Book Review: 99U’s Maximize Your Potential

I have just finished my copy of 99U’s new book Maximize Your Potential ahead of its official release, and overall found it to be a fun and energizing read. The full title of the book is Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career. With such bold claims, I steeled myself against the possibility of bold predictions, gimmicky rituals, and other hallmarks of the “self-help” genre of books.

Based on my familiarity with the work of 99U, the Webby-award winning imprint of Behance, I had a feeling that this book would avoid those trappings. Although breaks between essays are peppered with aspirational quotes that could occasionally adorn the motivational posters of boardroom walls, the content submitted by their twenty two contributors is solid and constructive. I consider myself an “accidental leadership educator,” choosing to impart principles of effective leadership to students outside of the standard delivery methods our field has come to adopt. But an unorthodox approach doesn’t mean that I haven’t done a great deal of the required reading.

In these books on leadership, productivity, and idea execution, two common problems emerge. First, the models for leadership are rigid, prescribing courses of action that are not always feasible or realistic for individuals aspiring to a better, but ultimately attainable, version of themselves. Second, the advice between the covers is specific to an industry (business and education are two common target audiences), leaving those striving to adapt these principles on their own in doing so.

Maximize Your Potential addresses both of these common pitfalls of productivity literature in its format. The easily digestible essays are divided among four parts of the book: Creating Opportunities, Building Expertise, Cultivating Relationships, and Taking Risks. Within each section are four essays and a Q&A with a contributor accustomed to utilizing these principles in the day-to-day. There are no models to memorize and digest, no lists of do’s and don’ts to subscribe to. The content is universal enough to be easily applicable to a variety of industries, but not so broad that it becomes unusable or uninspiring. When describing the book to someone, I described its contents as “able to inspire action where other literature fails to do so.”

One of my favorite passages from the book comes in an essay called “Leaning Into Uncertainty” by Jonathan Fields. Like so many other essays contained within Maximize, it speaks to common traps and concerns we face both at the office and within ourselves:

When you reframe uncertainty as possibility, the above question [How can we live in the shade of uncertainty long enough to birth genius?] changes. Nothing truly innovative, nothing that has ever advanced art, business, design, or humanity, was ever created in the face of genuine certainty or perfect information. Because the only way to be certain before you begin is if the thing you seek to do has already been done. In which case, you’re no longer creating, you’re replicating. And that’s not why we’re here.

This passage and so many others in the book serve as firm reminders of our quest for creativity without approaching the topic in a holier-than-thou fashion. In their estimation, being innovative while creating powerful and genuine relationships can be accessible for all who desire to reach them. Their emphasis on keeping this process open to all is embodied in the closing essay, Jack Cheng’s “The Better You.” In it, Cheng emphasizes that progress and achievement are far from synonymous with perfection:

The Better You knows, just as you know, that doing what you love is difficult but worthwhile. They know, just as you know, that the difficulty is what makes it worthwhile in the first place. They know, just as you know, that if everything was easy, nothing would have significance, and you wouldn’t need to adopt new metaphors or read new books about how to do the work you should be doing.

Cheng goes on to say, “The Better You is the believable possible.” And it is that understanding of realistic progress that made me appreciate this book so much. It is prescriptive of excellence and accomplishment, but forgiving of human nature and the difficulty required to alter our routines. It calls for change in daily behavior and mindsets, but in a realistic manner. And it tells us things we know to be true, without insulting our intelligence or understanding of ourselves.

I plan to maximize my own potential with the lessons put forth in 99U’s latest offering, and would recommend that you give it a read as well.

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