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Unlocking Your Best Self: Who Really Holds the Key to Human Potential?

Browsing through my Instagram feed this morning, I stopped to listen to a post by Rafael Nadal, the Spaniard who has kept me interested in tennis for the past several decades.

As far as athletes go, Rafa could be considered one of the greatest. I won’t ramble on about his dominance on clay, his passion, or his quirky habits. What I will say is that his career has been a stellar example of what one person's version of striving for their full potential might look like.

Stepping away from Rafa for a moment, is it just my selective attention or have you also noticed the uptick in the number of posts out there lately pushing for all of us to strive harder to achieve our own full potential? And then, of course, offering us the opportunity to buy from them the missing link we need to achieve this version of our optimal selves.

I mean, come on people. Read the room. It’s not like everybody's lives aren’t already full of enough things to worry over. Now we have random strangers implying we’re not doing enough with ourselves!

Can you tell I’m over it? And mostly because in my work I often see the negative effects that result from adopting other’s versions of our potential. It’s guaranteed to trigger those inner inadequacy “never enough” “I’ll show you” wounds which move us in the opposite direction.

As you may or may not know, I have been following the science of human potential for longer than Rafa has been on the circuit. I was drawn to it for many reasons, top of which being my selfish curiosity. If there were tactics out there that would help me live my life with greater strength, energy, and fulfillment, I wanted to know about them!

This pursuit put me in contact with some great teachers, many of whom limited their access to a select group of people who would then use this knowledge to gain a competitive edge over their rivals. I have made a career out of not only adopting the habits I learned about to find success in my own (much less competitive) life, but also by weaving those concepts into my work to help others.

Fast forward to the present day where our feeds are inundated with insta-fame seeking types wanting to hook you on their hype. Today, the idea of achieving our maximizing potential is laid out like it's some newly discovered Holy Grail for every living human.

So, given my background and work, why do these posts calling for us to continually strive to attain our full potential make me so angry? Especially since I still 100% want to help others find their own inner strength, energy, and fulfillment in life? Here’s why: They are feeding a false narrative.

First: Human potential is not a fixed state you can attain.

What I mean by that is that achieving your full potential is not a one-size-fits-all measurable target that you can hit, and then be done. It’s not a task you can complete and then check the box. Instead, it’s often shifting. When you reach one goal, another presents itself.

And there’s one more issue:

Second: Human potential is highly subjective.

By that I mean, what your “full potential” looks like depends on who you ask. For example,

  • If you’re a machine, your full potential means defining the limits you’re able to reach. BMW touts their vehicles as the “ultimate driving machine.” They're tested to achieve high autobahn-level speeds and make hairpin turns through the Alps. Even though we’ll (probably) never use those features while making our way to the local Trader Joe’s, we like the idea of it. That potential gives BMW a competitive edge.

  • If you’re a professional athlete, your full potential means pushing past what others have experienced as limits. Athletes in a sense treat their bodies like a machine, and work to add their mental focus and emotional resilience to the equation as they strive to break records, stay in the game, and win. In this sense, tapping into more of their potential gives them a competitive edge.

  • If you’re an employee, your full potential means whatever your company wants it to mean. I imagine that if your company is investing in programs to help you achieve your full potential, they are looking to use human potential to help them gain a competitive advantage. It could mean anything from more time on the job with less complaining, to getting you to more quickly launch creative innovations. I’ll let you answer that one since I don’t know your employer…but I would be willing to bet it’s still about gaining a competitive advantage.

Let’s look at this yet another way and consider your life as just you being you. What then might the keys to your full potential look like? Again, it depends on the lens and who’s asking.

  • As a woman, who defines my potential? If you ask Elon Musk, it includes the metric of how many children I give birth to.

  • As a man in our culture, full potential is often linked to how much wealth I’m able to accumulate and how much power I gain.

And don’t even get me started on the myth that we are all born with equal potential and that our success is only determined by how hard we’re willing to work.

Now I realize these are extreme examples, but it leads me back to my main point: This idea of what it means for humans to achieve their full potential is completely subjective.

So here is the truth I want you to remember – the one truth that I want you to call to mind the next time someone is talking about your full potential:

You are the only one who should be the one defining what your full potential looks like for you.

Let’s revisit the idea that human potential is not a fixed state and what this might look like in real life with an example from how I approach it.

For me, I look at my full potential on a much shorter time scale because I know it can change from day-to-day and sometimes hour-to-hour. I typically start each week looking at what’s on my plate and then thinking through how and where I might want to bring my best self, where I want to challenge myself, and how I might best grow and give. Some weeks I have lots of answers and goals. And some weeks I just want to bake cookies and nap.

What’s key to this approach is threefold:

  1. I’m the one defining how and where I want to actualize my potential into actions, and what I want that experience to feel like.

  2. I recognize that all of this can shift in an instant, with a phone call that calls my attention to something more urgent, or a bad night’s sleep that zaps my creative flow. I allow for and accept that as part of the natural rhythm.

  3. I stay focused on living out my purpose day-to-day, and don’t overwhelm myself with achieving some giant legacy determined as worthy by someone else.

I can promise you that this approach looks nothing like living my life as a human machine, striving for a competitive edge against my fellow humans.

Bringing it back to Rafa’s post, I was intrigued by his comments on what he hopes to gain from his return to the courts. Let’s see if this helps further connect the dots on the shifting nature of our potential. Rafa says (edited a wee bit for clarity):

“This (return) will give me the opportunity to enjoy myself on the courts…to feel the nerves, feel the doubts…and for myself, not to expect anything.…To have the ability to not demand of myself what I have demanded of myself throughout my career. I believe I’m in a different moment, in a different situation, and in unexplored terrain. What I really hope is to be able to not demand myself the maximum.”

How do you interpret his words? I read it as: I have experienced pushing my body to its full potential, now I want to experience it all differently… Yes, to feel all those same doubts and nerves, but this time? To also feel the joy. That, my friends, is a perfect description of the shape-shifting nature of our full potential.

If no one has told you this lately, allow me:

You are capable of so much – probably more than you give yourself credit for, and more than you can imagine where you sit today. And I want you to remember that it’s so important you don’t let anyone outside of you define what your potential is. It’s up to you to define that for yourself, what it looks like and what you want to experience in your moments, in your unexplored terrains, in your life. And I sure hope that in that definition, you too leave room to feel the joy.

For me, if I can climb into bed at the end of the day and know that I pushed my potential that day in service of supporting my personal vision of a good, full life…that’s a win.

I hope these thoughts help you find the keys to yours too.


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