Want to help your kids achieve their potential? This expert has some advice

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In about two weeks, more than 76,000 Australian students will receive their higher school certificate results and take their first tentative steps towards discovering what they will do in their careers, and who they want to become. But it’s rarely a linear journey.

For parents, supporting children down this uncertain path can be daunting: how can they help their child unlock their potential? How can they help them build a future that is both successful and secure?

There are many ways parents can help children reach their potential. There are also many ways they can stifle it.Credit: iStock

In their well-intentioned efforts, many parents push their children down the paths that appear the most well-trodden and reliable. But they risk stifling their child’s potential in the process.

The subject of potential, and how we might all go about discovering it, is one Adam Grant explores in his new book, Hidden Potential, published last month.

The way we inadvertently thwart our – and often our children’s potential – has become a familiar scenario to Grant during his 15 years as an organisational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School.

“I’ve had countless students come into my office who say ‘I feel torn between pursuing the major and career path I’m excited about and not disappointing my parents and following their dreams’,” says Grant, who was voted Wharton’s top-rated professor for seven straight years.

“It’s tragic. As a parent, you should want your kids to live their dreams, not yours.”

Over the phone from San Francisco, Grant adds that parents foisting unrealised dreams onto their children is one part of it, but there’s also genuine concern for the future.

“Often a really big mistake parents make is they impose the models of career success that were relevant when they were finishing school,” says the 42-year-old father of three.

For instance, before the global financial crisis, he witnessed parents telling their children that the path to a stable and lucrative career meant getting a degree in finance and a job in banking. “Then all those positions disappeared. It was stunning to watch.”

The idea that arts degrees are “useless” is a fallacy, Grant adds. He points to a 2019 study suggesting parents pushed their children towards STEM degrees because they believed those careers would pay well.

In the “salary race”, it is true that the science, technology, engineering and maths graduates earn more initially. But those who study history, English or social science degrees and are taught problem-solving, critical thinking and adaptability ultimately catch up, often surpassing their STEM contemporaries.

“Parents may well push their kids in directions that seem to be really practical, but don’t know what employers actually value,” says Grant. “There’s such a premium on the character skills or what some people call soft skills or behavioural skills: communication, teamwork, leadership.”

Soft skills, a term that originated in the 1960s from US Army psychologists tasked with developing proficiency in soldiers beyond the literal “hard skills” of working with weapons and machines, are becoming increasingly important in a world where technology may replace other jobs.

Adam Grant has advice for parents who want to help their kids reach their potential.

Grant recounts chatting with a “very influential person in tech”, who told Grant it was impossible to plan a career more than a couple of years ahead – when he graduated from university, the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk hadn’t yet finished school.

“We couldn’t predict what kinds of companies were going to exist, and we didn’t know what kinds of jobs were going to exist,” he says.

Now, generative AI is upending work in brand-new ways and inevitably changing the future of work and jobs yet again: “I think it’s awfully arrogant to assume that you can tell your kids what a stable career looks like.”

By directing our kids down a path that is not of their choosing, there are several likely outcomes, Grant suggests.

“I think it’s awfully arrogant to assume that you can tell your kids what a stable career looks like.”

They fail to thrive, or burnout because they end up in a job that is not aligned with their values, interests and skills; they resent you; or they rebel and deliberately do the opposite.

How, then, can parents support their children to achieve their potential?

Potential is not innate, it’s developed

Seeing natural talent in others can make us discount our own – or our kid’s – abilities in a certain area, as can admiring someone at their peak without considering how far they’ve come.

Yet in Grant’s book, he illustrates the experiences of those whose potential was not immediately obvious – including his own.

Though Grant eventually became a diver on the junior Olympic team, when he first tried out for his school diving team, it seemed like a hopeless pursuit. The coach told him that the sport required grace and flexibility, but that Grant walked like Frankenstein, couldn’t touch his toes, and the coach was quite sure his grandmother could outjump him.

Similarly, though he has become a New York Times bestselling author three times, he failed the mandatory writing test in his first year at Harvard and was instructed to do a remedial writing course – one reserved for “jocks and international students who spoke English as a fifth language”.

“A lot of people believe passion is out in the world waiting to be discovered,” Grant tells me. “If you can just turn over the right stone you’ll find the thing you love.”

“Parents may well push their kids in directions that seem to be really practical, but don’t know what employers actually value,” says Grant.Credit: Janie Barrett

It’s hard to enjoy something when we find it hard, or we are failing. But progress can be a result of passion, just as passion is an outcome of progress.

“Too often what we do is take on a new hobby or skill or task and say, ‘Oh this is not fun, it’s not for me’, as opposed to saying, ‘I’m not good at this yet, let me see once I get a little better if I like it’.”

In both writing and diving, he focused on his own growth and progress and relied on the guidance of credible mentors (in Grant’s case, his diving coach, who was ultimately his greatest champion, and teachers who knew him well and believed in his capacity to be a great writer).

How do you know if you’ve achieved your potential?

We often look to extrinsic rewards – titles, money, awards – as the metrics of success.

But, Grant argues: “They are status symbols that we use to broadcast to others and to ourselves that we matter and I think they are really poor proxies for mattering. I think we have all been in situations where we can admire people not for what they’ve achieved but for who they’ve become or what they’ve contributed to others.”

Achieving our potential involves aligning with what is important to us. He suggests asking ourselves two questions. When did you feel most alive? And when did you feel most proud of what you had accomplished or contributed?

Achieving our potential, Grant reminds us, is not a fixed destination. He tells school-leavers that it often twists and turns, stops and starts along the way, as we learn more about ourselves and what is important to us, and we start to uncover our own potential to grow.

“I think we know when we fall short of our potential, and we feel like we’re stagnating or squandering some of our strength, or we’re avoiding working on an Achilles heel that has become a limiting weakness,” Grant says, as our call is ending. “But I don’t think we ever fully know if we’ve realised our potential, and I think that’s good.”

Good, I ask? “It leads us to not be complacent. If you feel like you’ve realised your potential, you’re done. There’s no more growth. Growth is intrinsically motivating.”

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