Aligning with Your Unique Human Potential

“If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music… I get most joy in life out of music.” -Albert Einstein

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The Sci-Fi film “Divergent” (see trailer) shows a future where sophisticated testing systems classify and sort all members of society into fixed groups. The hero and heroine of the film are sent to join the warrior faction, but they are creative and “divergent,” they come to realize that they don’t fit into any one single group or category.

divergentIn this dystopian version of the future, people are treated as cogs in a larger “machine,” each belonging to a unique “faction” (sub-group), where only a very limited and rigid subset of skills are valued.

At one point (see scene) the young male hero (Theo James) reveals a tattoo on his back that shows each of the various specialized factions lined up like chakra points. He says he loves the strengths and skills of all the groups, doesn’t want to be- can’t be– “just one thing.”

I was really impressed by the story line, and the fact that both the book and movie are presently popular with teenage readers. The film presents a great metaphor for modern societies and educational systems that leave many people feeling a bit fragmented and off balance, like unfinished works of art. It points towards how schools ignore the unique potential each of us has for developing skills in many different areas.

While watching the film I was reminded of Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. M.I. Theory was very popular in the 1990’s and had a strong influence on education reforms, until right after the Sept. 11th attacks, when a greater emphasis on high-stakes exams and standardized testing began to take hold.


Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Basing his theory on research in cognitive and developmental psychology, Gardner proposed that there are at least 8 forms of intelligence that humans possess, many of which we share with other animals.

There are the Social and Emotional intelligences, the ability to empathize, care for and support others, collaborate as a part of teams, build relationships and gain insight into our own hearts and minds.

Then there are Musical and Physical intelligences– the ability to master complex compositions and play musical instruments, to be creative, play sports and build skills that involve our body’s movements. While each is distinct, these two intelligences come together harmoniously whenever we dance and move our bodies to music.

There are also two visual modes of thinking- Spatial & Ecological intelligence. These abilities find expression with movie making, the sciences, engineering and creative visual arts. Spatial intelligence is related to systems thinking, allowing our brains to construct complex representations of systems relationships and interconnections.


Systems thinking works with the realm of the imagination, which Einstein rightly emphasized as being more important than knowledge, for it’s our visual intelligence (something we share with most other animals) that is able to construct unified representations of everything we encounter, mental models which reflect how the world is organized.

Finally there are the two representational skill sets most valued (and tested) in modern societies- Linguistic and Mathematical intelligence. This is how knowledge has been represented and passed on across the centuries by civilized societies, its the language of numbers, law, science, economics, business, academics and literature.

582384_550484314983402_348220024_nThe problem for many modern civilizations is that we seem to have overemphasized these last two intelligences, elevating them above the others and forcing all our children to be tested and assigned social ranks according to their mastery of them.

If we look at those we call “geniuses” down through history, many seemed to possess a creative mix of intelligences that worked together in unison, kind of like an orchestra or jazz band. We could call this Symphonic Intelligence. Very different from A.I. in that it’s not artificial at all, but represents the highest potential of human beings when our various intelligences are synchronized and working together harmonically.

Albert Einstein, for example, was not only a great mathematician, he was also deeply spiritual, had a powerful imagination and was a skilled musician. Would he have excelled in physics if his parents had not encouraged him to play music, if he had limited his interests to mathematics and science?

sungha-jung-sungha-jung-17204895-640-426Every human being has unique and unknown capabilities. Educational systems that prioritize a narrow range of skills may cripple our creative potential, create artificial expectations for our children and keep all of us from developing fully.

There is much evidence to support the idea that greater happiness and life success comes when we are given opportunities to master a wide range of skills, when each of us is in synch with our own unique symphony of talents.

The failure of modern cultures to prioritize all the intelligences equally could help to explain many of the seemingly “unsolvable” problems that surround us- perpetual warfare, environmental disasters, rising poverty, violence, inequality, materialism, consumerism, addictive behaviors and other forms of suffering.

Like in the film Divergent, because of we’ve believed that talents are rare and exist in isolation, we have created systems of education that have sorted most of us into categories and boxes – artists, jocks, science geeks, mechanics, bankers, farmers, etc. In reality, each of us has great potential in many areas, our full range of skills just need to be valued, nurtured, balanced and developed.

By Christopher Chase

Tattoo representing all skill areas on the back of hero in Divergent:

Divergent back


 * Let a Child’s Spirit Be Free to Unfold – M. Montessori * How Schools Kill Creativity – Ken Robinson * How Children Naturally Learn * Self-Direction is the Key to Mastery  *  Symphonic Intelligence: The Next Revolution in Learning?  * Real Learning is a Creative Process * Systems Thinking- Seeing How Everything is Connected * Educational Malpractice – The Child Manufacturing Process * How Wisdom Grows: Educating Hearts & Minds * Toward a More Creative & Holistic Model of Education * 


About Christopher Chase

Co-creator and Admin of the Facebook pages "Tao & Zen" "Art of Learning" & "Creative Systems Thinking." Majored in Studio Art at SUNY, Oneonta. Graduated in 1993 from the Child & Adolescent Development program at Stanford University's School of Education. Since 1994, have been teaching at Seinan Gakuin University, in Fukuoka, Japan.
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8 Responses to Aligning with Your Unique Human Potential

  1. Bob OHearn says:

    Excellent points, Chris! Ironically, what most often holds us back from realizing the full flower of our potential is our own cognitive dissonance — the internal war with ourselves that we ceaselessly wage. Adyashanti gave a good example here, when he spoke about negative self-images:

    “When most people begin to come into contact with the true nature of their own self, they have such a hard time accepting that they could naturally be something positive and beautiful. In the west, many people struggle with negative self-image. I have seen that negative identity held onto even in the midst of profound revelation. It so easily contracts back into, ‘It couldn’t be me. It couldn’t be who I am; it’s just too good.’ If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that, I’d be a rich man!”

    Thanks for your continued sharing of your rich insights, Brother!


    • Thank you Bob. Yes, I think so. And what is key here (in my view) is how that negative image is a social construction. It did not begin with us, it is something taught by society and transmitted through cultural systems of education and indoctrination. Knowing that can be very liberating, imo. We are innately wise and compassionate, but have been taught to believe otherwise.

      • Bob OHearn says:

        The information (thought energy) that contributed to the ensuing negative image may not have originated with us, but by our incorporating it into our belief system, we set ourselves up for the cognitive dissonance that invariably follows. Being innately wise, as you say, we fortunately have the capacity to recognize the contradictions, by employing the process of Inquiry. Such recognition is a major step towards liberation. I discuss this in more detail in my latest blog post, btw:


  2. Fascinating and thought provoking. The educational systems of today are lacking in helping us to become balanced individuals. They focus on certain areas and never address others. We should be taught more about relationships, managing our finances, spirituality (not religion)…..exploring all the different facets of human potential… All of us have unexplored creative potential. Most of us shut this down.

    Leading an unbalanced life leads to dis-ease.

    • Yes, Jody, I think so. Well said. You mention spirituality- I believe this is something that arises naturally in the realms of social and emotional intelligence. There is no place for spirituality in modern schooling, because the unique inner life of the individual and the development of deep relationships with others is not regarded as being important,

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