You know those reports that are written about us in high school by our lovely teachers – telling our parents how we’re getting along with our lessons and our learning. Well, I remember the common theme throughout mine – especially in my teenage years. For me, it was about working harder, putting in more effort, applying myself more – I think you get the message.
Back then I didn’t take much notice of what these words actually meant – I suppose I thought it was something teachers said about all their students. But when I sat down to read my old school reports earlier this year, I was able to see them from a new and slightly older perspective.
I realize now that these teachers were talking about my potential – what I was capable of achieving. I’m not sure what words they could’ve used to make a difference in my teenage brain, but even as an adult being told to work harder or put in more effort as a way to motivate me, can actually have the opposite effect – especially if I don’t know how or even why I should be doing it.
So, what does it mean to achieve or fulfill your potential and how do you know when you’re doing it – is it an internal feeling and a sense of knowing, or is it something external where you’re seeking validation from others?
Don’t be surprised if you struggle to find the words to answer these questions – this is completely normal.
Let me propose another question: What if living or fulfilling your potential meant following a less traditional path than you might currently be on – a path with fewer travelers, a path less familiar – yet somehow you feel drawn to journey on it?
There is something exciting and scary about walking a path less worn and one where there are so many twists and turns that perhaps we can’t see for sure where it ends – or if in fact it does.
So, why would we choose a path like this versus one that others are following and perhaps expect you to follow along with them?
In my attempt to address these questions, or at least offer some insight into them, let’s start by considering a common definition for the word ‘potential’ – having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future.
I would suggest that this definition is quite limiting in its suggestion of what is possible for us, and that somehow the external environment must ‘validate’ our potential by how we demonstrate it to others.
But there is another definition of potential that is a tad more scientific – where potential is the quantity determining the energy of mass in a gravitational field, or of charge in an electric field.
To be honest, I don’t exactly know what this definition means, but somehow it resonates with me – and I’ll tell you why. Because it uses terms like energy, charge, and electric. When I feel energized or charged towards achieving or accomplishing something, I’m more likely to take action on it – and perhaps you could say I’m fulfilling my potential in the process.
Consider this for a moment – if you see your potential as energy coming from within and you are internally charged to move or act towards achieving it, you are less likely to need external validation to support you, and the path you take will be less worn and unique to you.
On the other hand, if you see your potential as something others expect from you and you are driven to achieve it in order to live up to their expectations – you are more likely to need validation to support you, and the path you take will be well worn and familiar to most.
When we are extrinsically motivated to ‘fulfil our potential’, our actions come with the expectation of rewards – a pay rise, a bonus, a promotion, an A grade – but we must be seen (and believed) to be working harder and putting in more effort. In this way, our potential is limited and measured by others.
When we are intrinsically motivated to ‘fulfil our potential’, the reward comes from the act of what we’re doing and not the result. When what we do is meaningful to us, we no longer need to work harder or put in more effort – our potential is limitless and measured by no one.
I will end by returning back to my original question – what does it mean to achieve or fulfill your potential and how do you know when you’re doing it?
What comes to mind for you now?
“When you catch a glimpse of your potential, that’s when passion is born.” – Zig Ziglar
“With realization of one’s own potential and self-confidence in one’s ability, one can build a better world.” – Dalai Lama