Most (dare I say all?) of us want something more from life. Granted, there are some who have their finances in order, have a measure of health, a list of accomplishments, and good relationships…or at least some reasonable combination of the above. In general, they’re happy. Yet even those whom most agree are very well positioned have things they want to improve, whether it be about themselves or things in their lives. Often, the things we want to improve are within the scope of our abilities to change. We don’t necessarily have to develop new skills to accomplish those things. We simply need to fully live up to our potential.
Unfortunately, many of us don’t reach our full potential. In some cases, we don’t even come close. That leaves us searching for an answer to the all important question, Why? Although there are myriad reasons, generally the fall into two broad categories:
- We aren’t aware of our full potential
- We aren’t working at our full potential
By examining each category, we’ll better understand the forces working against us reaching our peak potential and, more importantly, hopefully identify our personal obstacles and ways of overcoming them.
Let’s take the first point, which is lack of awareness. Some of us feel unfulfilled in our work, which can lead to dissatisfaction, depression, or worse. Sometimes it’s because we don’t enjoy the work we do. At other times, even if we like our jobs, we feel in a rut, unchallenged, and may not see a way to change things. If this describes you, then it’s time to take a closer look at what you do and why you do it. Maybe you’re overlooking some key abilities that are itching to come out. These latent talents align well with your personality and what Napoleon Hill describes as our definite major purpose. In her book Breakdown, Breakthrough, Kathy Caprino describes this as “discovering what you’re naturally and joyfully gifted at, and stepping forward to do work that makes use of these gifts” (2008. p. 136. San Francisco: Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc.). Yet some aren’t using those talents because either your present position doesn’t allow for their use or, worse yet, you haven’t identified that thing you most want to do in life.
It’s time to reassess and take stock of yourself. In the article Assessing Your Potential, Jasper Anson encouraged all professionals to think of the career (or business) they want, then examine their current lifestyle and see how it fits in with that goal. What areas are on track? Which need changing? Of course, one significant difficulty in determining your ultimate career is often we make decisions that stem from fear rather than desire. For example, we all want to pay our bills and take care of those we love. If we can’t provide basic necessities, we can’t feel good about ourselves. That possibility creates a real (and understandable) concern. If you focus on that concern, though, you’ll choose the “safe” course, leading to career choices that provide income and at which you likely excel…but ultimately may not satisfy your true desires. What makes such a choice so insidious is that you’re sure to receive a measure of satisfaction. After all, you’re good at what you do, and performing well always brings a feeling of well-being. Yet you won’t feel the deep-seated satisfaction that comes from not only performing well, but from doing something that truly matches your inner desires as well.
So take stock of yourself and your abilities. Living up to your potential involves more than simply assessing your skills. You need to discover who you are. A few years ago, two of my mentors, Max and Racquel Pilet, asked me to consider a series of questions that helped me take a good, hard look at myself. Here they are:
- Am I generally positive or negative?
- Do I expect to succeed or fail?
- Do I seek to support or criticize?
- Do I seek to praise or find fault?
- Do I focus on my strengths or seek to hide my weaknesses?
- Do I seek to learn from my mistakes or be defensive about my perfection?
- Do I expect the best or the worst?
- Do I seek to build others up or tear them down?
- Do I most often fear failure or desire achievement?
- Do I seek to encourage or discourage?
- Do I focus on other people’s strengths or their weaknesses?
They then asked me to list my four best qualities. Afterwards, they asked me to pick someone who knows me well and would honestly help me assess the answers to those questions as well as provide their own list of my four best qualities. Let me tell you, that was eye-opening. Not only did I do some serious self-examination, but I also received some interesting responses from others (I didn’t just ask one person) when they rated me in these areas. Understanding who I am and how I operate helped me refine what I wanted from life. So when I chose my current career path, it wasn’t based on being safe, but on doing things I truly love. That’s an important step in living up to your potential.
You’ve done your self-examination, taken stock of your characteristics and abilities, and have chosen a career path that suits you. Great! You’re firing on all cylinders, right?! Sometimes…but sometimes not. Maybe you started off great, but have noticed your activity waning in recent months. Maybe you don’t get off to a fast start at all. In fact, maybe you’re seriously considering whether you made the right choice at all, and maybe it’s time to give up on the dream. How could that happen?!
