|These days you can’t cross a street without someone talking about ‘achieving their potential’.|
I recently had a few interesting discussions with twenty-something year olds, many between the jobs, struggling to decide what to do next. The pandemic prevented so many distractions, like traveling, forcing many to sit down and think about what is it that they want to do with their lives.
The relative luxury of being able to ask this question doesn’t take away from the fact that it is a hard question. For one, there is no one definition of potential – so how can we achieve something we struggle to define?
Second, the paradox of choice is a well-established phenomenon of our times, very relevant for ‘achieving potential’ as it involves choosing path for nothing less than your life. When our minds are bombarded by the need to make decisions from choosing the right toilet paper to path of life, they get exhausted quickly. It doesn’t help that traditional, family and religious rituals that previously guided our paths in more structured way, have mostly been abandoned, as David Brook notes in his excellent book ‘Second Mountain’.
It also doesn’t help that we talk so little about failure and reward success by showering it with attention, while glossing over the many wrong turns, boring tasks, and sacrifices made to get on the right-ish track. This gives an impression that there is that ‘one right way’, finding which is going to make everything else easy.
All this makes it very easy to get ‘analysis paralysis’ – another phenomena of our times. The folks I was talking with all mentioned this one thing – they want to achieve their potential, but their current jobs ‘were not it’. Yet they were not looking for anything. Some were fiddling with a hobby here and there, but most seem to wait ‘inspiration’ to come for that wonderful job and activity that helps them achieve their potential.
But achieving a potential is a process, not a destination and thus includes not one decision, but many. And as is true with most of our lives, we often need to make those decisions with incomplete, even inaccurate data, or no data at all.
As such, our minds lack good data to make right decisions and emotional information becomes crucial.
Try the 3 steps below.
1. Embrace jealousy
If you ever felt a pang of jealousy when somebody talked about what they do, follow that pang! We are so used to suppressing our emotions, especially strong and negative ones, that we forget they also have purpose. In fact, admiration, awe, even aspiration – emotions we often follow when deciding what we want to do – can be misleading. Someone else’s path can be alluring but not right for you whilst jealousy is the quickest and strongest signal of what YOU want. Why do you feel jealous? Which parts do you feel the most excited about and which are so-so? What makes you feel excited? Julia Cameron, in Artist Way, calls this process Jealousy Mapping and recommends to play around with these signals to see what you truly want.
The potential will only be rewarding when you know why it matters for you.
Once you are done with that, put the intensity up by..
2. Imagining the Future State
One of the best ways to understand what you want is to imagine future state – how you will feel if something happens or won’t happen.
Liz Fosslien, in her book about emotions describes how she failed to come to a decision based on mental reasoning alone when deciding between 2 similar job offers – one in West coast and another in the East. She then tried to tap into the internal feeling to guide the decision. Imagining herself in the roles, helped realize which one excites her more, helping her choose.
We often look at well known figures to see who we admire, but admiration can mislead when deciding your path. I admire Julia Guillard, the first female Prime Minister of Australia, but one day in her job would have destroyed me. In her Refuse to Choose book, Barbara Sher, quotes a lady who dreamed of job which would let her reading historical novels all day. When she found one, she hated it.
That your potential will be aligned with your way to earn money is another myth – in fact, making things your enjoy also making you money can suck all the joy out of it. The lady from above? She found a job to support her lifestyle and now is back to enjoying reading books as a hobby.
Imagining a future state helps understand deeper what is it that gives you pleasure and anticipate what might go wrong. It gives you more details about what excites you and why, guiding you towards your goals.
Once you’ve done your homework here…
3. Let your emotions & desires carry you towards the potential
I sometimes feel like a broken record, but this message is so uncommon, that it needs repeating.
Over-reliance on mental faculties in life is exhausting way to live a life.
Not only there is plenty of evidence that without access to emotional information we cannot function properly, processing mental information requires much more brain power, time and energy than your intuition of which emotions are a big part of. We wouldn’t get through the day if we thought through every decision – we would be incapacitated as so much decisions need to be done without full information; we would be slow, as mental processing needs more time; and we would be exhausted because relying on intuition, emotions, urges is often unconscious, saving our energy.
What is so hard to express for me, is elegantly described by a contemporary philosopher Ollivier Pourriol in his book ‘The French Art of Not Trying Too Hard’. In the chapter ‘The Art of Gliding’, he compares the strength-based approach to achieving our goals with spending hours of doing something that we enjoy, letting the pleasure get us through the tough work. He calls it:
‘The negative world of will against the positive world of desire.’
He suggests to embrace the positivity of our desire and use that energy to get where we want to get instead of fighting, resisting, struggling towards our goals.
So look for what you truly desire, enjoy, what excites you to carry your through towards where you want to go.
One thing that struck me was the unwillingness of those twenty-something year olds to act. While their effort to reflect on what they want to do is admirable, reflection is as good as the material you reflect upon.
Life is many things – linear is not one of them.
It is full of punches under the belt and we often live it, learning to roll with them. It is often these rolls that show how much we can handle, identifies our strengths and disposes our weaknesses, and shows what we actually enjoy versus what we think we will.
To achieve one’s potential, action is key.
It is implied that ‘achieving potential’ means living actively and fully and you can’t theorize yourself into activity.
So do the work, make your jealousy maps, think about ‘future feeling’ of it, and use the energy of positivity to get you started.