When you’re young, the word “potential” often gets thrown around. I used to hate it, but now that I’m old I find I want to use it for young people. As someone who doesn’t fancy being a hypocrite, I’ve been trying to figure out what it actually means. There seems to be three main ways it’s used.
- When someone says, “You have potential” or “You are full of potential,” they are essentially saying one of two things: You currently have a great skill that could be really popular or you could have the beginning of something that could be great if you work at it. If you have ever gone house shopping, you’ll understand the difference between the two meanings of this phrase. A lot of houses for sale have been upgraded and cleaned up to look their best and be at their full potential in order to try to get the most money out of them. These houses have potential in the sense they’re ready to be lived in – the first case. Other houses, like mine, when my wife and I bought it, we saw that it was full of potential and could be great with a lot of work. Two years later, and more work than we anticipated (as is always the case in renos), it was pretty much a brand new house. I love how our house turned out, but that’s largely because it had the right qualities for being great. We saw that it had potential and with a lot of work it could be great – the second case. My wife and I walked through a lot of houses when we were looking and even now we’ll do open houses just to walk through because I’ve become fascinated with house design (and thank you to people who don’t close their blinds at night, so I can see in when I jog past – I don’t hover like a creeper; I glance so I’m only partially creepy). Some houses have absolutely terrible designs and need to be completely reconfigured to have any chance of being very good. They don’t have a lot of potential because their qualities are terrible. The same thing happens for people. If you’ve ever done online dating you’ll know the frustration of how few options out there have any real potential for you. This idea of seeing potential is why anyone who’s 6’5 or taller is asked if they play basketball; they have an important quality to be great. This is also way some people have great potential for being a dishwasher hidden in the back of a restaurant where no one can see or hear them… no offence to those people.
- Potential can also be used in the past tense: “You had potential,” but this is less common because it’s a pretty mean thing to say. It’s saying you’ve missed your chance or you screwed something up and are now going to miss out. This kind of statement is usually reserved as something we say to ourselves when we’re feeling self-defeated. We don’t say things like this to others because we know it’s mean, and we tend to only be that mean to ourselves (or our spouses). This is particularly common when we’re feeling discouraged or grieving a dream that’s slipping through our fingers like when we get too old to do what we once did well like all athletes one day face.
Hearing someone say “You have potential” is fortunately more common than “You had potential,” but it can still feel like a dig. I used to hate being told “I have potential” because what I heard was “You suck now, but with a lot of work there’s a slim chance you could be decent.” The mean part of my brain was really bad when I was younger. I haven’t been told “I have potential” for a long time. My mean brain could spin it to be interpreted as people have smartened up and see I don’t have any potential or I’m so old I’m someone who had potential, but I believe I don’t hear this phrase now because I’m respected for my skill; I’ve reached my potential in my career as a therapist. With my age, experience, and knowledge on top of my full client load, as a therapist my learning curve is pretty slim now. These are two very different interpretations, and being able to fight my negative brain is a sign of how much I’ve grown from my 20s when I made my negative brain my best friend.
What I wish I realized is that when someone said “You have potential,” that it’s highly unlikely it was meant as an insult: (bully) “You have so much potential… ha take that!” For instance, when people said I had potential, there’s a chance they meant I was close to being at my best. Maybe I didn’t need 100s of hours of development; instead, I just needed a few good experiences, so I wasn’t so “wet behind the ears” to use a cliché. They could also have been saying that I already had a developed skill that just wasn’t being appreciated the way it could be. For instance, if I didn’t have my full client load, I would still be in a position where I have potential because I have everything else in place.
A better example of someone who was at a level of full professionalism but missing an important ingredient to be at his full potential was Terry Fator. I had the privilege of seeing him perform in Las Vegas as he now has a regular show where he does singing ventriloquism impressions. That’s right. He does singing ventriloquism impressions. Some people are brilliant performers with just one of those, singing, ventriloquism, or impressions, yet he does all three at once. Before he was discovered on America’s Got Talent, he was performing at birthday parties and small events. He had this incredible talent, but he didn’t have his audience yet. Back then he could’ve been told “You have so much potential” because his talent was amazing, but he was waiting for a door to open. Sure, for his Las Vegas show professional writers helped him tweak his act, but the main qualities of greatness were already there. He just needed an audience, which is what he has now meaning he has reached his full potential.
- Another way of looking at potential is under the question: Are you living to your full potential? This is best answered by what I call the Goldilocks’ Rule: Don’t do too much or too little; do just enough. For instance, when it comes to building muscle, there’s a point where you can work out too much and actually hurt your growth because we need time for recovery and healing. We want to do enough.
When it comes to living up to your full potential, this becomes trickier, however, if you don’t know what that even means. What am I meant to be or do? I used to overcomplicate this and think I had to achieve some great feat, but now I know to keep it simple. For example, now that I’m older, I’m more worried about being at my full potential as a husband and father with a side of being at my best for my clients. Being at my full potential for all this is a bit tricky because, as many parents know, what often would be best for you is a good nap, but there isn’t time; you’re too busy doing the family thing. Because it’s not a perfect world, I’m, therefore, at my full potential for what I’m capable of doing in the time I have. I don’t need to feel guilty for not doing all the things other parents do. I just need to do what is enough, which is affected by things like my job, brain functioning, age factors, etc. If, for example, I had explosive anger, I would want to get help for that because that would be preventing me from living up to my full potential. I was very blessed to have learned to deal with a lot of my emotional junk before I had kids, which makes me have a better start for parenting. That being said, I’m older than a lot of dads and won’t have the energy they do or live as long into my daughter’s lives, so there is good and bad in all things. Either way, we should be striving to be at our full potential for the things that are important in our lives.
This week may you consider what potential means to you and how you can live up to your full potential.
Rev Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people (like me)