To boost your potential, try saying “Yes” more often

By | January 29, 2007

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Have you ever noticed how often you say “No?” Not just to things that merit refusal, but to fresh ideas, new possibilities and the chance to make unexpected discoveries? Whenever you say “No” to life, you miss an opportunity: to discover something new, to try something you haven’t tried before, to learn and grow, to find some aspect of yourself or others that you missed before. To start afresh with an interest, a project or maybe your life’s true calling.

Okay, it’s impossible to say “Yes” to everything, but you could almost certainly say “Yes” to more than you do. Listen to yourself. When someone invites you to join them in something they love—and that you haven’t ever tried—what do you say? Do you take the chance to try it? Or do you politely turn them down because your time is too precious to waste on anything that you are not sure you’ll like in advance?

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Learning and living are the same. When you stop learning, you start to die a little every day. There’s scientific evidence links between brain cells can re-grow at any age if you give them some exercise. Your brain is a case of “use it or lose it.”

When I wrote my book on potential, one of the most important ideas I wanted to share was the real nature of potential. It isn’t intelligence, or wealth, or power. Potential is possibility. The more choices and possibilities you have before you, the more potential you have. That’s why everyone has potential—and so little of it gets used.

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Consider two people. Martin is intelligent, but likes to stick with what he knows. Manuela is full of curiosity and likes to try new things and learn about them for herself.

Run forward a few years. Martin is doing what he always does. He has a sound position but he hasn’t advanced. Manuela has tried scores of new ideas and is still eager to learn. The world never stands still, so Martin is in danger of being left behind. His carefully built security can be overturned any day by some unexpected event. If it is, he’ll find he’s lost most of his confidence and ease in learning. Change will be forced on him and he probably won’t cope well. For Manuela, change is normal. She could still face upsets and setbacks, but she’s learned how to learn and cope positively with change. Whenever she needs it, learning will come easily from so much practice.

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Potential is possibility. Few possibilities in your life? You have little potential. To increase it, add new choices. Learning is the only way. It’s a basic law of nature. The species most tightly tied to a single niche environment are the ones most likely to become extinct. The most adaptable species—not the fastest, biggest or cleverest—survive and prosper whatever happens. Want proof? Look around you at all the pigeons and sparrows. Not much danger they’ll die out any time soon, is there? But they aren’t powerful birds like eagles, or even clever ones like parrots. What they are is supremely adaptable.

So try it. Say “Yes” to something you would normally turn down. Try different food, different music, going to a movie you’d normally avoid. Try behaving differently. If you’re usually shy, try making the first move to speak to someone interesting. If you’re noisy and extroverted, try standing back quietly and watching while others take the limelight. Whatever happens, you’ll learn something. You may even discover something unexpectedly good. It doesn’t need to be anything dramatic. What matters is that you open yourself to more of what life has to offer, instead of hanging back and staying with what you already know.

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So many people go through life and work convinced that there is only one path open to them. That makes it true, because they never try anything else. But the world is a huge, glorious experiment, not a set of rules to be followed and boxes to the checked. How much you are willing to join in that experiment is up to you. The closer that you stick to the same script, the less you will discover about what might be even better. What holds most people back is fear of losing what they already have, however imperfect it might be. Just remember that you are in control of the experiment. You can try a little change as easily as a huge one. And if it doesn’t work, you can always go back and try again. Saying “No” is the real risk, because it closes the door forever on anything different.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization, is now available at all good bookstores.

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Most of us have one or two areas of knowledge that we strive to know very well — things related to our jobs, of course, and maybe a hobby or two. But while it’s important to develop a deep understanding of the things that matter most to us, it is just as important to develop a broad understanding of the world in general.

A lot of unfortunate people think that learning for the sake of learning is something for schoolchildren, and maybe college students. All the things there are to learn and know that don’t impact directly on their immediate lives they dismiss as “trivia”. Out in the “real world”, they think, there’s no time for such frivolities — there’s serious work to get done!

Benefits of Learning Something New

There are a lot of good, practical reasons to make learning something new every day your habit, but the best reason has nothing to do with practicality — we are learning creatures, and the lifelong practice of learning is what makes us humans and our lives worthwhile. If that idealistic musing’s not enough, here’s some more down-to-earth benefits:

  • Learning across a wide range of subjects gives us a range of perspectives to call on in our own narrow day-to-day areas of specialization.
  • Learning helps us more easily and readily adapt to new situations.
  • A broad knowledge of unfamiliar situations feeds innovation by inspiring us to think creatively and providing examples to follow.
  • Learning deepens our character and makes us more inspiring to those around us.
  • Learning makes us more confident.
  • Learning instills an understanding of the historical, social, and natural processes that impact and limit our lives.
  • And, like I said, there’s the whole “making like worth living” thing.

There is, after all, a reason the term “well-read” is a compliment.

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5 Ways to Learn Something New Every Day

With the entire world of knowledge just a few mouse-clicks away, it has never been easier than it is right now to learn something new and unexpected every day. Here are a few simple ways to make expanding your horizons a part of your daily routine:

1. Subscribe to Wikipedia’s “Featured Article” List

Every day, Wikipedia posts an article selected from its vast repository of entries to it’s Daily-article-l subscribers.

If you were a subscriber, you could have recently discovered that Daylight Saving Time was first proposed by William Willett in 1907 and adopted during World War I as a way to conserve coal. You might have also been interested to find out that Kazakhstan discontinued Daylight Saving Time in 2005 because of alleged health risks associated with changed sleep patterns.

2. Read The Free Dictionary’s Homepage or Subscribe to Its Feeds

The Free Dictionary has several daily features on its front page, including Article of the Day (RSS), In the News (RSS), This Day in History (RSS), and Today’s Birthday (RSS).

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An example story is about the history of the Hell’s Angels, the identity of the new “7 Wonders of the World”, the origin of the first cultured pearl, and the life story of one of the world’s most prominent tenors.

3. Subscribe to the Feed at Your Daily Art (RSS)

Every day you’ll be confronted with a classic work of art to contemplate, along with a few notes about the piece.

If you subscribe, you may read about Man Ray’s intriguing and playful “Le Violin d’Ingres” and Frank Weston Benson’s luminous “Red and Gold”.

4. Subscribe to the Feeds at Did You Know? and Tell Me Why?

These sites are both run by an R. Edmondson, who certainly knows a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff. Updates are slightly less than daily, but I like the two sites so much I couldn’t leave them off this list.

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If you were a subscriber to these sites, you’d have learned why clouds are white, what the European Union is, the French terms for the days of the week and the months of the year, and the history of the development of public health efforts in response to the hazards of the Industrial Revolution.

5. Listen to Podcasts like In Our Time and Radio Open Source

Radio Open Source is a daily interview/panel show covering everything from politics to science to art and literature to the greatness of the movie Groundhog Day. (At the moment, Radio Open Source is on summer hiatus, but subscribe anyway — they’ll be back!)

For a history of the events and ideas that shaped the present, In Our Time is ideal: a weekly gathering of scholars discussing subjects as diverse as the life of Joan of Arc, theories of gravity, and what we know about the Permian-Triassic boundary. Subscribe to a handful of good, literary podcasts and get smart while you drive!

Here’re even more inspiring podcasts not to miss:

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And a FREE 20-minute intensive class to supercharge your learning ability:

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