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If you want to reach your full potential you must constantly evaluate yourself. There are always obstacles. Sometimes, it might be a lack of skill, so you go back to school. At other times, it might be interpersonal skills that you need to develop. However, one of the biggest hurdles is something that doesn’t get much attention. I’m going to call it a social glass ceiling.
Whether we admit it or not, our ideas about what we can accomplish are very much related to the capabilities of the people we are around. It is as if we have an internal bell curve that we use to compare our performance with our peers. If you outperform everyone around you in a certain area, it is going to be difficult to reach your full potential.
I’ve been in classes where I was the top student. I don’t mean I was in the top 10%. I mean I was hands down the best student in the class. It would take me 15 minutes to complete the tests that were scheduled for 60 minutes, where most of the other students would run out of time. In one of these classes, I had earned an A for the entire class after the first two weeks. The professor told me I didn’t need to show up anymore if I didn’t feel like it.
In another class I was not the best student. In fact, I had serious doubts as to whether or not I could even pass the class. I loved the material, but everyone else seemed so much further ahead than me. They could grasp the concepts easily that required so much effort for me. Halfway through the class, I dropped it because I was having such a hard time and took it again the next year. I studied very hard and still ended up with a “B”, with which I was absolutely thrilled.
Of these two classes, the second one pushed me closer to the limits of my potential than the first. That push resulted in greater growth, not only in that area of study, but in my general abilities. Obviously, I did better in the first class from a grade standpoint, but from a personal development standpoint the second class made me push myself further than I had ever been required before.
To really challenge ourselves, we must be surrounded with people who are better. It is said that your salary is usually equal to the average the salaries of your 10 closest friends. This is a good general rule for everything–not just finances. The capabilities of our friends average together to create a social glass ceiling. Even if you work hard and break through the ceiling, it will still exert constraints on your progress. If you want to truly push the limits of your potential, the people with whom you interact must be people who significantly challenge you in the areas where you want to excel.
The first version of this post was originally published October 20th, 2005