One of the best/worst things someone can say to you: “You have such potential.”
One of the best/worst pieces of advice I ever got was when I told someone I thought I wasn’t meeting my full potential. Their response was:
Maybe you are. Sure, if you didn’t have twenty other things to do, you could be excellent at just this one thing, and sure, if you didn’t spend any time lazing about, you might have accomplished twice as much in your life by now… but you also need to do those twenty other things, and you need some time for yourself. Maybe everyone meets their potential, and they’re just in a constant state of regret that their potential isn’t as high as they dreamed it would be.
This made sense to me on some cosmic level. It tied in nicely with the common remarks of “everyone thinks they’re special,” and “people never meet their potential.”
“Sure,” said the rational part of my brain, “That makes sense. I’m just a bit more ordinary than I’d like to believe. I’m not a character in a book, the star of a movie, or the center of the universe. I’m just a human, good and bad and in between, on this planet with all the other good-bad-between humans. Sure.”
Then my brain went “Wait a sec, that is WAAAAY too dreary. Try again. This time, with feeling.”
I looked back at the advice, and I realized what she was really trying to say:
- I shouldn’t beat myself up for dividing my focus between five college classes.
- I couldn’t be perfect at all of them without sacrificing something else from my life.
- I needed to account for the 1/3 of my time spent asleep and another hefty percentage in cool-down mode from burnt-out-brain syndrome.
You can’t look at your life and say, “I could have should have why haven’t I done more?”
At the same time, this felt like a cop-out. Was I giving myself an excuse to be lazy and stop trying? Yeah, I could settle into life like sand at the bottom of a bowl, allow my future to crystallize like still water. Then again, I’ve seen Pocahontas a lot, and JUST AROUND THE RIVER BEND ARE THE RAPIDS!
While I’m afraid of rapids, there’s no real way for me to decide which way is safest, because rapids are sneaky. I don’t want a still life. I don’t want to be satisfied with dissatisfaction. I want to try my damnedest to do my best.
Let’s take a look at how I actually fared after her advice:
- I stopped beating myself up for not being perfect (because would being perfect make me happier or was I somehow concerned that perfection would make other people happy or proud or jealous?)
- I graduated with a respectable GPA.
- I focused on doing well in the areas I enjoyed the most.
- I learned how to balance my attention and activities so that I could buckle down and get stuff done.
Even though the advice sounded like bad advice, it had a positive impact on me. I didn’t stop striving to do my best, but I had a more tempered ideal of what my best was. For example, I’d never been a four-point student, so I couldn’t be too upset when I didn’t ace everything.
Knowing your potential isn’t about condoning mediocrity. It’s about knowing how to push yourself to do better. If you set unrealistic goals for yourself (like climbing a mountain), you’ll never see each small step as the successes that they truly are. You’ll put it off and procrastinate your way to Regret Valley. With enough steps, you can accomplish what you never saw as possible—you can climb The Mountain.
Just be sure not to forget the oxygen tank, the apex-selfie, and the sled.