What is Human Potential?

It's easy, so easy, to see our children's potential in terms of doing well in the world as it is now. We naturally want them to master the challenges in front of them, and so we might think "I want my child to like school more," or "How can I help them really master math?" These are the natural impulses of a parent or teacher wanting to help a young person navigate the world. They're beautiful and important. And, there's something problematic as well. The problem is that we are always shaping the child to the world's needs now, versus excavating the deeper potential of that child, which may be vastly greater than we think.

If you'll join me on this excavation, I think you'll see an immediate problem. We have to admit that we have very, very little idea of what our human potential really is. Nearly everything we think about it is shaped by the world as it is now. We see what's right in front of us - say, learning to read, or applying to college - and we let that fill up our entire vision. It's like the parable of the blind men and the elephant; each man comes across a different body part and is convinced they understand the whole. One touches the leg and exclaims that they've found a tree; another touches the side and says they've found a wall; another touches the trunk and says they've found a snake. How can we zoom out from these narrow views?

My basic belief is that while individual expressions of creativity or genius are very unique to one human, underlying capacity is largely shared. The gifted person of one era becomes the normal person of the next. In other words, those who have uniquely developed a capacity show what is possible for all of us; they've shined a light down in the depths of our human potential and made clear a new area for us to explore. I'm not saying we all have the capacity to become piano virtuosos or chess geniuses, but the road those people have travelled shows us something about the potential in each of us. And usually, the road travelled by the virtuoso-genius is an extremely hard one, as they've had to find and understand potential that no one around them understands; when that road is better understood, it becomes more easily accessible.

To give an example, consider the growth of literacy rates. When very few people could read and books were extremely valuable and rare objects, literacy was considered a skill not only for the privileged, but for the unusually intelligent. In the middle ages in Europe, it was thought that only a fraction of the population had the mental capacity necessary to read, and for the rest, it was just a lost cause. That was their understanding of human potential. Yet those who first gained the skills to read and then began to map out the techniques to follow them showed what not only a few, but nearly every human has the capacity to do. It just took a few centuries for that gifted-ness to become normal. I don't think the human brain evolved substantially in that time period; we had the capacity and the ways to access it were simply not widely known.

At this point I want to give one important caveat: my intention here is not to say that we can stuff academic content down faster or earlier in a child's life. Indeed, I think that can have the opposite effect from what is intended. Instead I'm saying we have reason to believe our human potential is vastly greater on all levels, not just within traditional academic disciplines. Our ability to have more sophisticated and meta-cognitive reasoning, deeper somatic experiencing, access to our full creative abilities, more of our capacity to be present for and connect with others - in essence, more of our wholeness - is what captivates me.

Curiosity about this has led me down a few interesting roads, many of which can be called developmental science. In the West in the past few hundred years a series of thinkers have outlined their best estimates of human potential through developmental stages, which often speak to both psychological orientations and mental capacities. Piaget outlined stages that have become widely known and applied, tracking young people as they evolve from very concrete ways of thinking to more abstract thought. Maslow famously outlined his pyramid of needs, and pointed to stages of development based on the drive to first secure basic safety, all the way up to seeking self-actualization. Wilber extended this idea and blended it with elements that might be considered spiritual, or about how we see ourselves in relation to the universe as we reach more potential. There are parallels in non-Western cultures as well, for example descriptions of the stages of growth through meditation practices coming from Buddhist traditions in Asia. Each of these human-potential explorers carry cultural baggage and bias, yet point toward something universal and innate about human potential.

All of this is an appetizer, just something to whet the appetite and remind us that we should not spend all of our efforts trying to shape our children to fit the world as it is now. That is an important endeavor, but if we do that alone, we’ll miss their deeper potential. If humanity continues to evolve and avoids self-destruction, what will future generations think of as normal, which today are seen as rare? Will future generations think it's astonishing that we had kids sit down for most of the day, ignoring the native intelligence and capacity in their bodies? Will they chuckle that we never taught kids how to breathe or track somatic states, since that determines their ability to focus and manage their emotions? Or will they marvel that we taught them how to do experiments in lab settings but never really got around to systems thinking, that ability to see how the ripples of one decision affect dozens of others? These are just a few I wonder about. Let's wonder together and let that wondering serve young people, for whom so much is possible.