A Case Against Living Up To Your Potential

by Amy on October 18, 2016


The year I almost broke our marriage. The only photo I could find.

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.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Virginia Reeves October 20, 2016 at 2:50 pm

“The list” is often unrealistic, as you note Amy. In our 20’s we really have no clue what is ahead. Even as we age, life throws curve balls and you have to change what you hoped for or intended to accomplish by a certain time frame. It’s not bad or wrong or makes you any less of a good person.
Life is truly a series of course corrections because it is a journey. There will be steep hills, detours, roads with twists and turns, and some long, uneventful stretches. It’s all okay. Thanks for a good reminder that “reaching your potential” is a mind game and therefore can be manipulated.


Julie October 21, 2016 at 2:15 pm

I’m 42 and I feel now, just how you did then… trapped, resentful and far from accomplishing everything on my list! Thank you for sharing…the timing of this is impeccable!


Natalie Matushenko October 23, 2016 at 12:17 am

Great post, Amy! I can definitely relate…. despite all of my accomplishments, I am all so aware of what I haven’t accomplished. It’s a true waste of life energy! Thanks for reminding me of that.


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