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.

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