What is “Human Potential”? A Brief Introduction (and Thought Experiment)
Diamonds, Butterflies, and What We Can Become
What is “human potential”?
These words get thrown around a lot.
They’re often undefined, used loosely, and mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.
But what are they really referring to?
Well, one thing is clear: this topic can get messy, fast.
After all, it’s easy to just blurt out, “Human potential could be anything!” drop the mic, and walk away.
Want to become a champion underwater yodeler? You can do it! Want to play for the NBA without ever leaving your couch? Go for it! Want to shoot lasers from your eyes, start fires with your thoughts, and play lead trumpet in the Philharmonic using only your belly-button? Live your dreams! Self-actualization for everyone! On the house!
But the trick here isn’t just about what’s possible.
It’s about what’s actually worth doing.
Plenty of things are possible that are bad ideas.
The trick here is sorting out all the vast possibilities in a way that’s actually useful.
And also potential for good. After all, we have plenty of “human potential” to get things wrong, which we explore here.
So, let’s try to dig into this methodically.
Let’s divide the answers into two broad groups.
On one side, there are lofty, abstract platitudes.
On the other, there are essentially mundane tasks that often get coated with a layer of hype.
The aim here is to find the sweet spot: practical enough to be useful, yet lofty enough to be inspiring.
It’s a tall order.
But this sounds like a job for some trusty, overcaffeinated LiveReal Agents.
First, let’s wrangle the problem and turn it into something at least partially coherent. Then let’s loosen up a bit, do some brainstorming, and see where this might take us.
These waters can get pretty wild.
Let’s wade in.
When we use the words “human potential,” what do we mean, exactly?
Is it something far-out, wild, extraordinary, and utterly beyond the reach of our puny imaginations? For example, phrases like “Make your dreams come true!” “Live life to the fullest!” “Anything is possible!” get tossed around here. There’s often a rah-rah, “go for it!” pep-rally vibe to it. In this sense, “human potential” is trying to get at something wonderful and extraordinary. Fair enough. But once the pep-rally ends, streamers are laying all over the ground, the gym is empty and everyone has gone home, it generally gets forgotten about. It seemed fun to think about sometimes, but really, it’s impractical and unreal.
Or is it something fairly mundane? This is what a lot of folks are actually talking about, usually a layer or two beneath the surface: we all have “potential” to do some everyday tasks at least a little more effectively. We could all probably improve our math skills, for example. Or piano. If we really clenched hard and went for it, we could probably work out more, climb a little higher in the social hierarchy, learn to juggle, etc. In this sense, “human potential” is referring to something very real and practical, but isn’t really all that inspiring or extraordinary. At the end of the day, it’s mundane.
Is it something rare? Some achievements are one in a million, or a billion. Certain qualities are rare: some folks are just exceptionally smart, good-looking, or talented in some field or other, for example. One guy can hold his breath for hours; someone else is a math genius; someone else actually can make trumpet noises with his belly-button. (Some things can’t be taught.) These are all possible, but rare.
Or is it something commonplace? Maybe everything is what it is, and well, that’s pretty much it. Everyone, everywhere is doing the best they can, more or less. Aside from a few outliers, things are pretty much as they should be. There are no great “potentials.”
Is it something that will happen in the distant future? Maybe we’ll evolve for thousands or millions of years, and then we’ll crack it. (In the meantime, well, sorry. And good luck.)
Or is it something that we can experience here and now, or at least, relatively soon? Maybe it’s not some far-off event that will take place long after we’re gone, in a million years or so. Maybe it’s something we can factor in and experience as part of our lives, now.
Let’s narrow the focus a bit.
Let’s look at a few references that might help us.
The “potential” for a caterpillar is to become a butterfly.
So, “caterpillar potential” is undergoing the process of becoming a butterfly.
Along the same lines:
“Acorn potential” is to become an oak.
“Coal potential” is to become a diamond.
“Oyster potential” is to form a pearl.
All of these aren’t just possible, they’re actual. Natural, even.
So, with these references in mind, let’s ask again:
What is “human potential”?
Let’s start with something pretty safe and reasonable.
Does “human potential” mean maximizing our intelligence?
