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.

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  1. Jim
    Jim says:

    I was nice in a previous position as a full-time employee. My niceness was mistaken for weakness. I had to to work 90 hour weeks. I pulled 4 all-nighters that year, under threat of losing my job.

    As a reward for my niceness, I was told I was not a team player and not given a raise for 2 years.

    I was also moved into an old abandoned bank vault for my cubicle.

    Nice only gets you so far, and many people mistake being nice for being weak. You can be nice as long as you have your boundaries and hold fast to them.

    BTW: After I left that firm, I almost doubled my salary.

    • Erik
      Erik says:

      You should prioritize work balance in your life. You should certainly be nice, respectful and kind – but you should also not accept being pushed over respectlessly.

      I recommend this TEDTalk by Nigel Marsh who talks about “How to make Work-life balance work”: http://www.ted.com/talks/nigel_marsh_how_to_make_work_life_balance_work.html

      I also recommend the book “Peopleware”, for several different reasons which I’m unable to convey in the moment writing this: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0932633439/?tag=ptrunk-20

    • lisa
      lisa says:

      Hey Jim…….i think you got exactly what you deserved. Double the salary, and no more working with people who didn’t get you. Being kind is investing in the long term, with hopefully some short term benefits. You stayed true to yourself, and it paid off handsomely. It DID get you somewhere and it DOES pay. Those who think it doesn’t, don’t get it. Poor things

  2. lilacorchid
    lilacorchid says:

    For years I’ve been wondering what my teachers meant by saying, “You have so much potential!” I asked them what they meant, and even right after saying it, they couldn’t tell me.

    Thank you.

  3. prklypr
    prklypr says:

    “People who say they are not living up to their potential do not understand what living means.”

    Brilliant!

    @2. Too many people think life is a race that is only won if you get the gold in record time. Unlike the Olympics, slow and steady wins the race of life.

  4. prklypr
    prklypr says:

    @Jim – don’t let that one bad experience turn you off from being nice. You’ll get more with sugar than vinegar (or something like that).

  5. amanda
    amanda says:

    I was going to say something along the lines of what Jim posted, but after reading his post I’m thinking he and I and all the people who run over us for being nice are all wrong. While sometimes it’s beneficial to be… less than pleasant in the short-term, it’s not good for you as a person and it’s not good for the world. My belief has always been that my purpose in life, although it often seems completely unproductive (for me…) is to make things easier for other people. This primarily means being kind. I’ve been fortunate to be able to be true to myself in this respect, but there have always been people opposed to this philosophy, those who have told me to be more “bold” when they mean rude, demanding, selfish, actually.

    Maybe they’re right, but it’s not right for me.

  6. Smith+Fritzy
    Smith+Fritzy says:

    @Jim & Amanda – you actually don’t have to be less than pleasant to still not get walked on. A lot of people do this, but you mistake saying no to things as being mean which isn’t the case at all. Being bold isn’t about being those negative things, its about standing up for yourself – how is that negative?

    Understanding yourself, your own needs, and how to communicate them will never be looked at as negative. @Jim, you can’t complain about your old job working you crappy hours, never getting a raise, and having a bad office because you never stood up for yourself and said no. That’s not being nice, that’s being a doormat. @Amanda, I don’t think there’s a wrong or right purpose for people’s lives, but yours strikes me as having low self esteem rather than it being a purposeful life. As much as we can hate it, we’re all ego driven and what happens when we don’t let our own needs come first? So while you spend your time making other people’s lives easier, you sound like your life is taking the backseat. I say this because your post doesn’t sound positive, it sheds a negative light around being nice, as Dan’s does. So think of it this way… if being nice is negative, is it really nice?

  7. kchicago
    kchicago says:

    “I spend a lot of time wondering why more of us don't kill ourselves, and I never come up with a great answer.”

    Possibly a better use of time is to wonder why the people who kill themselves do.

  8. Vanessa
    Vanessa says:

    People mistake being nice with being a pushover. Being nice is about treating people with respect. Basically the Golden Rule that we are learned as children works just fine. When people don’t reciprocate, you still need to react and maintain your boundaries. Work those 90 hour weeks but be sure to talk about some compensation for the extra effort you put in.

  9. Arlene
    Arlene says:

    Well said, Amanda!

    Since the 80s there has been a deification of ugly, demanding, selfish behavior. Yet humanity would have never survived for millennia if we actually were all piggy, all the time.