The first reason could be a lack of inspiration. You’ve identified the factors needed to make a wise choice of career path, but maybe you don’t have a strong enough reason to go down that road. Many refer to this reason as your “Why,” and it has to be big enough to motivate you during the tough times…and there will be tough times. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that you overcome challenges until you reach your success goals, then live in some sort of challenge-free nirvana. Challenges always come. They just take different forms at each stage of your journey. Your Why, that inspiration that moved you to set out on your chosen path, has to be large enough to encompass everything I just mentioned.
The next reason could be unrealistic expectations. I just mentioned that challenges always come, even after you’ve achieved the level of success (financial, professional, etc.) you set at the beginning. For some, that’s a surprise, because it challenges either conscious or unconscious beliefs they have about the face of success. In an article appearing on the Tiny Buddha website, An Bourmanne listed three lies (misconceptions) people have regarding living up to their potential:
- It’s productive to beat ourselves up about not living up to our full potential
- Living up to our full potential means living a life free of fear, failure, and sorrow
- We’re not good enough
Such unrealistic expectations set people up for failure because they don’t understand the process of success and the challenges you face as you work through that process. To live up to your potential and live a successful, fulfilling, enriching lifestyle doesn’t mean you eliminate setbacks, remove all uncertainties, and no longer experience pain. Quite the contrary, you’ll probably experience more of those things than others who don’t aspire to the same level of success. Being successful means you learn to work through whatever challenges come your way. You learn to accept that failure and setbacks are a part of life, and continue working through them. Perhaps most importantly, you learn that you can’t accomplish significant things on your own. Granted, you accept responsibility for the results, but you don’t fall into the trap of thinking that it’s all on or totally about you. That helps you overcome any self-doubt and feelings of unworthiness that sometimes arise (read An’s article for more details).
We can all live up to our full potential. This requires action. In an interesting twist, Peter Cicero wrote an article in which he advises people who want to make a difference in life to not live up to their potential? Why? Taking it from the standpoint of the physical sciences, he notes that potential energy is energy at rest. Therefore it’s not doing anything. So, from that standpoint, “living up to your potential” means simply having energy stored in a system, such as a rock sitting on the edge of a steep downgrade. Unless it’s acted upon, the energy stored in the rock is meaningless. However, if you give that rock a push, it starts to roll, pick up speed…and then look out! Therefore we need to act in order to turn our potential energy into the kinetic kind. That’s what gets things done. I wholeheartedly agree with him.
Just like that rock, it takes a shove to get things going – and often you only need a small one to get started. If that metaphorical rock is big, a little shove won’t make a difference by itself. However, if you take small steps repeatedly, it’s like millions of small shoves hitting in the same spot at the same time. The cumulative effect is huge. If you’re stagnating even though you’re doing something you know is right for you, then take the assessment I mentioned above and see if you can tweak something to help you get past the hurdle. If you’re not sure you’re on the right career path, take the assessment above and see if you need to switch tracks. I’d also recommend taking Kathy Caprino’s quiz to see if you’re simply going through a tough time or experiencing a professional crisis (you can also click the link for her Career Path Assessment Survey on the upper right of the quiz page). Once you know where you are, decide where you’re going and map out steps to get there. Then…take a step. That will get you moving towards a life of fulfillment, and help you live up to your potential.
Do you feel you’re living up to your potential? If not, why not? Do you need to make a career shift, or simply change some things about the way you operate? Did your self-assessment reveal things about yourself you did not previously realize? Share your thoughts and experiences in the Comments below.
- Is Pain Essential to Personal Growth? (wariscrime.com)
- Does your career wear the pants in the relationship? (ericroberge.wordpress.com)
- Career at a crossroads? (reed.co.uk)
- Dance to Your Own Voice: 5 Blissful Steps (psychologytoday.com)
- For Optimum Growth, Continue to Challenge Yourself (rianamilneblog.wordpress.com)