Having closed out 2012 with two sessions of our program Your Potential Matters!, I’m inspired to share some thoughts about potential. Pastor Claude Robold, Senior Pastor at New Covenant Church in Middletown, Ohio jokingly defines potential as “what you have NOT yet accomplished.” From this perspective, if someone says that you have lots of potential, how is that a compliment? Interesting thought!
Perspectives on Potential
Potential can be considered from two perspectives: talent and development. Talent is a gift. As such, we have no right to take credit for any potential that is embedded within our DNA. Gifts come with the responsibility to not be wasted. What we do to develop and apply our talents is a personal decision and a daily responsibility.
Let’s consider two additional perspectives. First, there’s the potential of today – a person’s present capacity based on their talent and preparation-to-date. There is also lifetime potential – a person’s absolute maximum capacity which combines natural talent with a lifetime of total commitment and preparation.
I say with humility and a sense of regret that I sometimes perform at a mediocre level. People who know me best would agree. Those who know me casually or have a different perspective about potential are possibly confused by this, so let me explain. A mediocre result is not a comparison with the results of others. Just because I beat out others for a spot on the team doesn’t mean I reached my athletic potential. Just because people enjoy my singing voice does not mean I have fully prepared and performed consistent my potential.
Mediocrity is a measurement that says, “You can do much better!” It’s settling for “good enough” when your potential begs for more. We are mediocre whenever we rely too heavily on our talent to get the job done. Even when our accomplishments appear better than someone else’s, mediocrity is still mediocrity.
Confronting Limits of Our Potential
Some motivational speakers say that human beings have unlimited potential. I disagree. As long as we exist in human form, we have limitations. Could Olympic athlete Michael Phelps swim 100 meters in 30 seconds? Certainly not! Even if he could, how about one second? The point is, potential is NOT unlimited – human beings have physical limitations that limit our potential.
While it’s useful to accept this truth, it’s much more important to avoid the trap of setting the bar too low. Western culture teaches a code of practicality called “realism” – that somehow being realistic is virtuous. Consequently, well-meaning people caution idealists to be more realistic and dreamers are ridiculed for their so-called “unrealistic goals.”
Realism is important, but it is also overrated. The greatest achievements of mankind began with “unrealistic” dreams. The conclusion is this. As we look for our own potential, we should err on the side of “bigger is better” because our true potential is found at the very edge of impossibility.
“If you can dream it, you can do it. Always remember that
this whole thing was started with a dream and a mouse.”
– Walt Disney
Limited Vision Limits Potential
Zig Ziglar was famous for pointing out the negative effects of stinkin’ thinkin’. This practice includes the self-imposed limits people place on their potential. The more you focus on your limitations of the present, the more difficult it will be see the potential of your future. It’s far more productive to expand your perspective of possibilities and adopt a plan to get there.
Action leads to both successes and failures. When I succeed I gain a clearer sense of my true potential. Failures provide benchmarks of my progress and offer clues about what needs to change. Both inspire me to keep pushing toward the next level. Every time I approach my limits, I uncover new potential. It’s staggering to imagine where I would be today if I had discovered and embraced this bit of wisdom earlier in life. How about you?
Fear of Excellence
Why do so many people settle for less than their potential would allow? The answer is fear. We fear the sweat and sacrifices involved. We fear how excellence could change our comfortable lifestyles. We fear the responsibilities and expectations that follow high levels of performance. Most of all, we fear failure.
Here’s the truth. Failure is not avoided by choosing mediocrity. We just learn to fail at a lower level. Responsibilities don’t go away because we accept underachievement and we are not free of expectations simply because we choose the easy path. Mediocrity is nothing less than an unfulfilling substitute for excellence.
Gratitude Leverages Potential
Are you truly grateful for the talents you have? If so, you probably ask questions like these. When was the last time I reflected about my potential? In which areas am I settling for mediocrity? What talents do I have that are collecting dust on a shelf? What is keeping me from reaching my potential in my gifted areas?
“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”
– Walt Disney
What I’ve learned about myself is this. The more grateful I am for my God-given talents, the more I reach for the impossible, invest in my development, and apply my talents in service to others. I believe these responses are as God intends. And the benefits are amazing!