Has someone in your life ever told you that you had lots of potential? Yeah, me too. Sounds pretty good.
But the more I thought about this, I began to wonder if being told (or telling someone) they have potential is not a compliment but an insult. In essence, aren’t you being told “You’re nothing special now, kid, but if you apply yourself, you might amount to something.”
If someone is young with their whole life spread out before them, do they not have potential? Put another way, doesn’t EVERYONE have potential? OK, maybe not potential for everything. But everyone has potential for something.
Take me for example. The potential for me to play power forward for the Lakers or to become a supermodel is probably slim. But the potential for me to spit out the great American novel someday is there. At least, I’m going to go on believing it’s there. Let’s leave it at that.
So when people talk about someone not living up to their full potential, what exactly does that mean? Are they saying that the person in question ended up just an “Average Joe” rather than becoming someone “special”? Maybe living the Average Joe life was Joe’s full potential. He could have become a homeless, crack addict or a commentator for Fox News. But instead, Joe reached his full potential. He rose above.
Let’s look at it from another perspective. You have two students who receive a B average in math. One works her ass off. It doesn’t come easy for her. But she puts in the long hours, works diligently with a math tutor and despite the odds, succeeds at attaining the B average. The other student is a math whiz. She loves numbers, loves the challenge of math and typically finds math class easy, if not a little on the boring side. Maybe our math whiz doesn’t do the homework assignments or prepare for exams. And why should she? With almost no effort on her part, she’s able to comfortably pull in a B average.
In this scenario, many of us would probably characterize the first student as realizing her full potential, but say that the second student, our math whiz, was not working up to her full potential. Am I wrong?
Didn’t both students have the “potential” to earn an A average? Probably. And if I hadn’t given you the background on each student, you would have judged their B averages the same.
One more perspective. We all know people who have succeeded well beyond their abilities. You know who I mean. The people who have failed upward – have risen to the level of their own incompetence. The people you never expected would amount to anything that you find out are running huge departments, companies or holding offices of high prestige. These are contrasted with the group of people who always impressed you -- the gang voted most likely to succeed – who end up not becoming the world changers we expected them to be. We would probably say the latter group failed to live up to their potential. But what about this first group? Is it possible to EXCEED your potential? Does such a thing exist? If you accomplished it, then you had the potential to become it all along. Maybe you just did a good job hiding your true potential.
At the end of the day, I guess we all like to think we have potential to accomplish more than we have, be more than we are, climb to even higher heights than we have. While that may be the case, I’m always a big proponent of being thankful each day for what we do have, what we have accomplished. It’s good to push yourself in search of your full potential, just don’t ignore all of the good stuff you do and achieve along the way.