One dark and rainy night, driving back into Seattle from a meeting with a client, I clutched the steering wheel and watched the windshield wipers going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. I felt numb. “What if I just drive into the opposite lane,” I thought to myself. I was at the lowest point I had every been in my entire life.
I was 29 years old. When I was in my twenties, I wrote a list of all the things I wanted to accomplish by the age of thirty. I wanted to learn Chinese, attend graduate school at Columbia University, win a Fulbright Scholarship… the list went on and on.
And on the cusp of my thirtieth birthday, I hadn’t accomplished any of it.
It didn’t matter that I had returned from living in Japan for three years. That I had taught myself Japanese. That in my free time I also learned enough HTML and web design to start my own web design company when I got home.
I couldn’t appreciate any of that. Because in my mind…
I wasn’t living up to my potential.
I looked in the mirror and all I could see was deficit after deficit. I wasn’t a human rights researcher, I didn’t live in New York, I hadn’t gotten a law degree.
I became clinically depressed.
I drank myself to sleep almost every night.
I blamed my husband for “holding me back” and almost broke our marriage.
All because I believed I had a “potential” that I wasn’t living up to.
Can you relate?
The thing I want you to get (and I wish I would have gotten years sooner) is that the idea you “have to live up to your potential” is a lie masquerading as the benevolent truth.
If you’re like I used to be, you probably think it’s a helpful thought to believe…
You’ve probably written a list of all the things you’ll need to accomplish to live up to your potential.
Because “living up to your potential” is good, right?
Notice how you feel when you believe it.
Does it make you feel great, energized, excited, inspired? Anything like that? Or does it make you feel ashamed, afraid, confused or just really, really tired?
That’s what I thought.
My advice is to stop trying to live up to your potential. There is no magical end point that you need to reach. There is no timeline. There is no reward once you get there (there is no “there,” there).
Stop trying to live up to your potential and ask yourself this instead:
What makes me feel alive?
My husband and I lived in a beautiful apartment just blocks from Lake Union, but back then it felt like a prison to me. All because I was twenty nine years old and I had written a list and compared myself to it and fell short.
If I could go back now, back to that time when it was just him and me, I wouldn’t worry about that list. I wouldn’t give it a second thought. I would walk with my husband, hand and hand, down to the little grocery store on the edge of the lake that sold fancy food. I would bundle up in a warm and cozy sweater and I would sit with him, snuggled up on a picnic bench and eat really good cheese. There we would sit, looking at the lake, listening to the birds, watching the planes land on the water.
I can’t go back.
But I do have today, and tomorrow and the next day.
And so do you.