The Problem of potential

I have a problem with potential.  It’s a notion I’ve been exploring in my mind for quite some time.  What has struck me recently is the fact that on the surface it seems like such a positive, encouraging word – ‘so full of potential’.  And it is….if it is realised.  And herein lies my issue with the word.


Adjective:  Having or showing the capacity to develop into something in the future.

Noun: Latent qualities or abilities that may be developed and lead to future success or usefulness.

Synonyms:     adjective possible – feasible – eventual – contingent noun.  possibility – potentiality

On the one hand potential speaks of new beginnings and hopeful futures.  A fresh, exciting, anticipation of greatness.  ‘Shows great potential as a student, singer, artist, lover…..’.  The potential you see in someone, or that that someone sees in you, is everything you could be.  In some ways it’s even more certain than that, more of a promise than an idea.  Based on what is inherently evident in you, if you carry on that path, progressing in that manner and at that pace it is almost a sure thing that you will succeed in that area, flourish, glow and be great.  It is a word if spoken over you at a certain stage to be taken as great encouragement and inspiration.  However, as I mentioned before, this in only the case if this potential is actually reached and realised.

If potential remains unfulfilled it becomes the most depressing, hateful, stinging word ever.  What was hopeful becomes a crushing, ever-present reminder of what a person, situation or circumstance could have been but is not.  What was well within our grasp but simply not reached.

When it comes to potential in ourselves, its important to take note of what others see in us as an indication of what we could be as sometimes we can’t always see it but, it is always more important to identify it for ourselves.  In this I mean having some self-belief about becoming all we want to be and having our deepest dreams and desires fulfilled, refusing to settle for second best.

People who don’t reach their potential often use ‘blame’ as an excuse for their lack. It will always be someone else’s fault for not helping enough, encouraging enough, or circumstances were against them holding them back or standing in their way somehow.  However, I have found this to be true through observation in others and myself:

It is only you who can stop you from fulfilling your full potential. 

True, people and circumstances may make it harder or even delay your journey but really and truly, it is only yourself who can ultimately hold you back and no one else will be to blame.

We can often get stuck on this word potential in ‘others’ in relationships in particular.  We choose someone based on what we see they could be or become – hoping that they will, ignoring where they are now.  It may be true and your judgement may be correct – this person really could deal with their problem/s, make the required adjustments, mature, grow up  and develop – however, just because this is something within their power to do, it does not mean that they actually will.  I have been flabbergasted to find there are people who actually don’t want to get ‘better’ who to a large extent, not necessarily enjoy but take comfort, in their pain and issues.  It has become part of their identity and they perhaps fear who they will be without them.  They therefore hold on to them, refusing to open themselves up to healing, growing and moving on no matter how wonderful the promise on the other side is.  I’ve seen before my eyes people forfeit amazing treasure and certain happiness and fulfillment in return for staying where they are, wallowing in their own disappointment and regret. Giving up a bright and hopeful future in place of holding on to a dark, disappointing past.

As a person who embraces change, loves life and basically wants to be happy, I find this utterly astonishing and cannot understand it in the slightest.  I too feel pain and regret, and disappointment just like everyone else but as we all know, life really doesn’t turn out how we often expect or hope it to be sometimes and we have to deal with it.  We have to choose to let go, to face the pain full-on and walk right through the middle of it and it hurts like hell.  But you know what?  One day you come out the other side and the sun is shining and you realise the pain is behind you. You see, when you try to dodge pain and walk around it, you end up going round and round in circles, simply circling the pain and never moving on from it.  You might be travelling but you’re certainly not getting anywhere!

It’s not wrong to base decisions on potential – we may choose a house on it’s potential or a project but there are always risks, often hidden ones, along the way.  And most importantly we have to know when to call it a day.  One of the most powerful quotes I have come across recently is this:

One of the hardest decisions you’ll ever face in life is choosing whether to walk away or try harder.

As a fixer and someone who is passionate about dreams and seeing people live theirs out to the full, I rarely get the balance in this quote right.  It deeply saddens me to see people bound who could so easily be free.  To see people burdened and sad who could so easily be happy.  What I have had to learn though is that we can only be responsible for our own walk and our own actions and our own potential.  We can’t live someone else’s out for them.  We can encourage and spur on and believe and hope.  But in getting stuck on someone else’s unfulfilled potential we can sometimes neglect and miss out on our own.