I hate this idea. Potential, and the idea that it’s something of which we are all full. That success means tapping into it, and the conclusion follows that a lack of success (however you define it) is at worst laziness, or at best ignorance of Potential-Tapping techniques. The idea that the most insidious emotion of all – regret – can be triggered by Not Unleashing Your Potential is something I find incredibly depressing. But it needn’t be, because I’ve realised it’s all bunkum. And you can too, with my Three Easy Steps (cue jazz hands).
Imagine you’re back as a primary school student, and your teacher sets a mathematics question for which there is one and only one correct answer. Your grade comes from the teacher’s comparison between your answer and their own perfect model answer, and obviously the grades for everyone else will come from the same comparison too. Is this a good metaphor for life? Is there one right answer? Who would the teacher be? Who has the right to decide on the model answer for your life? Whom do you trust to carry out the comparison? It’s a thoroughly terrible metaphor.
Imagine now that you’re a teenage fashion model, and that two famous designers have each given you a pair of incredible shoes – one pair are 8″ platforms in orange rubber, and the other pair are tramping boots. Is this a better metaphor? You clearly have a huge amount of potential – not just one amazing pair of shoes, but two! But if overall success is measured by how much of our potential we have utilised, what happens when it cannot all be fulfilled? You cannot wear both pairs at the same time, and you cannot wear one of each without seriously compromising your runway performance. How can potential and its fulfilment be a sensible measure here?
Imagine again, this time that you’ve moved away from the primary school maths, beyond teenage fashions, and now you’re knocking around forty and wondering what your life is all about. In your blue moods, probably after a long day at work, or doing laundry, or just cos it’s Tuesday and you never could get the hang of Tuesdays, you’re wondering about all that stuff you were, apparently, full of as a child. You find cause to regret every choice you’ve made as having, in itself, the potential to stop you from fulfilling yours. And this, the snaky, scaly, many-tentacled emotion of regret slithers in and wraps itself around your self-esteem.
You feel that you’ve been weighed and found wanting. You’ve missed the boat. Everyone around you remains full of something (themselves, probably, says the devil on my shoulder) but you’re somehow hollow and flaccid and floppy. Perhaps you pick yourself up, read some motivational twaddle on the interweb and decide that tomorrow you will Tap Into Your Full Potential. You will Find Your Passion. Perhaps you want to Discover Your True Self. Perhaps you post pictures of your children with the title, Motherhood Is The Most Important Job In The World, and perhaps your friends Like your posts because they’re feeling empty too and there’s some kind of safety in numbers. Perhaps you just work harder at your job and try to rekindle the drive and ambition you had when you first joined the company, or take to fancy wines and expensive foods to feel like a Big Fat Success. Or perhaps you stop all this nonsense for a moment, and actually think about it.
Though we accept there’s one right answer to simple maths problems, we throw it out quickly as a metaphor for life because we think that we’re happier with the idea that success looks different for everyone. But in our darkest moments, we certainly don’t believe it. We look at other people, at what they earn, at how shiny their car is, or how exotic their holidays are, and we use their lives as measures for our own. As if we were all back at primary school trying to reach the same single answer. Don’t.
Next, we look at the myriad possibilities and opportunities we’ve encountered and mourn for the ones we didn’t take, and somehow manage to forget all the ones that we did. Until the moment new parents discover the sex of their child, they think up different names. “If it’s a girl it will be called Jane and if it’s a boy it will be called John.” Or whatever. But upon the discovery that you have the daughter, is it reasonable to mourn not having the son? Did Jane kill John by existing? No! John never existed! Don’t do that. There have been opportunities which no longer exist because of others which have been taken, paths which are untravelled because you’ve been busy exploring different ones with incredible views and company and discoveries if only you’ll notice them. If regret is a valid response for not taking all the opportunities with which we’re presented, then surely having lots of opportunities is a terrible, terrible curse. And we know it’s not. Boots are made for walking.
Finally, forget about your future selves. They are not there to help you, they are another devious strategy of slithering regret to get inside your head. I am all for aspiration, for goals, for determination, and for wanting to be better than I am. Yes. Do it. But do it the right way. Run the right race. Use the right measurement. Your only competition is who you were yesterday.
Your ONLY competition.
Not some imaginary future potential-fulfilled version of yourself – that person is:
- indefinable, not a single answer, it’s not the same for everyone,
- possibly impossible to become, as fulfilling one opportunity perfectly nearly always precludes any fulfillment of many of the others, and
- imaginary, made up, not real, influenced by mood, food, etc and possibly just as impossible to reach as any of the others.
So stop it! Stop spending your precious energy, emotions, and effort chasing your tail to fend off regret. You’re smarter than that. You don’t even have a tail. Your only competition is who you were yesterday.
So how can you compete with that? It’s probably not easy, but it is simple. If you make a mistake, apologise, put it right, and do your best not to repeat it. If you say something you don’t mean, clarify it if you can, and next time be more genuine. If you’re not able to do something as well as you’d like, ask for help, take a lesson or two, practise, accept feedback, take a break, encourage someone else, then practise some more. Be encouraged by your progress, not shamed by your potential. Celebrate the paths you have taken, the friends you have made, the things you have learnt, and the person who you are today. After all, Tomorrow is Another Day, with New Opportunities and Full of Potential. Brace yourself, you’ll be ok.