Take-Home Test

Try these abbreviated exercises from Potentia International to uncover truths about the values and habits that influence your thinking.


Adrian Savage doesn’t deal in ink blots and brainteasers. He doesn’t employ a leather couch or harbor an analyst’s fixation on childhood memories. But he does know how to peel back psychological layers to reveal the values and habits that dictate our decisions and limit our potential.


Cofounder of the UK-based Potentia International, Savage helped pioneer a system of “profiling” that helps people discover dormant talents and possible career callings. Normally, constructing a personal profile is a multihour process, as a Potentia facilitator poses a range of situations and analyzes a respondent’s answers. A Web-based version of the Potentia system will debut April 15. In the meantime, Savage has created the following take-home test — an abbreviated version of the Potentia profile for Fast Company readers.

“The Potentia system is made up of a number of linked elements, all of which are essential to the work we do with people and organizations,” Savage says. “Two of those elements are habits of thinking, which gauges a person’s problem-analysis skills, and values. They are two of the most important elements to grasp.”

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Exercise 1: Habits of Thinking

Step 1. Think about a handful of provocative social or ethical issues that cannot easily be solved. Compile a list of questions like, Why is the level of literacy in some developed countries lower than it was 100 years ago? How can we make good health care available to everyone?

Step 2. Ask a friend to pose these follow-up questions to you for each scenario discussed. (Your friend should not engage in a debate.) Think deeply about the questions and share your thoughts. You should list all the thoughts that bombard your mind rather than concentrate on just one detail.

  • What information would you like to have before starting to think about this topic?
  • This is a big topic. How would you analyze it and break it up into its constituent parts?
  • What patterns or trends can you see, within the current situation and in the future?
  • What is the complete context for this topic? How does it relate to other matters that are occupying thoughtful people and leaders at this time?
  • Can you give a compelling vision that could unite people to produce what you believe to be the right kind of solution to all the problems posed by this topic?

Step 3. While you answer each question, your friend should take note of the following observations, keeping in mind your normal behavior:

  • How easily and quickly did the reply come? Was it typical of you? Was it slower than usual, with verbal hesitations?
  • How far did you “run” with the question before coming to a stop?
  • How much energy was in your response? Did it seem as if the question really interested you?
  • How often did you seem to stop and think before giving an answer?

Step 4. At the same time, you should make mental notes, such as:

  • Does the question interest and excite me?
  • How relaxed do I feel? Does it feel natural to think about the topic in this way?
  • How much effort is involved?

Step 5. At the end, go over your friend’s notes and your own feelings about each question. Make special note of the following:

  • Questions that provoked easy and fluent thinking. When was your speech rapid, animated, and engaged? This kind of thinking took place within your comfort zone.
  • Times when you slowed down, both in speaking and thinking, to come to grips with the kind of thinking required. Which questions slightly irritated you because you felt that they were phrased incorrectly or concentrated on topics of lesser importance? These indicators suggest that you were entering your stretch zone, the primary area of underutilized potential.
  • Questions that felt tough, almost impossible. When did you grow visibly irritated with a question because you felt it was irrelevant or pointless, even stupid? Your friend may have noticed that you tried to mask this irritation with humor or sarcasm. This behavior suggests that you were entering your stress zone.

“Stress-zone thinking is foreign thinking that you have probably developed little or no facility with,” Savage says. “The stress zone indicates areas of potential that are very tough to access, and may demand more long-term effort and tenacity than you are willing to invest.”

Each question in Step 2 corresponds to one of six “sectors” identified by Potentia. “Each sector represents a different kind of thinking, not a better or worse kind of thinking,” Savage says. “Ultimately, the ‘best’ type of thinking is the one that is best suited to the purpose and circumstances you’re working with at a particular time.”

Sector Descriptions:
According to Savage, the kind of thinking characterized by Sectors 1, 2, and 3 is normally taught in schools and universities. It is the essential thinking of scientific discovery. Sectors 4, 5, and 6 cover a different kind of thinking: one that is intuitive, nonlinear, and holistic, rather than logical or imaginative. This kind of thinking does not rely on facts and, therefore, often seems illogical to those who try to judge it from a distance.

Sector 1: Works best when details are needed, and lots of facts and information are readily available. People who are happiest in this sector like to amass facts and focus very clearly on one thing at a time. Imagine a narrow flashlight beam, illuminating a small area very brightly.


Sector 2: Works best when dealing with short-term, practical problems that require a fair amount of information and build on some precedents. People who think most comfortably like this are often seen as practical and problem-centered. Imagine a powerful spotlight that is focused on what matters most: Things close to it get some illumination; things farther away stay dark.

Sector 3: Works best in situations where cause-and-effect links are important, such as building systems or procedures. Useful for drawing logical conclusions from available facts. People who think most comfortably in these ways are often drawn to work that hinges on linear logic. Imagine a strong headlight on a vehicle that illuminates the road ahead clearly, but doesn’t reach things along the roadside.