Humans have several different types of intelligence. For example, we could look at the ones Howard Gardner proposed a while ago:
1. musical-rhythmic intelligence
2. visual-spatial intelligence
3. verbal-linguistic intelligence
4. logical-mathematical intelligence
5. bodily-kinesthetic intelligence
6. interpersonal intelligence
7. intrapersonal intelligence
8. naturalistic intelligence
9. moral intelligence
10. existential intelligence
We could add a few here, if we wanted. “Street smarts,” for example, could be another type of intelligence. And there’s also financial, artistic, sexual, empathetic, spiritual, aesthetic, and so on. (Many of these overlap. But science has hardly mapped any of this all that well, so we’re just brainstorming here.)
This seems both doable and somewhat interesting.
So, we could stop here, and just say that “human potential” means “maximizing our various forms of intelligence.”
But let’s push further.
Because there seems to be something missing there.
Honestly, this doesn’t seem to really nail it.
There’s a sense that there’s something more to all this that we haven’t figured out yet. Developing all of our intelligences sounds great, of course. But there’s a nagging sense that we aren’t really there yet.
After all: a caterpillar doesn’t “develop its ‘butterfly intelligence.’”
An oyster doesn’t “develop its ‘pearl intelligence.’”
A chunk of coal doesn’t “develop its ‘diamond intelligence.’” And so on.
With these, it’s a matter of becoming.
It’s not just a certain quality that something develops. It’s what something becomes.
So, let’s keep asking: what can a human being “become”?
This could be something really simple.
We know humans don’t turn into butterflies, or oak trees, or diamonds.
But what if humans could become something else?
What if it’s nothing quite so concrete as the kinds of physical transformations mentioned above? What it it’s something more subtle, less obvious, or even deceptively simple?
For example: what if we can become ourselves?
What would that mean, to “become yourself”?
Let’s formulate a potential definition.
What if “human potential” simply means “reaching full maturity”?
Well, that’s something.
After all, a butterfly could be seen as a caterpillar that “reaches full maturity.” The diamond, pearl, oak, and so on, all could be seen as an early form of something that eventually “reached full maturity.”
But for humans?
That probably sounds, well, a bit dull. Right?
After all, “reaching full maturity” as a human just doesn’t usually sound like much fun.
It often conjures up images of modern adulthood: worrying about mortgages and paying bills, rushing around doing errands, fighting traffic, struggling under a heavy burden of responsibilities. Rat-races, daily grinds, gathering up status-symbols, keeping up with Joneses, etc.
Is that what it’s all about, the point of it all?
If so, well, that might not seem all that great.
But what if this approach is missing something also?
What if our normal conception of “adulthood” is really just a stage of caterpillarness?
What if “full maturity” is actually an entirely different phase? What if it’s something completely beyond our normal idea of it?
This hearkens back to the original “human potential” movement from the 1970’s. Humanistic Psychology, Abraham Maslow (of “hierarchy of needs” and “self-actualization” fame), and these days, Transpersonal and Positive Psychology.
Most Transpersonal theorists take this as a given: that there are stages more advanced than what we think of as “normal human adulthood.”
Michael Washburn, for example, breaks down three stages, based around “ego”: 1) pre-egoic, 2) egoic, and 3) post-egoic. (Here, “egoic” is ordinary adulthood, roughly speaking – a functioning ego – and “post-egoic” is what comes after.)
Ken Wilber posits human development as consisting of nine stages, several of which go beyond what we might describe as “normal adulthood.”
But that said: anything beyond “normal adulthood” might sound like nonsense to “normal adults.”
This is where things might start getting a bit strange.
Because let’s remember: this is us studying ourselves.
Let’s pull on this string just a bit, because it can shed light on why this stuff can be so tricky.
We sometimes approach these matters the same way we’d study physics or math problems. The idea is essentially this: there are clear and objective answers out there, and then there’s me, in here. I (“in here”) am an independent, unbiased, and uninvolved researcher; that (“out there”) is an independent, external, unaffected object of my research.
But humans studying "human potential" is a bit more complicated than that.
Those lines can become blurry, and fast.