    In our own day, “niceness” has been seen as a problem to be cured with assertiveness training, a toxic state of “co-dependency,” and as Jim describes, an invitation to workplace predators.

    And who doesn’t love a workplace filled with predators maximizing their personal potential?

    In the economic times ahead, however, kindness and consideration may be the best possible currency. The other kind isn’t looking too safe right now.

  10. Miriam Salpeter, Keppie Careers
    Miriam Salpeter, Keppie Careers says:

    Yes – social skills, soft skills, emotional intelligence…These can be the defining factors for many people. Brilliant people aren’t always the best decision makers or the best communicators, but communication and decision making are key to success at work and in life.

    It amazes me how often smart, well-educated people blow opportunities as a result of poor emotional intelligence. It is easy to underestimate the value of being driven by bigger goals (being kind…being connected). Life DOES get in the way, and we excuse our less than stellar behavior because we are tired, or didn’t get a good parking spot, or missed our flight, or missed a deadline…This list goes on and on.

    No matter what anyone tells us, there is little in life that is totally within our control. We rely on other people for so much of what we use to define “success.”

    I am convinced that people who re-set their gauges to define success based on what they DO control (how they treat others, how they react to difficult situations) are much more likely to jump out of bed in the morning than those who allow others to set those standards.

    Thanks for the reminder!

    • brooke
      brooke says:

      Living up to your potential is a must because if you do not..than you are not living and you are not fullfilling your best qualities. If you do not get hired somewhere or feel tired..than you push it. If you do not get hired, get rejected, than its the person that rejected you problem and that does not mean you should quit living up to your best. I like the NICE part and the KIND part I agree. If someone was harassing me..than I can be nice..but i simply will not be kind. Thank you and goodluck. Negativity is acceptable because Realistically the world is difficult..but if you keep using that as an excuse..than your a victim to it. IF the Handicapped, the blind, and the poor can keep living, than if you have all the NEEDS and WANTS in YOUR LIFE: MIDDLE CLASS..why are you complaining about living up to you POTENTIAL? you should live up to your POTENTIAL FOR THEM! DAMIT.

  11. Lee Potts
    Lee Potts says:

    I don’t think Penelope said to be nice, she said to be kind. I think there’s an important distinction there.

    I think kindness has an internal, moral component to it where niceness is more involved with externals, appearance and manners.

    Niceness is something you can exhibit all the time, I think kindness is a response to a sincere need in someone you are interacting with. You can act nice when being taken advantage of but you can’t be kind because it isn’t an interaction that allows kindness to come into play.

    kind1 (kīnd) pronunciation
    adj., kind·er, kind·est.

    1. Of a friendly, generous, or warm-hearted nature.
    2. Showing sympathy or understanding; charitable: a kind word.
    3. Humane; considerate: kind to animals.
    4. Forbearing; tolerant: Our neighbor was very kind about the window we broke.
    5. Generous; liberal: kind words of praise.
    6. Agreeable; beneficial: a dry climate kind to asthmatics.

    nice (nīs) pronunciation
    adj., nic·er, nic·est.

    1. Pleasing and agreeable in nature: had a nice time.
    2. Having a pleasant or attractive appearance: a nice dress; a nice face.
    3. Exhibiting courtesy and politeness: a nice gesture.
    4. Of good character and reputation; respectable.
    5. Overdelicate or fastidious; fussy.

  12. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    From my own experience I learned that being assertive is better than being nice. But there is a fine line between being assertive and agressive. I think you can stand up for yourself and tell a co-worker or a boss that they are over stepping their boundaries in a respectful way. To do this in a assertive way is to look at things through their eyes as well as yours. That is very hard to do but that is what being generous in spirit is all about.

  13. Kirk Kittell
    Kirk Kittell says:

    “You are not on this earth to do that. Trust me. No one is. You are on this earth to be kind.”

    Hi Penelope, sounds like you were channeling your inner Vonnegut — from _God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater_:

    ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” ‘

    If you were, good choice.

    Being kind or optimistic as a goal is much less tangible than winning. I’m warming to it, but not without a fight; perhaps it takes maturity. It feels like a fracturing of goals, like the one thing I’ve been chasing — potential — has shattered into many things. That’s confusing since you can’t chase all of the pieces at once, if at all, so which ones to chase becomes the problem.

    You’ve struck a chord, though I’m not sure what it is yet. I’ve been saying “potential is BS” for long enough, but in a different manner. I think potential is the limit we’ll never reach. If you jump the bar, the bar is always set higher. At some point you have to be as single-minded as Capt. Ahab to clear it, and maybe it will cost everything you’ve got: family, friends, etc.