Sector 4: Works best when scant data prevents seeing clearly ahead to a solution; suggests patterns or trends in thinking. People who think in this way often synthesize material from different sources to make patterns and then reason with the connections that they have made. They skillfully link items that other people often overlook. This kind of thinking is very useful for planning in uncertain situations where you are faced with various contingencies and unknowns. Imagine a mobile searchlight tracing an area, trying to pick up hidden signals.

Sector 5: Often uses examples and analogies to guide reasoning. People who think in this way make links between vastly different topics or areas, using them as sources of ideas. They try to extract general concepts from many situations and apply them to the topic at hand, often jumping to seemingly unrelated topics. They also recognize far more in a situation than others do, mostly because they make these links and start generalizing from whatever is in front of them. Their thinking progressively illuminates wider and wider areas, like a series of lights being switched on as a person moves from room to room in a house.

Sector 6: Begins with the answer and then moves backward to demonstrate how the solution came about. This kind of thinking runs counter to the status quo. In school, we are taught to begin with information and extrapolate reasons from facts. Even thinking in Sectors 4 and 5 begins with the tangible and then moves out into a whole realm of possibilities. People who habitually think in this Sector 6 are often characterized as visionaries (or madmen!) because they envision an outcome that does not exist. They do not work up to a solution; they conjure it intuitively and fully in their own minds. Then they work backward, exploring factors leading up to the outcome and tracing all the links and patterns. This way of thinking is useful for handling problems that arrive with no proper information or with massive disagreement about the information that was provided, or problems for which all possible solutions seem to have been tried and failed.

“Education tends to value some of these sectors more than others, so we learn to comply to score good grades,” Savage says. “In time, like any muscles we don’t use, certain kinds of thinking get weaker and weaker. If we try to use them then, it feels tough and uncomfortable — our brains hurt! So we drop that kind of thinking and go back to where we feel most comfortable: the comfort zone.”


Exercise 2: Values

Step 1. Consider this abbreviated list of values compiled by Potentia:

  • Self-worth — feeling good about yourself
  • Independence — feeling that you are free to make your own choices
  • Order/meaning — feeling that you give events shape and purpose
  • Acceptance/inclusion — feeling that you are liked and valued by others, especially people you hold in high regard
  • Stimulation — feeling excited and challenged by your work
  • Safety — feeling protected and free from anxiety
  • Security/well-being — feeling secure, relaxed, and on firm ground
  • Power/authority — feeling forceful and able to make things happen
  • Personal growth — feeling that you are developing as a unique individual
  • Conquest — feeling that you have mastered challenges that are important to you

Step 2. Ask a friend to pose each of the following contexts to you. Consider each context separately and write down the values that became most important during each situation. Rank the values in order of importance and include no more than six values for each context.

  • A time in your distant past when you had to make a really tough, vital decision that you knew would have critical implications for you and those around you
  • A time in your recent past when you had to make another really tough and critical decision
  • Your present situation in your professional life
  • Your present situation in your private life
  • Your current work-life balance
  • Your immediate future, as you see it
  • Your long-term future, as you want it to be
  • Your hopes and dreams, however unrealistic they may seem

Step 3. Now consider the values you assigned to those contexts. Which values appeared in nearly every scenario? They are your core values — the major values that you assume all “right-minded people” value highly. Which values rarely or never showed up? They are your blind spots. If no strong patterns emerge, it only means that this abbreviated exercise did not touch upon the appropriate values for you. The full Potentia profiling system collects a great deal more information and analyzes that information to extract various patterns.

Step 4. Considering these core values, think about a time when you encountered a person with values that were distinctly different from yours. Have you ever been in a relationship with someone who seemed unable to hear, understand, or appreciate what you were saying? How did you interpret this? Did you get annoyed? Did you see the other person as dumb, bigoted, opinionated, or awkward? What if their core values were your blind spots? How might this throw more light on the situation?

“Values influence our thinking, but because they are buried so deeply in our minds — and operate so nearly instantaneously — we are rarely conscious of them,” Savage says. “Our values tell us what is right, good, suitable, and appropriate. They are the foundation of ethics, morals, social customs, cultures, and just about every choice we make.”


Step 5. Finally, think about a time when you have become very upset over something quite minor. Did you keep replaying the circumstances in your mind and finding more clever responses days after the incident? Think about a time when someone said or did something that caused you to fly off the handle. Did you feel justified in throwing out a cruel retort at the time? Did you feel guilty later on? Recall a situation when you grew stubborn or insistent over a fairly minor thing. Did you feel determined to win, regardless of the cost or trouble? Chances are that each of these situations was pushing your hot buttons — values that are triggered by some external circumstance and suddenly go from being inconsequential to being the only thing that matters.

“Recognize your hot button for what it is,” Savage advises. “Recognize the emotion that accompanies it. The only response that works is attention. Once you become aware of your hot buttons, you can recognize when they are being triggered and consciously decide how you want to respond.”

Read the Main Story: Do You Realize Your Potential?