An idea I am constantly referred to is that of “living up to our full potential.” I don’t agree with this concept. It might seem odd that someone who runs a personal development blog would disagree with the concept of living up to our full potential, an idea that is often used as the fundamental of personal development, so let me explain.
I personally believe that the idea of “living up to our full potential” illustrates a flaw in our thinking about how we define “success”. Our full potential seems to imply that there is an arbitrary point of maximum achievement for each of us in this life time. I think this type of thinking can be inspiring, but also limit us in a way.
Thinking about “living up to our full potential” can often inspire or push us to make improvements. In this sense, having a full potential to live up to is a good concept in order to get us to make the improvements we need to make to live a great life. However, I believe that the concept of “full potential” makes some inaccurate assumptions about success.
In order to see what these inaccurate assumptions are, we need to define success. So what is success?
I personally would consider success to be the measure of happiness, fulfillment and impact we have with our lives. Success is the sense that we are fulfilled with our contribution to the world and are doing our best. Think about it. Everything we do in life is pretty much to directly or indirectly influence these factors. We want to be happy and fulfilled in our life and our life’s purpose. Once we have that we want to increase the positive impact we can have on the world. That is how I would define success.
So where does happiness and fulfillment come from? Happiness and fulfillment come from growth. When we feel we are growing, improving and experiencing life to the best of our abilities is when we are the most fulfilled and contented. Therefore I would say that the measure of success we have in life is the level of growth we are currently experiencing.
So why does this conflict with the concept of “living up to our full potential”?
I believe this conflict arises because this implies that the true measure of success is in achieving a certain point or position in the continuum of personal development. But based on our definition of success, the position is not really what creates success. Success instead is based on the rate of growth or velocity.
So instead of our past concept of “living up to our full potential.” I would say it more accurately as “doing our full potential.” This may seem like semantics but the difference is crucial.
Living up to our true potential, that is the arbitrary point of maximum achievement in our lives is daunting and rarely inspiring. How can one possibly live up to their “full” potential without the benefit of hindsight? Even if we are doing our best, we might make mistakes or incorrect decisions. This true potential implies that success, happiness and fulfillment, are linked to achieving our “full potential”. Seeing as this full potential is always just out of reach, extending this line of thinking says that we will not be happy or fulfilled unless we reach it. This is why I think this statement actually demotivates a lot of people.
Doing our full potential implies that we are going to do our best to grow and improve ourselves. This statement puts the pressure on the present, not the impossibly huge context of our whole lives. In this sense, as long as we are doing the best we possibly can, we are successful. We can always do our best, regardless of a specific outcome.
By focusing on doing our full potential we can experience maximum growth and improvement in our lives. From this improvement and growth we can achieve happiness and fulfillment. Knowing we are doing the best we can is enough to satisfy. From this context I would say that a recovering alcoholic doing his best to improve his life is more successful than someone who has settled into an average life.
Our full potential in the course of our lives is often at the mercy of different factors we cannot control. If we were to suddenly die tomorrow, I wouldn’t say that where we our right now was our full potential. Furthermore, this full potential gets us to strive towards a point, rather than focusing on the growth and direction itself.
This concept of success as being an arbitrary point is prevalent in the way we set goals. I often hear about people who say that they weren’t any happier after achieving their goals than they were before. These people would often go on to claim that the problem was with goal setting entirely.
The fact is, the real problem is that they believed success (happiness and fulfillment) was linked with an arbitrary point, rather than the rate of their own growth. The reason you set goals is to increase your velocity, to increase the rate of your growth, not just to achieve a specific milestone, or position, in that development. It may seem odd that the purpose of goal setting isn’t just to achieve the goal, but rather to get us to push beyond our normal expectations, but it is very true.
I believe that many people who like this expression already use it in the way I describe as doing instead of reaching a point. For those people I think you’ve already got the right idea. Focus on how you can do your best right in this moment. As long as you are doing that, you are successful.
Life is a journey not a destination. Don’t focus on reaching an arbitrary point, whether that is our “full potential” or even your specific goals. Instead focus on whether you are doing your best to grow, improve and expand. Focus not on living up to your full potential but in doing your full potential in every moment of your life.