How much potential do we really have?

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about potential. I think some of that has to do with my current status of seeking employment and trying to discern which listings suggest the best fit and provide the best opportunity for both the company and me, but it goes far beyond that.

Last night I had a deep and lengthy conversation with one of my best friends. We talked about a lot of things, with one of those being the idea of potential. I’ve always bristled at the notion that anyone can be anything in our world. It’s kind of an over-the-top rosy worldview that has some value (it’s good to encourage kids growing up to dream big) while also creating the possibility for great struggle (feeling like nothing you do is good enough because it falls short of the lofty ideas you had when you were younger). While it’s absolutely important to push people to strive for improvement and to maximize their gifts, it only causes heartbreak if you convince someone they can (and should) be able to achieve something they simply cannot.

My go-to example is basketball. I’m 5-9 and unathletic; I never had a chance at an NBA career. Now someone could point out that there have been a select few who overcame similar height challenges to have successful professional careers, but they also had tremendous athleticism far beyond anything I could ever aspire to even with nonstop effort. It doesn’t hurt me at all to know this is not a possibility for my life. It’s actually quite helpful to realize when something is not an option because it allows me to narrow my focus on those that could be.

This is where the question of potential comes in. Every decision we make is a simultaneous choosing of one thing and dismissing of all others. Each step eliminates countless possibilities and sets us down a certain path that narrows itself naturally as we continue to put one foot in front of the other. Thankfully we have time and ability to choose several different paths to varying degrees, but each step in one direction is a step away from another.

I’m reminded of something I read in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. It’s a fascinating read all about the various factors that lead to success, and in it he highlights the idea of a “10,000-Hour Rule.” This rule suggests that achieving world class expertise in any field requires effective practice totaling around 10,000 hours. While there’s still the issue I mentioned above about certain predispositions to skills and abilities, for the most part what Gladwell found was preeminent people in each field he examined had attained at least 10,000 hours of solid work improving within that field.

But remember each step in one direction is a step away from another direction. For example, obviously you can’t work at something for 10,000 consecutive hours. But let’s say I abandon most everything else in life and dedicate 15 hours per day to playing guitar. I would reach the 10,000-hour threshold in just under two years, and at that point – assuming I practiced proper technique – I would likely be a fantastic guitar player. I would also have no relationships of any substance or awareness of what’s been going on in the world around me.

Instead most of us split our time into different spheres. We work, spend time with family and maybe pick up a hobby. We dedicate a few hours each week to the hobby, meaning we’ll never approach the 10,000-hour mark. And that’s okay. We don’t have to be experts in everything.

That gap between your current skill level and what it could reach if given the proper time and effort is potential. And it’s really hard to pin down. This was the substance of our conversation.

After discovering a few years ago I enjoyed theatre, two years ago a great friend convinced me to audition for a community production. I was involved in band all through high school, but I’d never sung in any sort of organized group or done any amount of acting. It looked fun, but I had no idea if I had any potential.

Two years later I’m currently in my fourth production and absolutely loving it. The experience has led me to some of my closest friends – including my fiancĂ© – and introduced me to a whole new world where I can be anything or anyone. It’s an amazing premise, and one of my favorite parts of being involved on a community level is seeing the immense diversity among those who share my passion. We all have different backgrounds, jobs and dreams, and we’re all different ages, but we have this one thing in common. It’s crazy and it’s weird, which is fitting because I’m kind of crazy and weird, and we get to share something beautiful.

Our conversation centered on our own uncertainties about our potential. With this particular show, one of our other great friends has his first chance to play a lead role. He’s been nervous and anxious and excited and most other emotions you can imagine, because he didn’t know if he could handle it. But from everything we’ve seen from him, he’s stepped up and done an incredible job. It’s been so exciting to see his growth and confidence as he finds himself surpassing his own expectations.

It makes us wonder our own potential. This happens with pretty much anything; any time you see someone make a great shot in a game or sing a perfect solo or dance on television you ask yourself, “Could I do that?” Because that’s the thing about potential: you never really know how much there is before you’ve maxed out.

Right now as I ponder countless job listings and question where God will take me in my next step, it all comes back to this question of potential. I think I know myself pretty well, but the truth is I don’t. None of us really do. Because you never know your potential until you either surpass your wildest expectations or fall on your face. And even then you keep going, because it’s not a definite line.

I wish I knew the answer; I wish I could say what I’m capable of achieving. But all I can do is step out and try, and if I fail I try something else. And all the while I’m going to take great joy in seeing others do the same, because there’s nothing quite like seeing someone succeed beyond their expectations. In the end, we usually have a lot more potential than we realize.

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One response to “How much potential do we really have?

  1. Pingback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg

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