the best) at something, since then we can have difficulty imagining how much better we could be.

The result is that we limit our expectations, which in turn is how we limit our disappointments. If we expect much, we are often disappointed. To avoid that, we lower our expectations. He or she who expects little and gets little is never disappointed.

One of the keys to continual improvement is the willingness to risk disappointment, to see disappointment not as a bad thing to be avoided but as proof positive we are aiming higher and striving to get better. I will go so far as to say that highly successful people are more often disappointed than are other people. They just don't let disappointment bother them.

So the questions become:

• How can you imagine a future even bigger than your past?

• How can you raise your sense of how fast you can ride a bicycle?

• How do you overcome the limitation of your experiences?

• How do you imagine yourself becoming better than you already are?

This book is about unlocking your imagination to pursue more of your potential. And when you do that, your best just keeps getting better.


Why Get Better?

This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.

— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

Over the years I've worked with many companies and individuals who have told me that their goal was to become the best at what they did. They each wanted to be recognized as number one or the top in their field or industry. For some, the goal was only aspirational; for others, the goal was actually achieved.

Becoming "the best" is difficult indeed. It takes an intense focus and willingness to invest time, energy, and money that most people are either unwilling or unable to invest.

And there are no guarantees. You can labor for years and still find that reaching the pinnacle eludes you. But as difficult as it is to become the best, there is something even more difficult: becoming the best and then continuing to get even better.


There is only one thing that beats "best" — the best company, the best performer, the best accomplishment — and that is better.

Better. Better always beats best.

Better is an improvement. Better increases value and defeats complacency. Better moves us forward and makes "best" second best.

Everyone likes better: better relationships, better health, better jobs, better everything.

Have you ever heard anyone say, "Please, don't make it better"? I didn't think so.

Customers want better. They like it when they get more in the way of services, products, and benefits.

Our employers want better. They will not pay us more money simply to get more of the same performance. If we want to grow our earning potential, we must also grow the value we contribute to our company.

If you're an employer, a leader, or a manager, your employees and team members likely want better too. They want you to lead them a little better today than you did yesterday. They don't accept complacency in a boss any more happily than a boss accepts complacency in an employee.

What about at home? Wouldn't your spouse prefer a better relationship, regardless of how good it is now? Don't you think that after ten years of marriage, your relationship should be better than it was after ten weeks? We want love to grow, not to stagnate.

If you are not a better parent as you get older, you are not paying attention. If you want your kids to do better and better, you must set the pace and be the example.

In short, better is the ultimate strategy for succeeding in your professional life and in your personal life.


You need a compelling motivator to change any behavior. Among the best motivators is seeing the benefits that will result from making the change. The drive to pursue your potential will be more successful when you are clear on the benefits that effort will provide.

1. Customers

I blog with four great friends and colleagues — Joe Calloway, Scott McKain, Randy Pennington, and Larry Winget — and we periodically offer each of our perspectives on a specific topic.

Recently, we turned to this question: What is the biggest challenge business will face in the future? My response was ever-higher customer expectations. Not only do customers want more and ask for more; increasingly they demand and get more, or they go elsewhere.

That's the problem with being great: expectations are exceedingly high. We don't expect much from mediocre businesses, and when we don't get much, we aren't surprised. But when we do business with an elite organization, things are different: we have higher expectations, we are more sensitive to the experience, and we are more disappointed when we don't get what we expected.

If you aren't growing your value proposition and ability to deliver — in short, getting better — you are unlikely to be growing your customer base (unless you compete at the very low end of the market on price).

2. Competitors

Do you know why locust swarms move so fast? Each locust is trying to eat the locust in front of it. And each locust is being pursued by a locust that wants to eat it. Fly faster and you get lunch; don't fly fast enough, you become lunch.

Doesn't that seem a lot like competition in the workplace today? You are trying to take market share from your competitors, and at the same time your competitors want to take market share from you.

You compete for a job promotion that another half dozen colleagues want as well. Or you interview for a new job at a different company with a plethora of candidates going for the same position.

I love what football coach Woody Hayes said while I was at Ohio State University: "You're either getting better or you're getting worse." In a world where everyone is competing, "status quo" is a myth. If you stay the same, you lose ground to those around you who are making their best better.

3. Change

What's the difference between science fiction and reality? Often just a matter of time. I was floored to read an article in the Wall Street Journal about head transplants being done in China. No, not on humans, but on mice. A leading surgeon there was able to transplant a head on a mouse that then lived for up to a day. That may not be great news for the mice, but it boggles the imagination in terms of where medicine is headed and what in a matter of time may be possible.

Are there any "evergreen" businesses or industries left? What about driving a cab? There will always be a demand for cab drivers, right?

Along came Uber and upset the taxi apple cart. But prognosticators say that Uber and services like it don't have a long-term lock on providing transportation. NEVs (neighborhood electric vehicles) that are driverless may someday displace many vehicles driven by humans. And that likely explains Uber's recent efforts to acquire driverless cars. Smart companies — like smart people — look for potential threats that change creates and then try to make change work for them rather than against them.


Excerpted from "The Potential Principle"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Mark Sanborn.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Part 1 Why You Should Improve

Chapter 1 The Potential Principle 3

Chapter 2 Why Get Better? 11

Part 2 The Path to Improvement

Chapter 3 The Potential Matrix 27

Chapter 4 Escalating Performance 39

If You Don't Think You Can Keep Getting

Better, You Don't Know Jack

Chapter 5 Leveraged Learning 53

How to Go from Waiting Tables to NASA

Chapter 6 Deeper Thinking 67

What You Can Learn from a Famous Sculpture

Chapter 7 Insightful Introspection 79

How to Enter the Room with No Door and Accurate Mirrors

Part 3 The Means of Improvement

Chapter 8 Disrupt Yourself 93

If You Don't, Something or Somebody Else Will

Chapter 9 (re)Focus 105

The Antidote to Perpetual Distraction

Chapter 10 Engage Others 117

The Keys to Uncommon Improvement

Chapter 11 Increasing Capacity 129

The Secret of the Partially Filled Glass

Chapter 12 What Matters 141

How a Speech About Hunting Knife Safety

Changed My Life

Acknowledgments 151

Appendix 1 Sixteen Combinations of Matrix and Breakthrough Improvement 153

Appendix 2 The Eight Questions for Making Your Best Better 159

Notes 161

About the Author 166

Customer Reviews