Myth: Reaching our full potential.

Nephew: A happiness expert said we need to reach our full potential if we want to flourish and be happy. Is that right?

Uncle: No.

Nephew: I figured you’d say that. You tend say the opposite of what’s sensible.

Uncle: When we aim to reach our full potential – whatever that means – 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 for who we are now.

Nephew: I guess that makes sense.

Uncle: It highlights a profound contradiction: the happiness gurus suggest we aim to become better people, yet in another breath tell us to accept ourselves for who we are. They try to have it both ways.

Nephew: Maybe.

Uncle: It’s hard enough as it is to accept ourselves for who we are now, but that won’t happen if we feel obliged to improve ourselves.

Nephew: But shouldn’t we try to improve ourselves? Do you think it’s okay for someone to lay on a couch all day and watch television? Or act like a child?

Uncle: 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 become a better person than you are now. You’re fine. If you do want to improve aspects of your life, that’s fine too.

Nephew: It’s nice to get a kick in the arse now and then to motivate us. Sometimes we can become complacent.

Uncle: Well, I guess if you don’t have friends or family to inspire you to get off the couch and do things in your life, then yes, let a happiness guru motivate you. But improve yourself for the right reason: that you want to do it. Remember, you’re not on this planet to prove yourself to anyone. It’s your life, and you don’t have to justify it.

Nephew: My cousin Anna 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, 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.

Uncle: But when she was wasting her life, having someone telling 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.”

Nephew: My point is, she ditched the people calling her stupid and found the company of people willing to give her support.

Uncle: That’s a good strategy for anyone. A no-brainer.

Nephew: I’m saying there are things we can do to reach our potential. We can surround ourselves with the right people. We can set goals for ourselves, be positive . . .

Uncle: Ho hum.

Nephew: Ho hum?

Uncle: I struggle to imagine someone saying to themselves, “I now wish to reach my potential, so from now on I will marry a supportive husband, think positive thoughts, set myself achievable goals, ditch the people who want to bring me down, and associate with warm and loving folk.”

Nephew: Sounds good!

Uncle: Yes, there are people who apply those maxims, but I can’t imagine that ‘to reach my potential‘ was their initial motive. More likely, they adopted those behaviours because they saw they would benefit. ‘Reaching their potential’ had nothing to do with it.

Nephew: What are you saying?

Uncle: Ditch the idea that you need to be a better person than you are now. Instead, adopt an ‘I’m good enough now.’  attitude. Remind yourself that you are not on this planet to fulfil other people’s expectations, but if you do want to improve aspects of your life, go for it.

Nephew: If my cousin had an “I’m good enough” attitude she would not have pushed herself to make a successful business.

Uncle: On the contrary, by accepting herself for who she was, and good enough, she gave herself the confidence and courage to have a go. 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, thank you very much!

Nephew: This gets confusing.

Uncle: 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 that I can reach my full potential.’

Nephew: Yeah, that does sound stupid.

Uncle: Naturally, if you want to grow as a person in some way, then yes, set goals for yourself and work hard. Ditch the undermining people in your life. Find wonderful folk to be with. But don’t accept the idea that you’re not good enough now. You’re fine.

Nephew: Yes. I see.

Uncle: Children aren’t even close to reaching their full potential, yet they can be happy.

Nephew: Yeah, okay, don’t labour the point. So, the next time a happiness guru offers to help me reach my full potential, what do you suggest?

Uncle: Reach for the fly spray.

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