If we aim to reach our full potential we sentence ourselves to the Treadmill of Futility, because no-one can reach their full potential. And worse, if we aim to reach our full potential we can’t fully accept ourselves now. That highlights a profound contradiction: the happiness gurus 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 can accept ourselves for who we are now, we will like ourselves more and feel far more relaxed. But that won’t happen if we feel obliged to improve ourselves. That’s why ‘reaching our potential’ is an awful message to give anyone. If we are ever to accept ourselves for who we are, we have to discard the message that we have to improve.
I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t improve yourself, but do it because you want to, not because a happiness guru says you should. Get rid of the idea that you have to be a better person than you are now. You’re fine. And if you do want to improve yourself, that’s fine too. Remember, you’re not on this planet to prove yourself. It’s your life, and you don’t have to justify it.
Children aren’t even close to reaching their full potential (whatever that means), but they can be happy.
So, happiness has nothing to do with reaching one’s full potential. If a happiness guru offers to help you reach your full potential, reach for the fly spray.
Q. ‘But Mr Bashful, my cousin was wasting her life because she thought she was stupid. But I could see she was far more capable than she realised. When she married she flourished, and now owns and runs a successful business. She is far more confident and happier now that she has reached her potential.’
But telling her to reach her potential would not have helped her. Nor would telling her to marry someone who will give her encouragement and support. Advice like that is fatuous.
‘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. A no-brainer.
‘But there are things we can do to reach our potential. Set goals for ourselves, be positive . . .’
I struggle to imagine someone saying to themselves, “I now wish to reach my potential, so from now on I will think positive thoughts, set myself achievable goals, ditch the people who want to bring me down, and associate with warm and loving folk.” Life doesn’t work that way. Yes, there are people who do apply those maxims, but I can’t imagine that ‘reaching my potential’ was their motive. More likely, they adopted the behaviour because they saw it could be beneficial – they were already inclined towards self-improvement.
‘What is your point?’
‘Ditch the idea that you need to be a better person than you are now. Instead, accept yourself as the person who cannot, and will not, be the best person it is possible to be. No-one reaches their full potential. Instead, adopt an ‘I’ll do‘ attitude. ‘I’m good enough now.’ Remind yourself that you are not on this planet to fulfil other people’s expectations, nor be the best you can be. Your don’t have to justify yourself to anyone.
Naturally, if the idea of making your current life a little easier appeals, or if you want to grow in some way, apply those maxims. Set goals, if you like. Think positive thoughts if you can see that your life will improve. Ditch the bullies to make life easier. Find wonderful folk to be with, if you can. But don’t accept the idea that you’re not good enough now. You’re fine.
(As for thinking positive thoughts, ‘The positive thinking myth‘ explains why it’s hard to adopt the practice.)