The level of the theorist impacts his or her understanding of the theory.
For example, imagine an adolescent studying “adulthood.” Or better yet, a toddler. No matter how intelligent, perceptive, hard-working, or well-educated that toddler is, “adulthood” will be, to some degree, abstract and theoretical.
It might even sound like nonsense.
If it’s explained poorly, or especially if that toddler has no adults around to reference or model, the conclusion that there’s some mysterious, hypothetical, mystical state some fuzzy-minded dreamers call “adulthood” becomes much more likely.
Or, even if that toddler is uniquely perceptive and open-minded, the difference is still an order of magnitude: there’s knowing about the idea of adulthood, and there’s being an adult. Two very different orders of “knowledge.”
Can a caterpillar imagine life as a butterfly?
If one tried, it would probably imagine some kind of highly modified caterpillar. Something like a caterpillar with wings attached.
This is part of why things in this realm are so weird and difficult to communicate about. There are many people at many different levels of development, all talking – or trying to talk – about the same things. And they can sometimes get competitive (present company excluded, of course), and they can disregard areas that sound strange and that they have no experience of as nonsense.
Things can get messy, fast.
So let’s stick to what we really know.
At this point, let’s try to stick to things that seem fairly self-evident.
And we feel.
(Not too controversial, right? If someone thinks or feels differently about this, let us know.)
If we think, we can posit something we think with. Let’s call this a “mind.”
If we feel, let’s posit something we feel with, or the “thing” that feels. Let’s call this a “heart.”
(To be clear to hardcore materialists: we aren’t talking about the physical heart here. We’re talking about what we feel things like emotions with, from a first-person perspective.)
Our radical conclusion: we have bodies, hearts, and minds.
Hopefully this is fairly self-evident.
Now, we can ask a different question:
What’s the highest potential that our hearts and minds are capable of?
Or another way to phrase this:
What is “peak fitness” for our hearts and minds?
(Let’s put the body aside for now. Plenty of information is out there already on peak physical fitness. Let’s focus instead on the harder stuff.)
What is “maximum fitness” for the heart?
Now let’s brainstorm a bit, just as a thought experiment.
Well, it would involve feelings, since that’s what hearts do.
It would involve functioning well – effectively and efficiently. For example, spending all month worrying about some insignificant concern that never amounts to anything: that could be described as “inefficient.” A valid concern about a realistic possibility, “efficient.”
So, it sounds like this would involve a certain freedom from things like unnecessary fear, anger, worry, doubt, guilt, shame, numbness, anxiety, depression, emptiness, nothingness, and overall misery and suffering.
That’s a perspective from the negative side of things.
On the positive side, it would mean strong and enduring experiences of things like joy, love, confidence, compassion, empathy, strength, beauty, inspiration, awe, and a general sense of some kind of profound appreciation for life, oneself, and others.
Of course, life throws us all kinds of hardships.
This kind of “peak fitness of the heart” would involve facing those hardships directly. It would mean being able to face them without flinching, and then dealing with them in the best possible way.
So, for example, when it came to dealing with jerks or people we dislike, instead of them arousing anger, fear, hostility and so on in us, we’d be able – even under those circumstances – to maintain some sort of peace and equanimity.
So it would probably look something like “antifragile happiness.”
It would mean a certain kind of happiness that could endure whatever life might throw at us – and not just endure, but get stronger.
And since we’re brainstorming, that’s not a bad one. After all, what if we had a kind of happiness that could absorb the slings and arrows of life and use them to become stronger? What if there was a kind of happiness that was like Neo at the end of The Matrix when he absorbs Agent Smith into himself, digests him (or something), and then, umm, digests/explodes him, or something?
What if we could do something roughly the same with the hardships and suffering life throws at us?
It’s a tall order. But hey, we’re brainstorming. We can get lofty here.
That’s one side.
But what about “peak fitness” for the mind?
What might that look like?
Well, we could run in a lot of directions here. For example, we could focus again on some specific dimension like musical intelligence, or math, or some specialized topic like the grooming habits of Albanian dung beetles.
