Making Friends with Potential

Last week I wrote a post that referenced the curse of “potential” that really seemed to strike a nerve. In fact, one of my patrons had this to say:

I’m angry about it. I’m angry that beautiful little girl I was got that message from everyone and from everywhere. Didn’t they realize? No, likely everyone thought it was a compliment. “You have so much potential!” All I heard was “who you are now isn’t good enough.”

It still follows me around and I want so badly to put it down…

I totally get that. I mean, there’s the whole oxymoron of “wasted potential”. Here’s a news flash: physics has shown that energy cannot be destroyed or created, but only transformed. So if parents think that a child has the potential to transform into a particular thing, well, they may be right – but whatever the child actually transforms into is definitely something they had the potential to be.

Get it? No potential is wasted – it is only transformed, sometimes into things we expect but more often not. If you failed to live up to other people’s expectation of you, the fault is far more likely to lie with their ability to have realistic expectations than in some failing of your own.

There, knowing that makes it all better, right?

Sigh. Of course not. We can’t just turn on or off our feelings of guilt in those situations because they are layered into us through years of conditioning, both internal and external.

But I think there might be a practice that could help subvert those dastardly little voices…

Potential Practice

woman-coffee-cup-mugHere’s the practice, demonstrated through a cup of coffee. Feel free to substitute the beverage of your choice as well as extrapolating this to any other action during your day:

  1. Pour your coffee into the mug.
  2. Add whatever ornaments you like – me, I’m a “black and sweet” kind of guy, but everybody’s got their preference.
  3. Pick up the coffee, but before you sip, say to yourself: This has the potential to be the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.
  4. Don’t sip until you accept that fact – it doesn’t have to be likely, but you have to realize that the potential is there.
  5. Take a drink.

Now, one of two things will happen: first, it might be the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had. Potential realized! After you email me exactly where you got the coffee, recognize another fact: the next cup of coffee you pour has exactly the same potential.

The other thing that might happen – the one that is far more likely – is that it won’t be the best cup of coffee you’ve ever had. I hope it’s good, but the odds of it being the best? Fairly slim, unless you stack the potential (more on that later).

Here’s the practice: be ok with the coffee not fulfilling that particular potential.

You see where I’m going with that? It’s a different kind of conditioning – not to try and get rid of the idea of potential, but rather to re-frame it as being just one of those things. This cup could be ambrosia, nectar of the gods…or it could just be the cup that gets me through the next hour of work. Either way, it has fulfilled a potential, and it’s ok that it was one and not the other.

You can do this with anything. These words have the potential to be the most powerful I’ve ever written. This meal can be the start of a life of healthy eating. This has the potential to be the best kiss I ever smooched. Today has the potential to be the best day I’ve had all week. All year. My entire life.

I’m not saying they will be. In fact, I hope they aren’t, because the whole point of the practice is to be ok with the way things turn out. Sure, it’d be nice to be all Buddha-licious and have no expectations, to “put it down” as my patron said – but in the meantime, how about taking away some of the power of the expectations that arise?

I dunno. It’s a practice that might not actually work to do any good whatsoever.

But honestly, I think it has potential…

Gray Miller •

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1 thought on “Making Friends with Potential”

  1. I think the mistake in me comes from equating potential with expectation. Potential works with your coffee (it *could* be!) without disappointment. Expectation doesn’t (it *will* be). When everyone told that little girl she had so much potential, all I heard was “we’re already disappointed in you wasting what you’ve been given.” And with such a vague notion of “so much potential” there was no hope of reaching full potential.

    There was a lot more here that was written and deleted and rewritten and deleted. Suffice to say:

    I’ll try to be the best cup of coffee, please adjust your expectations.

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