The idea that we somehow have a certain amount of potential that we must live up to is a complete crock. People who say they are not living up to their potential do not understand what living means.
Life is very hard. We each probably have some fundamental goals, even if we don’t think of them consciously. First of all, getting up in the morning is very hard. It is fundamentally an act of optimism. Because surely you have already realized that most days are not full of happiness. They are full, but with something else. Yet we still get out of bed every day, thinking that the day is going to be good. That’s a big deal. A huge leap of faith. I spend a lot of time wondering why more of us don’t kill ourselves, and I never come up with a great answer.
The next big goals we have are the spiritual kind: Be good, be kind, treat people with respect. You probably don’t write these on your to do list, but now that you read them, surely you are thinking to yourself, “Oh yeah, I want to remember to do that.”
So already, life is very full. For example, I just took the red eye home from San Francisco. But if you live in a little town like Madison, Wisconsin, there is, really, no red eye. There is only half a red eye to Chicago, a traumatic awakening at 5am, and then an 8am flight to Wisconsin. By the time I get to my gate, treating people with respect takes pretty much everything that is left of my potential.
Living up to your potential is not crossing off everything on your to do list on time, under budget. Or canonizing your ideas in a book deal. Really, no one cares. You are not on this earth to do that. Trust me. No one is. You are on this earth to be kind. That is your only potential.
And then you have to earn a living.
It’s no coincidence that everyone who is walking around bitching that they are not living up to their potential is talking about how they should be more successful at work. Because “living up to potential” is really just code for “not being recognized as the talented genius that I am.”
How about this? How about saying, “I was so good at getting high marks in school. Why am I not catapulting up the corporate ladder?” The answer, of course, is that most of getting what you want at work is about having social skills, and school doesn’t measure that. So there you go—if you insist on talking about living up to your amorphous potential, the reason you’re not doing it, most likely, is that you are not being kind enough at your work.
If you want to live up to your potential, be as nice as you can be. Be as respectful as you can be. Be as honest with yourself as you can be. Because you can’t be honest with other people if you are not honest with yourself.
What can you do if you think you are living below your potential?
1. Recognize that it’s delusional. You are who you are, and you should just be you. Have realistic, meaningful goals for your life, like: Be kind. Be engaged. Be optimistic. Be connected. Most people who say they are not living up to their potential are not talking about this most-important stuff.
2. Recognize that the world isn’t a race. A race assumes that everyone has an inborn ability to reach a personal best. If you stop racing, you stop wondering what that inborn ability is. I mean, really, “living up to one’s potential” is always relative. You are really talking about your ability to kick everyone else’s butt at something. And it’s not a pleasant thing to say. When you stop looking at the world as a competition, then you can stop wondering why you’re not coming in first place.
3. Recognize that you sound like your mother. “Living up to your potential” is a phrase from a grade-school report card. It is elementary-school speak. It is your parents saying you need to do more homework. It is your mother saying “Joey, you’re a genius. Why don't you get straight A’s? Look what you do to your mother!” In almost every case when someone says, “You are not living up to your potential,” the proper answer is, “So what?” Because it’s always someone trying to tell you that the thing you should contribute to this world is something other than kindness.