    (I do, however, believe in preparing well, working hard, having goals. Not believing in potential is different than that…)

  14. Tiffany Monhollon
    Tiffany Monhollon says:

    @ Amanda and Jim – The trouble with this thinking is is that niceness is something we deserve to be rewarded for. When that’s missing the point entirely. The real reason kindness is for you. Not for rewards.

    I think it’s really hard, though, to separate those things from each because we want to be recognized and rewarded and not run over completely for being decent human beings. That’s why ethics is such a big thing in the business world, right? But it’s also why it’s such a big issue.

    So, thanks for being honest about this.

    The challenge for us all is not just to focus on those things that matter most – kindness, relationships, optimism – by doing them, but for the mere act of doing so to be what satisfies us, no matter what else. Because that is where the authentic part comes in.

  15. ChrisB
    ChrisB says:

    Perhaps you shouldn’t write blog posts after coming off a red-eye.

    I’m skeptical of people who say they don’t live up to their potential — mostly because their evaluation of their potential is probably exagerated.

    But I know plenty of people who don’t live up to their potential — people who are smart but a bit lazy or who are talented in a field for which they have no interest.

    I’m not sure I’d say that you’re on earth to be “kind,” but it’s better than a lot of people come up with.

    To the commenters above, kind is not necessarily “nice.” You do not have to be a doormat to be kind. Another way to put it is gentle — posessing a strength that is used appropriately.

  16. AG
    AG says:

    I agree that the goal is more “kindness” than “niceness.” Nice has a sordid past. But I have certainly used the words interchangeably at times.

    Some time ago, I figured out that being a good person was really the goal, but I am constantly challenged.

    In my workplace, in particular, I am challenged by people who don’t see this as a goal at all, much less an important one. My sense of justice is twisted when I see these people succeeding because people buy their manipulations. I don’t want to be dragged down into their view of the world, but I have trouble keeping my own in the day-to-day.

  17. Becky
    Becky says:

    Those who think that being kind = being a pushover are hurting themselves with a sucker’s choice.

    It is perfectly possible to be kind *and* firm, assertive and conscious of boundaries (yours and others). People who master this are effective and a joy to work with.

    People who think that “being nice” involves letting other people abuse them and violate their boundaries are exhausting and miserable to work with, because they get exhausted, miserable, and ultimately resentful. Nobody likes a martyr.

  18. Steve Errey
    Steve Errey says:

    I’m not so sure Penelope.

    People always have potential – that’s the gap between where you are right now and a place you could be. Having potential isn’t a bad thing in itself, it’s just how the self-help industry (of which I’m a part) has rammed this down our throats that gets my goat.

    You don’t have to go all out to reach that place of potential, and I firmly believe that having goals causes more problems than they solve.

    For me, the point of ‘realising potential‘ is about figuring out what’s important to you and honouring those things. If that means being kind then great. If it means working with an NGO then great. If your important thing is making papier mache animals, then go crazy with your paper and glue.

    You’re right in suggesting that simply ‘reaching potential’ won’t make you happy, just like reaching a goal won’t make you happy by itself. With all the moving forwards and ‘reaching’ that people are doing, when do we get to stay still and enjoy ourselves right now?

    As you say, the point is to engage – with where you are right now as well as whatever you might want to create. Wasted potential is someone who’s not enagaging with what matters to them – that’s not just a waste but a tragedy.

  19. Noelle (Sofia's mom)
    Noelle (Sofia's mom) says:

    If living up to my potential means loving my kids, then I am doing a damn good job. :) Most of the time I think the rest is just window dressing so my kids are proud of me when they grow up. BTW, Penelope, your kids rock. Sorry you couldn’t make it to the b-day party. Stuck in some connection somewhere, I suppose.

  20. Bob
    Bob says:

    Just sayin’ I found this column to be moving…striking at the core of an recent unfortunate incident at work. Well said.

  21. jrandom42
    jrandom42 says:

    Nobody lives up to their full potential. At least some gets unrealized by the choices we make and the dictates of our environment.

  22. Ian
    Ian says:

    Like ChrisB said, your/my potential is probably exagerated by your/my mind. (I know, because I have bitten by it)

    On the point of niceness, I had used my niceness to move ahead from each of my job. Niceness has to be accompany with reliability (Doing what you offered to help on). With that:
    – More people will come to you for help, lead to more opportunities
    – More willing provide help for you, which will make you more efficient (ask long as you are willing to ask)
    – People are more understanding when you screw up

    Niceness leads me to more opportunities not because I’m nice, but because I gain so much knowledge, skills & network by helping others.

