As a teen, I often heard, “you’re not living up to your potential.” Most of my teachers recognized my repeated pattern. I’d score big on the first test, coast the rest of the semester, and then save the grade with my finals. Saving the grade meant that the potential “A” for the course usually ended as a “B” or a “C.”
On my first round of college, that game was even easier to play. There was no troublesome attendance policy so I could show up on the first day, the midterm, and then for the final. If a higher final exam score eliminated the midterm grade, then I’d skip the midterm and took my chances on the final.
That game worked for a while. One morning, late in the spring semester, I awoke and decided college was over. I loved the social life, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and I wasn’t finding the answer at any of the parties I attended. So, I left school and got a job.
A few years later, I woke up again. This time married with a new baby and living paycheck to paycheck. I was still coasting along with Cs. Except for the baby, he was my A+. But I was still the guy with “some college” and I was very much still not living up to my potential. Honestly, I didn’t know why that was the case. It’s not like we had Netflix to binge.
I thought that the best way to understand me and to understand the meaning of potential was to study psychology. I went back to my old college and spoke with the Dean of Students. I needed her permission to re-enroll. She looked at my transcript and then gave me a tepid look over her glasses. She flipped the page, studied it, and looked at me again.
“Well, you had excellent SAT scores, so you have the potential to do well. But do you have the motivation to put in the hard work?”
I was always a good talker. I convinced her I did.
“Okay,” she said. “We’ll give you one more shot at it.”
One more shot. The finality of it rattled me. All my potential, for better or worse, now seemed to come down to just “one more shot.”
I went back to school and I dove in full-time. I had a full-time job, I took on a part-time job, I took a full course load and during that time had another baby. I showed up for every class regardless of the ninety-minute of commute. I read every chapter, wrote every paper, studied for every quiz and exam.
I earned the New England Scholar award for my consistent 3.9 GPA. I worked my potential just as hard at work and two weeks after graduation, I was promoted to a regional position. I had discovered what I thought was my potential.
A year later, my marriage died. I stepped down from my regional position and found myself sleeping on the floor at a friend’s apartment. I fell back into the old habits and coasted for a year or two. I went to work every day. I paid my child support. I paid my bills. I used my $20 a week allowance to take my kids out. And then I once again remembered that I had potential. I just needed to apply myself to greater things.
I used someone’s computer. Displayed my potential on my resume. And finally landed a much better job. It gave me the opportunity to see most of this country and other countries as well. I could afford to take my kids out to eat AND to a movie.
But I had learned from the past. I knew that at any time a single misstep could send me back to the start. I worked even harder on personal development. I wrote down my dreams, and I set my mind to being a vice president before I reached forty-five. I gave myself ten years to get there. I did it in six. And then I made executive and senior vice president. During that time, I got remarried, raised five kids, bought the dream home, and I wrote the fiction books I always said I would write.
And then I lost the job. And the book writing came to a standstill. I went into Freelancing and it was just enough to live paycheck to paycheck. The rising credit card balances mocked my previous debt-free life. My falling credit scores the perfect symbol of my sinking potential.
I went back to the corporate world at a lower position (because you know, money). I updated my LinkedIn profile, watching my Senior VP title fade down the page. And then my wife decided she was taking time off from the marriage to move back to her hometown and work on her dreams.
To that last, I don’t blame her. I support her decision. I packed and drove the moving truck fourteen hundred miles because we still do care for each other. We haven’t defined what “taking time off” means. Maybe because we don’t know or perhaps because now isn’t the time to know it. Our marriage wasn’t the problem. It just wasn’t the answer either. Sometimes to get what you aim for, you can’t afford the energy required to share the journey.
At first, it all felt like I had come full circle. That I was back at the beginning, that once again, the elusive potential of my life had slipped away.
Except I wasn’t back at the beginning and everything had not slipped away.
The lost VP position was something I had wanted to leave for a couple of years. The money kept me going, not the fulfillment. And my global marketing director position isn’t exactly a terrible job. Sure, I’m selling the “dream home,” but I actually hate all the distractions and costs of owning a home. Besides, alone, I hardly need six bedrooms. Also, I’m not the guy who wants to “someday” write a book. I’m an author who has written four and won awards. And although I am laboring through the fifth one, it is some of my best work. I will finish it and then go on to write the next five I have outlined.
And to be honest, just like the executive job, my marriage had been on auto-pilot for years. We both deserve better.
On most days, I feel hopeful about my future.
On some, it is all a little scary.
But all the experiences have taught me a valuable lesson. Living up to one’s potential isn’t a destination. I’m starting to wonder if there is any such thing as potential. There are dreams, and there are actions, and from those things, there are outcomes.
I think potential is simply the ability to pick yourself up, dream-a-new, and take action toward the next set of outcomes. And unlike that helpful Dean of Students, I believe you get far more than one more shot.
If life is a book, then it is one filled with chapters. Some of those chapters end sadly, some joyfully, and some, perhaps the best ones, end in a cliff-hanger. This chapter feels like the last.
I have a list of my goals for the next set of outcomes. The list is grand and beautiful. When I get there, I will celebrate for a moment. And then, knowing there is no destination, I will dream again of new outcomes, and I will again take action.