Is Success Even The Point?
So what if you asked, “When you think of the word successful, who’s the third person who comes to mind, and why are they actually more successful than the first person that came to mind?”
My third and real answer is we can’t know, without knowing their aims.
What if Richard Branson set out to live a quiet life, but like a compulsive gambler, just can’t stop creating companies? Then that changes everything, and we can’t call him successful anymore.
“Their aims.” It’s such an important distinction.
The truth is, our aims are often at odds with what our support group (or society in general) thinks is best for us.
The big question then is: who gets a say in what success is for you, or in the potential you “should be living up to”? Because that’s the crux of the matter, right? Someone might see a path for us so clearly, and are dumbfounded that we aren't jumping on it, that they feel we are falling short of some idealized future. Are they right? Are we blind? Are we being stubborn?
To help navigate this conundrum, we need to make a distinction between potential energy and potential. They’re not the same thing. All our professional angst comes from the former pretending that it’s the latter.
First, potential energy. Engineers and physicists know it as the energy an object has because of its position. You know it as an arrow on an archer’s taut bow, a balloon full of air, or a kid on top of a slide.
It’s the “Ready, set…” before “go.”
The potential energy of an object is directly tied to the kinetic energy (movement) it will have at the moment of some release. When the archer opens her fingers, we know where the arrow is headed. When a kid inches over the lip of the slide, we know he’s going down it.
But a release of potential energy is not the same as a potential being realized. Why?
Well, because potential energy is about what something will do, but “potential” describes what something could become.
Investments, athletes, and relationships can all have potential.
Potential for what? It varies: increase in economic value, to turn pro, for marriage. But it doesn’t mean those things will happen, or should happen.
Careers, like the one you’re mulling, can have potential too, but it’s for you to decide.
I’m not advocating for you to squander your potential, I’m saying that your life is not on some predetermined track.
What might look like someone saying that you (and your career) are not living up to your potential, might be them seeing you as a spring of potential energy to be released towards their definition of success, or where they want your kinetic energy to be expressed.
Sure, it might be for good reasons, but it also might be because they:
Want you to be someone they could talk about
Won’t have to worry about your financial well-being
Won’t feel like all the time they spent on you was for naught
Want their friends and family to be impressed with your job title
Want to live vicariously through you
Had similar expectations placed on them
Only know you as one thing
Our life is continuously about discovering what’s possible, not enacting what’s inevitable.
Hopefully, the people in your corner will help you conquer your fears and guide you on your journey, through all its permutations. Hopefully, they listen. Just know that you don’t need to “live up to your potential” if that “potential” is someone else’s definition of success.
After all, you are the only one who has to live out your verbs.
Take it from me, I’ve been squandering many avenues of potential at every turn in order to live my own kinetic life. It’s not always easy, but it’s mine. What’s better than that?
Here’s to the potential you choose to realize next. Here’s to your original life.