  23. Nikki Massaro Kauffman
    Nikki Massaro Kauffman says:

    Well said. It reminds me of the old “Good-fast-cheap model. You could pick any two, but there are never enough resources to make all three priorities.

    Life (and potential) are the same way. Everyday, we make choices about where to apply our potential energies. I was an honors student my entire life and know many of my peers have gone on to to interesting things and have become successful.

    Having a great career is fine, if that’s all you want of life. However, at some point, you may decide there are other aspects of your life on which you’d like to expend your potential energy. For one friend, she was told (by a teacher) she was wasting hers on missionary work as an ESL elementary teacher in an underdeveloped country. For me, I try to divide mine among my career, spouse, and children.

    Sooner or later if you start to feel you can “win” at everything, or any one thing, you’ll come to realize that you have to give up–or that you have already lost by default–something in the process. When it my kids are sick, my husband and I know we have to sit out a round or two of work to take care of them, because we’d rather apply our greatest potential there.

  24. ChrisB
    ChrisB says:

    Oh, yeah: “You are who you are, and you should just be you.”

    So self-improvement is out the door. Well, that frees up my Saturday.

  25. Pamela Slim
    Pamela Slim says:

    Well said, P, I couldn’t agree more.

    And yours is the only blog where will people will argue about the difference between “kind” and “nice.” Amazing – you are a stronger woman than me.

    Semantics are not the point. Human decency is. Just use your superpowers for good, and all else falls into place.

    Enjoy your weekend.

    -Pam

  26. zak
    zak says:

    You are not on earth to do anything. DNA mutated funny, creating the branch of the animal kingdom that led to humans. There’s no special mission attached to that DNA mutation. It happened; we’re here. We need to survive/thrive as long as we’re on this Earth, simply because the cultural construct we’ve created for our society mandates it.

  27. Tom
    Tom says:

    At first, I was thinking “Wow, PT is feelin’ blue;” and I was going to recommend Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar, which is a great book on practicing the tenets of positive psychology. His thesis, in a nutshell, is that a happy life requires both pleasure and meaning together. But as I finished the post, I felt you nailed it. Kindness is always good and always in short supply. To strive to be kind is highly meaningful and the experience of kindness is almost always pleasant.

  28. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    What’s important to me is I live up to the potential I have defined for myself. I have to live with myself. I’ll listen to what other people have to say but ultimately the decision is mine. I always do my best to start with kind, respectful, optimistic, engaged, and connected as mentioned in #1. However there are times when people will test my patience and sometimes it happens when I’ve just been drained by a recent previous experience. One example of living up to my potential is driving an automobile responsibly. I have an excellent driving record and have taken numerous NTSI workshops to keep my insurance premiums at a minimum. Of course I occasionally get tested by someone cutting me off or tailgating me. I can’t say I’m always kind and understanding in these matters but that’s where I start. I have found if I have an immediate negative reaction to their bonehead maneuver that’s what I’ll get back from them. So I give them the benefit of the doubt and let it go. If they persist, they get my 16 plus years of LA driving experience. It’s not pretty but I’ve lived up to my potential and I can live with myself.

  29. Grace
    Grace says:

    “I’m not living up to my potential” only means…

    “I’m not happy.”

    Tony Robbins says we have 6 basic needs.

    Need 1: Certainty/Comfort
    Need 2: Uncertainty/Variety
    Need 3: Significance
    Need 4: Connection/Love
    Need 5: Growth
    Need 6: Contribution

    I kinda think he’s on to something. If we feel underutilized in the workplace, we are probably lacking in one of these areas. Penelope is right. It’s an emotional/spiritual issue.

  30. LP
    LP says:

    Hmm. I have never, ever, heard anyone say that they themselves aren’t living up to their own potential. I have only heard this said in the second and third person: ‘you aren’t’ or ‘he/she isn’t.’ It is always offensive to say that about someone else, and it never occured to me that anyone would apply that (poor) criterion of success to themselves.

  31. Grace
    Grace says:

    You know, it does boil down to kindness.
    I love the movie “Wit”. In the end, all her academic/professional aspirations had little value. What was lasting was the basic kindness.

