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You'll Never Reach Your Potential

You're already there.

Have you ever been told that “you have so much potential”? Or, indeed, have you ever said that to someone else? In society today, there seems to be a general notion floating around that people possess something called “potential.” The basic idea is that if you work hard and apply yourself diligently, then you’ll fulfill your “potential.”

It is perhaps not surprising that statements about “potential” seem to be mostly used in a motivational sense. Generally, it appears to be the case that the topic of potential gets raised by someone like a teacher, coach, or parent when one of their students or children is not acting in the way the teacher, coach, or parent would like them to act. Advising someone about their potential is meant to spur them on to greater efforts and loftier heights.

Leonard Zhukovsky/ID: 108215998/@123RF
Source: Leonard Zhukovsky/ID: 108215998/@123RF

So, what is potential? Do some of us have it, and others don’t? Or do we just have it in different quantities? Do some people have a lot of potential, whereas others only have a small amount? How is one's potential determined? Who decides how much potential someone has, and in what area? If you ever reach your potential, what then?

Did Usain Bolt reach his potential? Has Meryl Streep reached hers? Will Serena Williams need to win another one or two more Grand Slam titles before she reaches her potential, or is she already there?

Looking at definitions can be fun and instructive. Here are some definitions of “potential” from that are relevant:

1. Possible as opposed to actual

2. Capable of being or becoming

3. Possibility

4. A latent excellence or ability that may or may not be developed

It seems apparent from these definitions that each and every one of us could be considered to have a great deal of potential (is that many “potentials”?) in a vast number of areas. We are all born with many similar features but also different abilities, proclivities, and preferences. Even from the very beginning, we like different amounts of light or noise or cuddling. Perhaps even more important than the tendencies and talents we arrive with are the environments we are born into that afford us greater or fewer opportunities to express and develop the skills and propensities we have.

But even if it was possible to predict the future and determine the amount of potential someone has, and the area in which their potential is greatest, does that mean they have some special and important responsibility to develop that potential in that area?

Actually, the history books are littered with child proteges who didn’t go on to bigger and better things as adults and, conversely, adults who were less than remarkable as children but who, later, made stellar contributions to humanity. Einstein might be the poster boy here.

Today, you are the realization of yesterday’s potential you. There has never been, never will be, and never could be any predetermined masterplan of what you should become. You are as you should be. You are “right” just the way you are.

Often, it seems very easy to get caught up in pursuing a quest of what we could possibly become, rather than appreciating who and what we are now. Lots of messages in society urge people to become better than they currently are. Ultimately, however, we are human beings, not human becomings. All we have, and all we’ll ever have, is what we have right now, at every now.

The brilliant educationalist Sir Ken Robinson urges people to move away from the idea that preschool is preparing students for primary school, and primary school is preparing students for secondary school, and secondary school is preparing students for university. Each schooling experience is of value and needs to be appreciated in its own right for what it is, not what it might lead to.

That’s not to say that people shouldn’t continue to learn and seek new horizons if they want to. People should do whatever they want to do. And they should do whatever they want to do in a way that doesn’t stop others from doing likewise. If what someone wants to do prevents others from doing what they want to do, then restrictions in some form or another will be applied before too long. With that very general caveat in mind, people will travel their own path, whatever that path might be.

Perhaps the greatest potential to be realized, the most amazing potential as opposed to actual, the most incredible ability that is yet to be developed, is for individuals to achieve robust and enduring contentment and well-being. That will come about when people find ways of grabbing their own stars and dreaming their own dreams.

Contentment is nothing more mysterious than keeping your world the way you want it to be. Those 10 innocuous little words, “Keeping your world the way you want it to be,” can be devilishly difficult to personify on a daily basis. Ironically, the state that these 10 words describe can’t be achieved in some far-off, dreamy land of realized potentials. Contentment is only ever right here and right now.

So, what’s the state of your world right now? As the architect and choirmaster of that world, what will your very-next-right-now move be?

More from Timothy A Carey Ph.D.
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