Or we could approach the mind as a giant storehouse of information. Its “potential” in this sense would look something like the ability to become a walking, talking, human Wikipedia, with a head stuffed full of a bunch of random facts. (Which is often what schools train us to be. The idea is, apparently, that we’re buckets to dump piles of information into. Which would work well, if life was a game show.)
(But it isn’t.)
So let’s ignore those.
They might be fine in some cases (when we’re playing Trivial Pursuit, for example) – but they aren’t what we’re after here.
Let’s focus instead on, well, a certain kind of “street-smarts.”
When it comes to “peak fitness of the mind,” there’s having piles of information at your disposal, and cluttering your mind up with piles of facts, also known as much of the modern educational approach.
But then there’s knowing what to do with that information.
And, even more: there’s knowing what’s worth doing.
This wouldn’t be intelligence about math, or music, or the climatology of Peru.
It would be an intelligence about life itself.
Another way to say this would not just one the enhancement of one particular sense like seeing, or hearing, or tasting, or smelling, but the common sense, where the information from all of these senses unite to become one single thing: our experience.
In other words, well, “common sense.”
After all, we live by “common sense.” We make our decisions – day-to-day and the big, life-changing ones – based on this. And this can be either more “in touch” or more “out of touch.” It’s not fixed; it changes. Someone can lack common sense – someone who is really naïve, for example – but then, sometimes through their own efforts, they can acquire more of it through a process of something like “wising up.”
And that’s what we’re after here: “wising up.”
This gets at the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Between book-smarts and street-smarts. Between “knowing a lot” and “understanding.”
Knowledge and book-smarts are relatively tangible, measurable, and easy.
Wisdom, street-smarts, and understanding is an entirely different animal. It’s something parts of our organized educational systems often ignore, lack, distort, or even actively discourage. It’s often intangible, immeasurable, and difficult.
But still: what if we could consciously and deliberately develop our “common sense”?
What if it was like a skill that became better with practice, or like muscles that get stronger through certain exercises?
What if our minds weren’t clogged up with random irrelevant thoughts, or cluttered up with useless random facts, or absorbed in an endless parade of distractions, or forced to listen to a repeating loop of jingles from commercials we heard ten years ago?
So, what is “peak fitness” for the mind?
Maybe “common sense” isn’t the best moniker here. After all, “common sense” is supposed to be common. Whether it is or not, we’re aiming for the outer limits of what’s possible.
Maybe a better word is “intuition.”
After all, “intuition” can be sharpened or dulled, present or absent, clean or muddy, consciously developed or deliberately ignored.
“Intuition” here could be something more like a highly sharpened, highly developed, highly refined common sense.
It might be demonstrated well, as one example, through the phrase from AA: it’s something roughly like the ability to “change the things I can, accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
That “wisdom” part is what we’re trying to get at here.
There’s a certain clarity, sanity, “in touch-ness” with reality that we’re trying to bring into focus.
In this sense, the “mind” would be less like static piles of useless information in an idle, dusty warehouse, and more like a radio that’s tuned in to The Action of life. “The Action” here being, well, reality. No static. No interference. No “can you hear me now?”
We could stop here again, and say that something like this is a good resting spot for “human potential.”
But let’s keep going.
So now, let’s put the two of these together.
What if we had optimal fitness for both the heart and the mind?
But let’s push this even further, and brainstorm a bit more.
What if combining these two added up to more than the sum total of their parts?
What if both of these together worked like the two poles of a battery, or like the electrodes of a spark plug?
What if, together, they were capable of conducting a certain kind of current, energy, or power that was something entirely different than what either of them was capable of separately?
What if each of these worked like an eye?
What if, by itself, each eye could “see” just fine.
But what if, when put together, something entirely new became possible: “depth perception”?
What if it’s an entirely new way of perceiving that wasn’t possible before? Another entire dimension?
What if there’s a kind of depth perception within ourselves?
Telescopes allow us to see further into the universe than the naked eye. Microscopes allow us to see things are otherwise hidden at a microscopic level. What if a mind and heart are also instruments that, when they’re working together at peak condition, allow us to see other things that would otherwise be hidden? Just more of the world – and especially things like joy, love, compassion, and so on?
What if there was some kind of entirely new quality that would come about when things are in full working order, whatever form that might take?
