Who gets to decide what your ‘potential’ is?

The word “potential” keeps finding its way into my email inbox and social media feeds these days. For me, it generally shows up in the sales pitches from thought leaders and mentors and counselors of various kinds. You’ll often see some variant of this: “If you’re not fully living up to your potential in your (business, work, life, knitting, etc.) I can get you there.”

It’s benevolent shorthand for any of the following:

  • You’re spending too many of your days unhappy or unhealthy.
  • You have specific goals and aspirations for your life, and you’re not there yet.
  • You’re not growing in the ways you’d like to.
  • Your business isn’t successful enough yet.
  • You’re not earning what a certain thought leader assures you are capable of.
  • The clock of your life is ticking and you have a vague sense you should have accomplished more by now.
  • …and so forth.

Googling “achieving your potential” will net you enough reading material for the rest of your natural life. The result that most amused me was titled something like this: “Ten steps to help you become who you really are.”

And by “amused,” of course, I mean “irritated.”

Who you really are

Here’s the thing: We already are who we really are. We ARE people in a constant state of growth and change and questioning and deciding. We ARE sentient beings who can choose from an infinite number of ways-to-be. We ARE humans with a long lifespan (I hope) who will steadily be acquiring information and skills throughout the decades we spend here on Earth, from birth to whenever, so we can decide. The goals of that lifelong exercise, to me, seem to be:

  • To have lots of interesting, even fascinating experiences
  • To make our time happy rather than unhappy
  • To interact with other humans in ways that create more good and less bad in the world
  • To give us a sense of purpose – a reason for having been here at all

So… What do you think about when someone wants to discuss your “potential,” and how to “live up to it?” How does it make you feel?

There’s certainly no shortage of helping professionals out there willing to point out the areas in which we are not “reaching our potential,” often using comparison to others or a special formula they’ve developed. Then, of course, they are happy to sell us the equivalent of a roadmap or guide to remedy the situation.

Please know that I hold no ill will toward most of them—I tend to love anyone who’s in the business of helping members of my self-employed tribe feel happier and more fulfilled.

But potential as a yardstick . . . as a destination . . . if it has any meaning at all, it becomes yet another thing we need to worry about achieving. Do any of us need yet another target, another binary judgment call for our life and its accomplishments?

I’m not anti-target. For example, paying attention is a target I love. Personal growth? Love it. Building compassionate relationships with as many people as possible? Perfect.

But “failing to achieve your potential” as something you can be graded on by someone else, as though your life were open for review on Yelp.com?  (“Margaret had so much going for her, especially the spring rolls, but she failed to meet her potential when I showed up with a party of 150 unannounced…”) Not my thing.

Who gets to decide?

So who gets to decide what your “potential” for a well-run life or a well-lived time on Earth should be?

You do. ONLY you.
And you do it by feel.

As self-employed folks, we all start out knowing little. But we keep pouring in new knowledge and experiences and ideas and possibilities. In between the stuck spots or the flubs, something starts to take shape. It has nothing to do with potential, and everything to do with learning to articulate for yourself what you want your ideal work to look like, and developing an ‘ear’ for things that move you closer to it on the map, or farther from it.

In particular, the best roadmaps are feelings-based.

We can pay attention to things that give us a little frisson of pleasure in our work, like finding a client so beautiful you would move mountains for, or coming up with a product/service that turns out to delight a lot of people.

We can become hyper-aware of the things that make our eyes suddenly open a little wider and give us a little jolt of joy.

We can use the tools of joyful productivity to stay happy and energized in our work, and notice all the feelings that pass through us.

All of these things can combine to form a living compass to build a business (and a life) that pleases us, connects us, and gives us a great sense of how to build a well-lived life.

Your “potential” isn’t something you sweat bullets to discover then achieve. You don’t need a famous guru or a $5000 retreat weekend to point it out to you. You just need to decide how you want to FEEL as you move through your life, and then deliberately, thoughtfully gather the tools and skills that are most likely to help you feel that way.

If that doesn’t feel like it would come naturally to you at first, find a coach or mentor that is willing to help you with exactly that kind of visioning, one-to-one, customizing it to your life and your needs, not trying to squeeze you into their one-size-fits-all formula. I know quite a few wonderful, soulful coaches—drop me a note and I may be able to refer you to someone who can help.

Once you have your own roadmap, the rest is just the joyful journey.

It’s just March…is your mental clutter already building?

Image courtesy of OpenRoadPR via Pixabay

Going into Spring from a weary mental space isn’t my idea of a good time. I want to be excited by that first warm breeze of the year, that first time I notice that there’s light coming through the windows when I wake in the morning.

