Living Up To Your Potential

On a commuter bus recently, a father and his teenage son sat in the seats immediately in front of me. Unavoidably able to hear their discussion about college applications and homework, it was easy to determine the father had a loving interest in his son’s scholastic achievements. The father began talking about his son’s grades on his most recent report card and then said, “You’re not living up to your potential. How do you expect to get into a good college?” Ouch! I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to hear the father call out his son for his “academic underperformance,” and I could tell this embarrassed the son.


The question, “Are you living up to your potential?” is typically posed to provoke individuals to do better. Yet, as often as it is posed as a question, teachers, family and employers use the phrase as a declarative, “You are not living up to your potential!” like the father said to his son on that bus.


To be clear – Everyone’s potential is unlimited! In life, there is always room to do and/or be a little bit more. Yes, for many professionals there comes a point in their career where they feel they have achieved all they can, or all they set out to do. They may have achieved a lot, but they haven’t reached their potential. And that’s perfectly okay because potential isn’t just about what you strive to accomplish in your professional life!


There is no set boundary on when “full potential” has been achieved. There is always room for more. You can’t see the “finish line of potential” off in the distance. In fact, even amongst the best and most successful, it is highly unlikely that an individual’s full potential has been or will ever be realized. After all, potential is not the same for everyone. What one person is capable of achieving may not be the same as it is for someone else. There are limits to what some can accomplish while others excel.


According to Webster, potential refers to “what is capable of being but is not yet in existence,” and “denoting possibility and capability not yet achieved.” In other words, can you ever achieve your full potential?


While the authority figures who throw the grand idea of living up to what may or may not actually be achievable as a way to encourage, frequently the declaration can also have the opposite effect. Telling someone who is working their butts off that they aren’t living up to their potential can be quite demoralizing and discouraging, leaving one feeling dejected.


“You aren’t living up to your potential,” is a value judgement by another about what they believe you may (or may not) be capable of. Their use of the expression is based on their biases about you, your work, and their own value system, rather than exclusively being reflective of a factual set of an individual’s circumstances and personal goals. Even when one’s goals are known, telling someone they aren’t living up to their expectations of your potential isn’t particularly motivating, it’s just plain negative.


So how can we turn this around to invoke positive action from someone who isn’t doing as well as another thinks they should?


First of all, one needs to know a person’s specific goals before being judgmental. Try to identify particulars that can possibly be improved upon through open, non-judgmental discussion rather than the accusation, “You’re not living up to …” You need to have an understanding of another’s life experiences – struggles and successes – before being judgmental.


Similar sentiments can be expressed in a more positive manner. Rather than telling someone what they’re not achieving, ask what they need to bring their ideas and goals to fruition. Ask how you can help them achieve a goal. Phrases such as, “you’ve got this,” or “just do it” come across more clearly as motivating rather than demoralizing. When you ask someone, “What’s next?” it conveys without condescension your belief that the person has more to offer and their journey still has a way to go.


It’s also worth considering how to respond to such statements. Your first reaction might be defensive accompanied by a desire to tell the person who questioned your potential to go jump in a lake (or worse – the language intensity is your choice). That won’t accomplish anything. Instead, ask, “What will you do to help me achieve my potential?” Or, put a bit of pressure on them and ask, “Do you have any specific suggestions on how I can successfully move forward?” This response could push the doubter into revealing – positively or negatively – ways they think you’re lacking or areas that need improvement, some of which you may not want to hear. But if they don’t have something concrete to offer, smile, thank them for their input and take any further comments from them with a grain of salt.


Remember that language meant to inspire can often backfire and be more destructive than constructive. Unless you have something specific to say that will help another’s project, career or education move forward, choose your words carefully. Be respectful of what another has already experienced – achievements and failures – before being judgmental with your perceptions of what someone else needs to achieve their potential. Because, after all, maybe you haven’t achieved your own potential yet!


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