Let’s use some terminology from systems theory here.
Systems theory calls this “emergence.”
It’s what happens when new properties or behaviors emerge when parts interact in a wider whole. It’s the opposite, in ways, of reductionism (which is typically used to reduce us as thinking we’re less than we are.)
A classic example is a human being, and a bicycle. Separately, not much happens. But put them together, and suddenly, both become able to travel at great speeds and win bike races in France.
What if an “emergent quality” could come about through the optimum fitness of both heart and mind – like depth perception in eyes, or electrical current in a battery?
Once again, we could stop here.
But let’s keep pushing even further.
What if this “emergence” would be something really cool?
What if it was something like a certain ongoing experience of inner peace, happiness and clarity?
Not in a strange, buzzed-out, narcotized sense that numbs and distances us from life, but just the opposite – it connects us to it more deeply? What if it encompasses everything real about life that we know now, but frames it within a larger context of a bigger picture or more encompassing story?
What if that was a kind of transformation that’s possible for us – the human equivalents of becoming butterflies, pearls, oaks, or diamonds?
What if this is nothing far-out, but something actually simple and natural, like us reaching full maturity?
What if this kind of “maturity” meant a certain strength of mind and heart that makes us more capable of handling whatever slings and arrows life hurls at us? And to whatever degree is possible, becoming stronger as a result?
What if “reaching full maturity” – something we clearly seem to be built to do, at least physically (why not mentally and emotionally as well?) – meant finding freedom from that nagging sense that we should be doing something we usually aren’t?
What if it meant relief from angst?
What if caterpillars have their own version of angst?
What if Hank the Fuzzy Caterpillar feels a nagging sense that he should start building a cocoon, but just doesn’t want to get around to it? And if he doesn’t do it, and his angst gets worse? And what if, one day, he finally builds that cocoon – and suddenly, experiences a huge rush of relief?
Hank’s angst, then, magically evaporates.
Well, this might seem better than a poke in the belly.
But of course, this kind of thing is hard.
Maybe many of our first few tries in this direction have been rough, awkward, somewhat crude attempts that have often run into one ditch or another.
This endeavor doesn’t just involve only psychology, but is connected with aspects of philosophy, spirituality, religion, biology, sociology, politics, certain aspects of medicine, and others.
And it hasn’t always gone well.
It’s not uncommon for us to take things that really could be really great, and to convert them into other things that eventually wind up squashing us, boring us, or sending us into hiding.
Maybe the effort here is to do something that’s just incredibly difficult.
Especially when it comes to things as deeply personal, and important, and difficult, as all this. The closer we get to the nuclear rods at the center, the more warped time and space and our thinking seems to get.
But all of this could serve as a clue: we’re on to something here.
Sorting out all of this will require a lot of work.
Figuring out where things have gone right and wrong, debugging the entire process, refining the practical communications and defusing all the misunderstandings: no small endeavor.
Maybe our initial efforts have been something like this:
Our first attempts at flying didn’t go all that well, either.
But we persisted. And before too long, we were prancing around on the moon.
Diamonds, starting from coal, supposedly take millions of years to happen naturally.
But well, we’ve now studied the process of how diamonds are created. We’ve figured out how to replicate the process, and how to basically create them ourselves.
They have the same physical properties and chemical composition as those that are naturally formed. They’re just as shiny, according to some folks, at least. They seem to be legit. They don’t seem to be “fake,” any more than electricity is “fake lightening.” We just worked hard to really understand how the process works, and eventually cracked it.
And now there’s a bit more sparkly in the world.
So, could we do the same with ourselves?
Is there a “synthetic diamond” of inner strength?
Is there a way to start with the raw stuff of human nature – the coal within ourselves – and transform it?
Is there a way to learn more about the process of cultivating happier, healthier, more sane, more compassionate, more loving, more kind human beings?
Well, that seems like something worth investigating. There are worse ways to spend an afternoon.
And yes: there’s reason for caution, and careful study, and humility in all this.
But maybe – if we settle down, think clearly, speak coherently, and work together on this – we’ll crack this, too.
Maybe even sooner than we think.