But because of, well, Life, I find I’ve been guilty lately of something I also notice in my coaching clients: A crush of thought-clutter.

Like me, they fill their mental ‘house’ with as much furniture as possible, and invite over all kinds of guests at all hours of the day and night. There are the kids (or spouse, or parents) who need them, the myriad things it takes to make a life “go,” and all of the must-do and nice-to-do activities that surround their livelihood and income.

And that’s just the Present. We’re also constantly dealing with the bad actors from the Past, which reminds us all about our failings and misfires. And don’t get me started on trouble from the Future, which reminds us we might fail, and assures us we have to say “yes” to so much because, gosh, who KNOWS if this is the Big Break that will make great things happen for us (or avert bad things.)

It can get so crowded in there that we operate in a state of perpetual reorganizing and reprioritizing, burning mental calories trying to shift obligations, desires, demands, and possibilities into teetering Jenga tower that won’t come crashing down on us.

For spring, let’s do a little mental decluttering together. Here are some things I’m doing right now to get a fresh start by March 20:

1. Revisiting my 2019 priorities:

Early this year, I made some decisions about specific places I want to put my energy this year (they will be different for everyone, but I narrowed mine to a Big Six — areas I really want to move the needle on this year). I’m restructuring my computer desktop, browser bookmarks, Google calendar, and email folders around those six things, so I literally have to see my goals every day, multiple times. If I am using my brain space for things that don’t somehow fit into those six areas, I have to answer for it.

2. Re-acquainting myself with my morning routines, which I’ve become lax about.

They are critical in helping me stay on track mentally, physically, and emotionally. For me, these include simple-sounding things like water, moving my body, looking at my Big Six every morning to touch base, connecting with at least one of my beloved clients every day, etc. When those routines go out the door, a whole lot of mental clutter crowds in.

3. Breathing. No kidding.

When I feel stress starting to put me in a headlock, I almost always notice that I’m breathing shallowly and not giving my brain enough oxygen. It’s hard to believe that this matters, but you’d be amazed at how forgetting something as simple as breathing right can affect your mental state. Breathe. Set a meditation gong on your mobile phone or desktop that reminds you hourly to get up, walk around, breathe deeply, hydrate. I cannot overstate the importance of this — and this is from some who spent many years convinced this was just all new-age BS.

4. Swearing off multitasking, single-tasking as often as humanly possible.

Self-explanatory, right? It’s like an endless game of musical chairs, only with far fewer chairs to fight for. (And by the way, what cruel jerk ever thought that ‘game’ was a fun idea?)

5. Clearing my spaces.

I was a late adopter of this, as a world-class clutterer in my younger years. Getting rid of all the non-essential items, while assigning a fixed & functional place to everything that matters, is a vaccination helping prevent mental overwhelm and exhaustion. If you look up from this article and look around, and see piles and heaps and files and dusty clutter, you are not doing your mind a favor.

6. Purging my daily behavior of “I might need this someday.”

I see this with both paper and digital resources…we try to save everything that we might, someday, find useful in a future product, service, book, writing project, etc…even if we don’t know what that thing IS yet. I have a single document in the folders for each of my Big Six areas of importance, into which I jot down the links, quotes, book titles, peoples’ names, etc. that I am certain I will be using within a couple of months. Short entries, all in one (searchable!) MS Word document, one per each of the six folders. If it’s a resource that lives at the intersection of “maybe” and “someday,” let it go.

7. Limiting my media intake and eliminating negative media inputs:

I am cutting my “screen time” down to the bone, just to what I need to do my best for my clients and my business. I give myself an (optional) hour in the evening for some sort of entertaining television, usually something that helps me to either a) laugh or b) learn something fascinating. I do not watch or read the news except for a pre-determined and small piece of time several times each week. Following political arguments, bad news, reality TV, etc. is like pouring acid on all the clutter that’s already crowding my head.

How about you? Already cluttered in your brain pan, even though the first quarter of the year isn’t yet over? What are you doing to help your mental spaces stay clean, clear, and strong? Please help me – and others reading this – by sharing what you do to clear your mind and avoid overcrowding it in the first place. Thanks!

An invitation (not a sales pitch 🙂 )

If, when you were reading the above, you happened to think to yourself “I wish I could have a little help figuring out how to do this for myself,” you might be interested in reading about my bite-sized hands-on sessions on achieving joyful productivity. I’m having a lot of fun helping people with these, and lowering a lot of blood pressure numbers in the process. Bonus!