Myth: we need to reach our full potential.

Technologically advanced nations strive to improve their knowledge of health and of science. We seek better ways to educate our students; we bust our gut to create advanced technology; we strive ferociously for economic growth, despite the fact that it’s trashing our planet. It’s all about ‘progress’.
   There is also pressure on the individual: many of us feel compelled to make ourselves more learned, more spiritual, more successful, wealthy, popular . . . 
  Stopping to smell the rose is a lovely sentiment, but ‘do it quickly!’ is the message. We shouldn’t stand around wasting time: we have to succeed; we have to fund our retirement; we have to improve.

’Their eager eyes are greedy and their stunted forms are weedy,
for townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.’
Banjo Paterson, in his poem, ‘Clancy of the Overflow’.

The expressions,  ‘We never stop learning’ and ‘We can always do better’ mean well, but they can prompt despair. If we don’t progress, and don’t become better people, and don’t succeed, we let the side down. We let ourselves down.
  And, when we feel like giving up we hear the other catch-phrase: ‘Never give up!’.
  So, on we plod.
  It’s no wonder many of us are weary and feel like failures. Only when we are old and decrepit will we be allowed to release the reigns and relax. But then we will be seen as obsolete. Dispensable.   
  Out of the race, we can die.
  If, however, we can avoid being compelled to be better versions of ourselves, we will begin to like ourselves more and feel far more relaxed. And that’s why one of the worst messages we could receive from the happiness experts is to ‘Reach your full potential’. Because when we follow that advice we sentence ourselves to the Treadmill of Futility.
  No-one can reach their full potential.

The Treadmill of Futility

Worse, when we aim to reach our full potential – whatever that is – we can’t fully accept ourselves for who we are now. It highlights a profound contradiction: the happiness experts offer to help us become better people, yet in another breath tell us to accept ourselves for who we are. They try to have it both ways.
  If we follow their advice, then for the rest of our lives we have to endure a pass/fail mindset, because no matter how hard we might try, we will be told we can always do better.
  I’m suggesting: if we are ever to accept ourselves for who we are, we have to discard the message that we have to improve ourselves.

Children aren’t even close to reaching their full potential (again, whatever that means), but they can be happy.

I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t improve ourselves. If you want to improve yourself, do it. But do it because you want to, not because a happiness expert said you should. Get rid of the idea that you have to be a better person than you are now. You don’t. You’re fine. If you do want to improve aspects of your life, that’s fine too.
  Yes, you have plenty of flaws, (and you’re probably unaware of most of them), but don’t feel compelled to become a better person. Life isn’t a test you have to pass. You’re not on this planet to prove yourself to anyone. It’s your life, and you don’t have to justify it.

‘Instead of self improvement, how about we all practise a little self acceptance?’
In short, happiness has nothing to do with reaching one’s full potential, and it has everything to do with satisfying long-term, ongoing innate needs. If a happiness guru offers to help you reach your full potential, reach for the fly spray.

Q. ‘My cousin was wasting her life because she thought she was stupid. When she married, her husband encouraged her to attempt things she thought she couldn’t do, and now she’s flourishing. She runs a successful business. She is far more confident and happier now that she has reached her potential.
  But having someone tell her to reach her full potential would not have helped her. Advice like that is fatuous and it sends the wrong message: ‘that you’re not good enough now and you had better improve.’
   ‘My point is, she ditched the people calling her stupid and found the company of people willing to give her support.’
  That’s a good strategy for anyone. I’m saying: ditch the idea that you need to be a better person. Adopt an ‘I’ll do‘ attitude. ‘I’m fine now, and if I want to improve aspects of myself, I will.’ Your cousin wanted to improve aspects of her life, so she did, and that’s great. If you want to grow in some way, go for it. Set goals. Think positive thoughts. Surround yourself with the right people, if you can. But don’t accept the idea that you’re not good enough now. You are good enough now. I promise.

‘I am better than no one, and no one is better than me.’

‘It’s nice to get a kick in the backside now and then to motivate us. Sometimes we can become complacent.’
  I guess if you don’t have friends or family to inspire you to get off the couch, then yes, let a life coach motivate you. But improve yourself for the right reason: because you want to. Ditch the idea that you need to be a better person than you are now. Adopt the attitude, ‘I’m good enough.’
  ‘If my cousin had an “I’m good enough” attitude she would not have pushed herself to make a successful business.’
  On the contrary, it’s when we feel we should improve ourselves, and should be doing better, that we begin to have problems, because we are doing it the wrong reasons. Instead of being motivated by a new adventure, we are motivated by a need to justify our existence. That’s a motivation we can do without!
  ‘This is confusing.’
  There is a good chance your cousin began her business because she saw an opportunity and decided to give it a go. I bet at no time did she think, ‘I had better start a business so I can reach my full potential.’
  ‘I guess so.’

Here are some other happiness myths:
The power of positive thinking. We are often told that we need to look on the bright side if we want to be happy. We need to see the glass half full. But is that helpful advice?
Myth: we need money to be happy.  Surely we need money to be happy, don’t we? Without it we would be in dire straits. So, why is it a myth?
Myth: to be happy we need to be kind. Countless times we are told that becoming a kind person will make us happier. Why isn’t that true?
Myth: We are happier with only a few possessions. Will having fewer possessions make us feel happier? How does that work?
Myth: We need to suffer before we can be happy.  Helen Keller once said: ‘The hilltops would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.’ Is she right?
Myth: We need to love ourselves to be happy. We keep hearing that, but is it true? No, it’s not.
Myth: We need to be loved to be happy  This isn’t true either! At least, not after our teens.
Myth: We need close relationships to be happy. It’s the biggest, most common myth about happiness of them all. Nearly everyone says it. Yet, it’s not true.
Myth: We need good health to be happy. That seems obvious, doesn’t it? After all, we won’t be happy suffering the black plague. But does good health bring core happiness?
Myth: We can choose to be happy.  This is one of the most pernicious myths going around. Of course we can’t choose to be happy!
Myth: We need to fake it until we make it.  Supposedly, if we act happy, we will become happy. But it’s just not true.
Myth: Happiness comes from having low expectations. Don’t expect much and you won’t be disappointed, goes the saying. But does that equal happiness? Of course not.
Myth: We need to foster compassion to be happy. The Buddhists are particularly keen on the idea of fostering compassion. So, should we foster it?
Myth: We can earn our self-worthHow many of us live our lives trying to earn our self-worth? Might you be trying to earn your self worth?
– Myth: We should aim to succeed. Life-coaches want to tell us how to succeed, but we shouldn’t even try.

2 Responses to Myth: we need to reach our full potential.

  1. “You’re not on this planet to prove yourself to anyone. It’s your life, and you don’t have to justify it.” I would agree with you for the most part but, being someone who believes in God/a Higher Power/a Creator, I don’t think we are here for no reason at all. I feel we are meant to grow, learn, evolve, but that is not the same as pushing ourselves to be successful in the eyes of society.

    • Mr Bashful says:

      That’s fair enough. I guess that if you believe in a Creator and feel obliged to comply with its expectations, then you would have to justify your actions to it. However, as you point out, that’s not the same as trying to comply with the expectations of society. Complying with the expectations of a higher power wouldn’t be a bad thing, I imagine. It could prompt the believer into acting a certain way and becoming a person they’re proud of.

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