When we think about the future, I suspect many of us are limited by our previous experiences. In other words, we don’t consider the possibilities available to us because we can’t imagine them. Roughly speaking, this is what I would call “potential”. It’s the ability to achieve something that you haven’t already. It’s what people refer to when they see someone with a lot of talent that hasn’t been focused in one direction. We can see that the person could become a master at what they do, but they aren’t quite there yet.
The thing about potential is that it’s very difficult to see the potential within yourself. This is for two reasons. First, most of us are adept at playing down our strengths. Think about the last time someone complimented you on your abilities. What was your reaction? If you are like me, you tried to deflect or play down the compliment. You might have said something along the lines of, “Thanks, but it really isn’t that big of a deal. There are plenty of people who are better than me.”
While this might be technically true, the effect it has is to limit your perception of what is possible. Instead of being able to dream about the future, you end up staying rooted in your current reality. This makes it very difficult to see yourself doing anything spectacular, because that would require a large transformation.
The second reason we don’t see the potential in ourselves is that we are shaped by our history. It’s impossible to tell what will happen in the future, and this has the consequence of limiting our ideas of what is even possible. Even if we believe in ourselves, our perspective on the world narrows the scope of what we can accomplish. If we come from a family that didn’t get a university education, it’s much more difficult to imagine yourself as an academic than if you’re part of a family filled with academics. It’s possible that you would be a fantastic academic, but if you don’t have the role models in your life, it can be difficult to realize your potential.
This paints a bleak picture of potential. We aren’t good at determining our own potential, which means we don’t get as much out of our life as we could. What can we do to correct this?
My favourite way is to surround yourself with people who can open your eyes to the possibilities available. They don’t necessarily have to be cheerleaders in your life. Rather, I’m simply saying that having people of diverse backgrounds can help give you a sense of where your potential lies. If you can find someone who believes in you in a specific area, that can also be a powerful motivator.
One aspect to keep in mind is that it’s easy to fall in the trap of chasing someone else’s dream. Remember, just because you have the potential to do great things in a certain area doesn’t require you to do them. The important part is feeling like you are making a contribution to the world, no matter how small. My experience has shown me that this is the real barometer of how we choose our work. We want to contribute in some way. That might mean accumulating wealth to help our family, educating others in concepts that are tricky to understand, or creating solutions in terms of products. Whatever it is, we want to contribute. Following your potential is a good place to start, but it’s definitely not a commitment set in stone for you. Having a lot of potential doesn’t bind you to doing a certain kind of work.
We all have a certain amount of potential in various activities. The important work then is to find out where our potential can provide the biggest contribution and give meaning to our lives, and then get to work. Having others around you that can help open your eyes to the possibilities and see the potential within you is a great start.
I think it’s safe to say that we all seek meaning in our lives. Following your potential is a great first step towards finding that meaning.