  32. Sassy
    Sassy says:

    This is a great reminder for us all. I always feel like I’m never doing good enough, never being successful enough, but really that’s okay because if I’m enjoying life that alone is success in the greatest form.

  33. Patricia Fraser
    Patricia Fraser says:

    I enjoyed this post very much. I even wrote down your four things to do, and will read them often. I also believe with those commenters who pointed out that being kind is not the same as being nice.

  34. Joselle Palacios
    Joselle Palacios says:

    I can’t help but have one of Liz Phair’s saddest, most brilliant song lyrics in my head as I read this post: “I learn my name/I write with a number two pencil/I work up to my potential/I earn my name.” That is so sad. And I totally relate to it.

    You have this uncanny ability to post these things on the days I need to read them most.

    This goes hand in hand with me listening to The Now Habit by Dr. Neil Firoe in my car because I procrastinate and then shit all over myself for doing it. And I’ve been doing it forever, even since I used sharp number 2 pencils in school and was “good” and always terrified someone was going to find out the piece of shit I really was. So I procrastinate. I always get things done but always under pressure and rarely ever feeling like I’m doing my best. Rather than give me more organizational tips (please, I know them all), this book really gets to the heart of why procrastination happens. Not because we are bad people but because it’s a really effective way of drowning out the white noise of YOU ARE SHIT. It’s how I’ve protected myself from that voice.

    So, listening to this audiobook and reading this post made me realize my goals should not be: 1) stop being a terrible person and 2) do spectacular things to garner public recognition so a choir of people can tell me I’m no longer a terrible person. It’s now going to be 1) be human because you are and 2) be kind, have compassion because you don’t have to be the bitch whose just secretly scared anymore.

    Thank you.

  35. Grace
    Grace says:

    And “kind” may be perceived as “unkind”.

    If my child is running into traffic and I grab her by the arm and yank her back to the sidewalk just before she is hit by a car, I know I’m being kind. But she cries because I have scared her. In her eyes, I’ve done something unkind – or “not nice”.

  36. Karl Staib
    Karl Staib says:

    We all create a fictional world. Being aware of this isn’t good enough. We need check marks and balances to keep ourselves in line.

    I try (notice I said try) to slow down every hour to watch the direction of my thoughts. Am I getting to caught up in all the emotion? When I am I stop, relax and find a 10% change in direction to keep happy and focused.

  37. Ian
    Ian says:

    @Grace
    Wow, That’s is a concise way to explain the difference. I didn’t know there is such a difference between nice & kind.

  38. Jim
    Jim says:

    Smith & Fritzy:

    I actually tried to stand up for myself and pushed back. When that happened things got even worse. I made a personal vow to get out of there and I now use that experience to spur me on.

    Success is the best revenge.

  39. Kim
    Kim says:

    Though I’ve read this blog for the better part of a year, this is the first time I am commenting. I could spend days with Anthony Robbins, Stephen Covey, or David Allen. I can do yoga and complete 10ks. I can pray or meditate or talk to my family to figure out how to lead my life. Penelope just summed up my mission statement in 8 words:

    “Be kind. Be engaged. Be optimistic. Be connected.”

    Thanks!

  40. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    The question is not whether or not you live up to your potential. The question is, are you happy, and are you growing?

    Living up to your potential implies you have an external obligation. Trying to grow simply means being the best you that you can be.

  41. Jennifer Lynn
    Jennifer Lynn says:

    Provocative post. I agree and disagree. I would argue that we're not on earth to "be kind" as you say early in the post, but rather engaged, as you say at the end of the post.

    I'm in my mid-twenties, and I've been thinking about what I really want out of life, and I've begun to realize that – for me, at least – I want to be fully engaged and present in all aspects.

    When I'm fully engaged in my relationships, I treat people with respect and kindness. When I'm fully engaged in the world, I am aware and informed. When I'm fully engaged in my own life, I have the power to know what kind of life I want – and work to create it.

    To me, that's my "reaching my potential." Knowing what I want and what I'm capable of and trying not to let fear or foolishness get in the way making it happen.

  42. Werner von Wallenrod
    Werner von Wallenrod says:

    “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.”

    ^It strikes me as a little sweetly naive to equate the social skills you need to advance in your career with just being kind.

  43. Kathleen
    Kathleen says:

    I like to think of living up to my potential as being situational. In this moment, given the situation, how can I be the best that I am? And, almost always, that involves being engaged, kind and very present.

