In my near-constant reading on self-improvement and psychology, I’ve encountered the theory several times that the idea of potential can be potentially damaging.
It was a bit of a shock, really, because most self-help books tend to talk a lot about potential. How you’re not meeting it (Use All Of Your Brain!), how you can improve it (Take More Classes To Beef Up Your Resume!), and how much latent potential you have (You Can Do Anything!).
The problem is, potential is something “out there.” Something unfulfilled. And we’re likely to never feel that we’ve met our potential. Few people, even those gung-ho, driven, hustling work- and play-aholics who live intensely amazing lives probably wouldn’t say, “Yeah, I’m good. I’ve met my potential. I don’t have anywhere to go from here. There’s no more improvement for me.”
Potential is always a step ahead, like a fluttering, incorporeal dream we always imagine we see but can never quite reach.
Now consider this statement: You have so much potential.
That’s usually said in a well-meaning spirit. You can do great things. You have so much available to you. That sort of vein. But that well-meaning phrase is often an indictment. Especially if what the parent or teacher who said it meant was that the student or child or employee or whoever could have the fancy job and high rise apartment and six-figure salary, and so when the child or whoever doesn’t get that, there’s the unspoken idea (or spoken, as is often the case) that they’ve failed.
They haven’t met their potential, because they didn’t want it enough. Or they didn’t work hard enough. They were not enough.
It could also be self-motivated pressure. I have so much potential, I can do everything I want, including starting my own business and having a great family and volunteering in my community and socializing with my friends and….and… And it doesn’t work out that way. So then they feel like they’ve failed too.
Potential is, by definition, in the future. It means having the capacity for something in the future. Not now. It’s a paper dream that keeps running away and the pressure and anxiety it creates can be terrifying.
If you live with the idea of potential, you’re likely to live in a state of perpetual unfulfillment in your present, because only in the future have you somehow met your potential and gotten…what? Everything?
I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer. – Jim Carrey
The solution is two-fold.
First, we need to practice contentment. In her book Present Over Perfect, Shauna Niequist talks about her transition from an overstrung, high-functioning, always on it career mom with a family to a less-than-perfect, much happier mom. She started saying no to things so she could say yes to the important things, like spending days on the floor with her kids playing instead of traveling for speaking engagements.
From the outside, her life looked amazing; speaker, writer, hustler, and mom who managed a house and was a hospitality queen. But she says that the reality was she was crashing down, and her life was moving so fast she couldn’t enjoy it.
That’s what it looks like when you chase your ultimate potential. Nothing is ever good enough right now, but if you work harder and faster, it could be. (IT’S A TRAP! Thanks, General Ackbar.)
So being present, in the moment, and content with where you’re at is key. You have to start there.
The second solution builds on the first, because, as I’ve experienced, when you move from fast to slow because of burnout, the temptation to become lazy is strong. You’ve worked so hard, once you get in the mindset to be a little easier on yourself, you start justifying doing nothing and turn complacent.
Contentment and complacency are not the same thing. Complacency means you’re sitting still, safe wherever you are, while still being unsatisfied. Fear or laziness keeps you stuck in your comfort zone.
Contentment means you are happy with what you have, and you’re enjoying yourself, but you’re also pursuing those things that interest you. You’re still up for a challenge, but it’s from a place of peace, not fear.
I believe that potential is a new fad, like positive thinking, like treating your self, like hygge, like minimalism. A feeling that is yearning for something good but missing the mark.
We’re not living in the future. There are a billion billion paths the future could take, so you don’t know where you might go. You might gain it all or lose it. Being overly concerned with your potential and where you are in relation to it distracts you from the present, from enjoying where you’re at with who you’re with.
I think we all need, even for just a moment, to drop our potential.