At the weekend I travelled to Bournemouth to give a presentation at a conference. The event was all about finding ways to reach your potential, but I don’t believe it’s possible for us to reach our potential, and strangely enough, I think that’s a wonderful thing.
Sinking into the rather too deep leather sofa I am gazing out of my own therapist’s window at the trees which have begun to turn from green to yellow. I am thinking, buying time. He has used a word which jarred in response to my sharing an example of my own introversion. He said “retreat” and I realise that maybe this is what I have frequently done, but it isn’t comfortable because it might have stalled me in reaching my potential. In the exchanges which follow something altogether different emerges as we explore “retreat” as a place of sanctuary and solitude, where thought can run free, where recovery and triumphant emergence are possible, and I wonder why this wasn’t my first considered definition.
When I was training we used to discuss how self esteem issues tend to be a component of almost every story which wanders into the room of a therapist. These days, anxiety is the star and some of it has to do with potential. Just the notion of needing to reach our potential can get the pulse racing in fevered expectation. “What if I can’t?” “What if I’m not good enough?” “What if I mess up my life?”, “What if?” indeed.
Our need to keep moving, keep growing, keep developing, however successful we are, is the very thing which will always prevent us from reaching potential, so it’s a futile battle. There will never be a time when we can sit back and say that we have reached completion, that life has been tamed. If it were possible to succeed in reaching our potential that would be a terrible moment with nothing left in front.
How can we ever know if we reached our potential in any particular part of our life? Surely that which we achieve by the end of our days was our potential or our potential was always a theoretical irrelevance anyway.
Despite having been a musician and songwriter since my early teens, when it occurred to me that a guitar was a useful way to attract girls, I consistently suffered with crippling performance anxiety. Ironic then that I should have seen it as such a golden ticket to romance. I never really spoke about it because there never seemed to be much point, but one could certainly argue that it prevented me from reaching my potential. Who knows? What does it matter anyway because it is what it is, and so any alternative view of potential is ethereal and can only be useful in driving disturbance or regret. The choice is to either ruminate on what has been or use it as a way of carving something new and worthwhile, reinventing potential all the time.
Potential is what we make it. Just because we are diverted from a path we expect to take doesn’t mean we have failed to fulfil potential. Instead it means that we are still traveling, never quite there, but invited to enjoy the journey anyway.
There is so much which stands in the way of us reaching our potential and, far from being an irritant which must be eradicated, it is this which defines a lifetime and maintains the search, the push for improvement, the constant battle between safety, familiarity and the precarious fall into the unknown experiences which we crave and fear at the same time.
If you were ever moved to take a different direction because of someone else’s influence rather than your own decision; if you have stood in your own way due to a less than supportive or helpful view of yourself; if you have undervalued your own strength and stood back when you might well have thrived through diving in, then you have had an impact on your life but you have not dealt a fatal blow to your potential. You never can, because there is always more to go for in such a myriad directions that it would be impossible to even consider them all.
One of the findings of the Harvard Grant Study into how we create happiness in our lives is that all situations are changeable. Just because life has dealt you a bad hand there is always another coming around. Ironically it is only when we feel we have failed to reach our potential that our potential seems to evaporate. When we stop trying we cannot find a reason to try. We perceive both of these situations as happening in reverse, but they never do.
Shifting in the leather chair after what seems like an interminable silence I join the dots. At the end of one of the darkest periods of my life I spent a week in the Scottish Highlands writing songs. That was a quite magical retreat, and somehow, it was a valuable reminder that potential is just a station on the track, and never the destination.