It wasn’t until recently that I really paid attention to the word “potential”, what I thought it meant, and how it made me feel.
Growing up I was encouraged when I heard a teacher say “You’ve got potential for a great future.” My mother used to half-joke that I was so good at arguing with her that I had the potential to be a lawyer (subliminal influence at it’s finest ;)). At one of my earlier employers, someone I respected once shared a flattering, yet daunting comment that they felt I had the potential to be “the next ____ ____” (the name of a female VP who was my mentor, whom I enjoyed working with and also respected).
Potential is one of those things that is nice to hear when people think you have it, but (in my mind) was also tied with expectations and pressure to live up to that potential. To not fulfil it meant you were disappointing someone. And that scared me.
I still feel like not becoming a lawyer means I haven’t fully lived up to my parents’ idea of what my potential is/was, and with every career choice I’ve made that was different from the path of that VP I felt like I was disappointing these wonderful people who had spent time and energy mentoring me (though realistically, they’ve got enough going on in their own lives and probably haven’t thought much about me as my career/life evolves). And I’ve only recently learned to tell myself that that’s okay.
I’ve also realized a few other things:
- Over the past 30+ years I had learned to equate “potential” to “earning potential” or “job status potential”. This is flawed. Those are 2 types of potentials in an ocean of possibilities.
- I don’t actually know what some people’s expectations are of me, and I’ve probably put some pressure on myself to live up to what I think others’ expectations are of me.
- Potential is something that you could be, or as dictionary.com defines it “having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future”. It doesn’t mean you have to be that or that’s the only thing you can be. And “something in the future” is quite vague which, again, means there’s limitless “something’s” you could be.
- We only have so much time and energy in our lives. When you choose to fulfil your potential in certain areas of your life, inevitably you’ll have less resources to fulfil other areas. I see this now when I recognize the potential I’ve realized in the last few months as a mother, wife, friend, Deacon, and even cook(!) that was previously lacking when I focused the majority of my energy on fulfilling my career potential. Still lots of improvement/potential lies ahead, but I see the strides I’ve made.
- We each have unique gifts, priorities and circumstances – and there is no standard template or check list of what we should strive for and potentials we choose to fulfil.
When I think about my 4-year old daughter, who just started junior kindergarten, I think of all the potential that lays ahead of her. The potential she has to make a difference in this world in big and small ways. The potential to positively impact a classmate’s day by being kind to them or cheering them up. The potential to soak up classroom knowledge. The potential to learn just by observing nature and everyday life. The potential to strengthen her empathetic qualities and become aware of people’s feelings around her. The potential to face and overcome social challenges (inevitable fights with best friends, bullying, etc.). These aren’t earth-shattering attributes or goals…heck, they definitely aren’t “SMART” goals, but they’re still important and worth celebrating.
I now recognize that at 32 years old I still have loads of potential that lays ahead of me too.
Actually, I have the same potential that I see for my daughters.
I have the potential to make a difference in this world in big and small ways. The potential to positively impact a friend/co-worker/stranger/husband/daughter’s day by being kind to them or cheering them up. The potential to soak up knowledge with every job I take (whether it’s my paying job, my role as a Deacon, or volunteering roles I take on). The potential to learn just by observing nature and every day life. The potential to strengthen my empathetic qualities and become aware of people’s feelings around me. The potential to face and overcome social challenges (relationships change over time and with more responsibilities & less time we need to consciously determine how we spend our time and who it is with).
In fact, you could very well replace the word “potential” in that paragraph with the word “choice”. We have a choice to set priorities/goals (big or small), and the potential to improve ourselves and achieve them.
My husband and I joked a few years ago that it seemed like after having kids life was going to be mundane, with no exciting peaks (like graduation, wedding, first pregnancy, etc.). I realize now how short-sighted that was and how narrowly we were defining our purpose and goals and limiting our own potential. I can literally choose to do or be anything I want – whether it’s an attribute, attitude, or career. It may not be easy or it may not happen quickly…but I can do it.
(I should also note that I recognize that, once again, I am privileged to live in a country and time where it’s much easier for me to define and fulfill my own potential.)
My ask today is for you to take the time to see the potential that lays ahead of your life – whether you’re 9 years old or 90 years old.
Potential doesn’t have to be daunting and it doesn’t have to be for something headline- or facebook-post-worthy. Every day we have the potential to better ourselves and potential is as much a capacity/quality as it is a mind-frame.
Your potential is a limitless, delightfully unattainable gift that continues to expand the more you achieve it.