“Are you living up to your full potential?” is one of the most inane questions I’ve ever heard. Who among us knows what our full potential is? And if we don’t know what our potential is, how can we possibly know whether or not we achieved it?
Limitations vs. Potential
Our natural tendency is to presume limitations where they don’t exist and overlook potential where it does. Here are some examples to illustrate this point.
I recently spoke with the mother of a non-speaking autistic son. Most of us upon hearing her son’s conditions would presume severe limitation in his abilities. The mere fact that he doesn’t speak conjures up all sorts of difficulties in communications. Combine that with other autistic tendencies and it seems improbable that this young man can lead a productive, enjoyable life.
Well, we’d be wrong. This young man is taking his ACTs and is well on his way to attending college. Given the success he’s already enjoyed, what’s his potential? I don’t know; I can’t quantify it. But I do know this, his desire is going to dictate how far he goes.
Isn’t that true for all of us? Couldn’t each of us enjoy greater success if only we were willing to accept the trade-offs that are required to achieve that higher level of success?
What separates the enormously successful in any field and the rest of us is their passion and commitment to a higher goal. I know that I could have gained greater recognition and financial success, but I’m unwilling to trade the time my wife and I spend traveling to achieve that higher level of “success.” We made these choices consciously and are quite happy with the life we’ve chosen…which is my measure of success.
When I think of this young man’s ability to live joyfully, I’m reminded of Daniel Gilbert’s book, Stumbling on Happiness. In his book he speaks of his study of conjoined twins. The attitude of parents, and the medical profession, is that conjoined twins need to be separated for them to enjoy life. Yet twins who remained joined, when interviewed, consistently responded the same way…they couldn’t imagine a life any other way. Many said they’d have felt empty had it not been for being joined to their twin.
At the end of the day, happiness is what we make of anything we experience. Situations and experiences don’t define us, we define them by how we deal with them.
We surmise limitations from what we see that is different than what we typically see. But we don’t do that with potential. When we see people like the Williams sisters, Steve Harvey, Jack Nicolas and Jack Nicholson and a host of others who have enjoyed tremendous success personally and professionally, we presume that they possess greater talent than we do, that they are luckier than we are.
Nothing could be further from the truth. They followed their passion. Their levels of interest and desire encouraged them to expend more time and energy in the pursuit of their goals. They do it willingly because they love what they do. It’s not work to them, it’s fun.
It’s our love of what we do and our desire to accomplish more that determine what our “full potential” really is.
When you find yourself feeling sorry for those who face challenges you aren’t facing, stop. Remind yourself that their potential is limited only by their desire and commitment to their goals. Then encourage them to pursue their passions. Remind them that their potential is limited only by their desire to achieve their goal.
If you’re experiencing doubts about your own potential, do a desire check. List the next 3 to 5 things you need to do to achieve your goal. Then rank, on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being high, your willingness to do take those steps. If they aren’t all 4s or 5s, don’t bother. Your desire isn’t strong enough to sustain you through the inevitable challenges you’ll face.
For our kids
Interestingly, kids 6 and under don’t need any guidance. They don’t see “limitations.” They simply see things as they are. Consequently they instinctively know how much help to give and when to give it.
It’s only as kids get older do we learn our parents’ view of limitations. If you get in the habit of seeing potential instead of limitations…and you communicate that to and in front of your kids, they’ll readily emulate your behavior. They too will learn to see potential where others see limitations. With this new perspective they’ll become better at encouraging everyone they meet to pursue their dreams and the joy achieving their dreams affords.
If you’d like to develop the skills to teach confidence as part of your role as an educator, coach, consultant, trainer, leader or other professional, check out my professional development and certification programs at TeachingConfidence.com.