  44. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    Hm, I really appreciated that rumination on the simple act of placing your faith in your alarm clock (and the near-grandiose intentions of your bedtime self) and placing both feet on the floor in the morning. To me, it didn’t come off as nihilistic or negative…it’s a great question. We know we probably won’t find ultimate happiness…but we hope for meaning, nevertheless? Or there are probably many words you could toss in there…I feel like this discussion is trying to sneakily sum up Vonnegut (right on, Kirk!), Nietzsche, Jesus…all those Top 10 moral philosophies. Nice try commenters! Nice try, Penelope! Hah…The Tao of P.

    Because it’s the internet and I don’t care how pretentious I come off here, here’s my favorite (because I don’t quite get it) chapter from the Tao, searchable here:


    Accept disgrace willingly.
    Accept misfortune as the human condition.
    What do you mean by “Accept disgrace willingly”?
    Accept being unimportant.
    Do not be concerned with loss and gain.
    This is called “accepting disgrace willingly”.
    What do you mean by “Accept misfortune as the human condition”?
    Misfortune comes from having a body.
    Without a body, how could there be misfortune?
    Surrender yourself humbly;
    then you can be trusted to care for all things.
    Love the world as your own self;
    then you can truly care for all things.

    As to all this talk of potential…I don’t know, I gotta say that I ultimately think there’s something to it. I’ve spent a long time wondering why I’m such a freak (you know…sitting at parties, rubbing the tops of my thighs awkwardly, etc.) But then I realized, there really is something to this each-one-of-us-is-as-special-as-a-snowflake self-esteemy “BS”. Richard Dawkins aside, your DNA IS unique, it IS the only one of its kind in the world, as is your upbringing. Helps you get caught when you commit a crime, helps people trace back your alcoholism (can we phrase that too, as potential?), helps, perhaps, in articulating the way we think and our unique presence in society. That, I think, is potential. Between 6.75 billion different DNA codes, 6.75 billion unique narratives, I think there might be 6.75 billion potentials.

    And, well, while much of this potential must comprise of hard work, I think that if we are astute, we can…should…see the ways that the universe (or god, or fate, or random chains of biochemical reactions) lets us find a hole in the fabric of 6.75 billion largely unexceptional experiences. I’m thinking here of weird moments we might not even be privy to, like when we’re the only ones to get an ‘A’ on the paper, that sort of think. Where we have our unique insight reflected back at us favorably…and then the universe seems to lapse back to its usual ways and we question whether it even happened at all: bills, drudgery, social anxiety, being second-guessed by your online readership at all times…etc.

    So, now I guess the closing thought should be some way to tie these 6.75 billion strangers together…maybe empathy, or kindness if you want, is the way to go. The thing is, I’m not even sure there is a way to get any of those 6.75 people together properly and civilly…it’s nigh impossible to get two people in a “loving” relationship to do that in the long term. So maybe we don’t KNOW that empathy will get us through and get our needs communicated on a field of mutual openess, but it seems like probably the safest bet when both parties come from completely different turf (even if they woke up next to you that morning)?

    Thanks…as I said, I think about this stuff a lot, but we’ll see how actually verbalizing it stands up…and yeah, I guess I do want to be recognized for the genius I really am. Come on…just a little?

  45. Careerguyd
    Careerguyd says:

    It is very true that focusing on what you are not doing and what you might have done (not living up to your potential) is defeating and delusional. Your potential can never be calculated because the circumstances of life are ever changing–and so there is no fixed point defining our potential that any of us can dwell on. Our potential is more tied to being able to make the most of our changing circumstances–and this is a challenge for each moment–and not something that can be measured.

    A better way to frame it is looking at life as an opportunity to learn and grow. Nobody is perfect, so instead of looking at the half-empty: “I am not living up to my potential,” people should try to get in touch with the optimism that gets them out of bed.

    Tom Hanks’ character Tom Nolan in Cast Away states this quite well:

    “I couldn’t even kill myself the way I wanted to. I had power over *nothing*. And that’s when this feeling came over me like a warm blanket. I knew, somehow, that I had to stay alive. Somehow. I had to keep breathing. Even though there was no reason to hope. And all my logic said that I would never see this place again. So that’s what I did. I stayed alive. I kept breathing. And one day my logic was proven all wrong because the tide came in, and gave me a sail. . . And I know what I have to do now. I gotta keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?”

    I say don’t measure your life with coffee spoons; but do live passionately, with an evolving potential that is guided by hope and an eagerness to grow and learn.

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