On January 18th, 1779, a young boy named Peter was born in London, England.
Peter grew up in a small home with his mother, father, and younger sister.
When Peter was just four years old, his father died, and it left a terrible mark on his heart. He felt powerless and heartbroken to have lost someone so important to him at such a young age.
To cope with his stress, he started to compulsively make lists. His list-writing habit had firmly established itself as a part of his identity by the age of eight.
Not knowing how to process his fathers death, Peter struggled with depression throughout much of his life.
A doctor, lecturer, and inventor throughout his working years, Peter experienced some fulfillment from his work, but still felt like something was missing, and his depressive episodes continued on.
When he retired at 61 years old, he decided to cope with his depression by fully engaging in his passion of creating lists.
He worked tirelessly for the next decade, compiling a list of words that he felt compelled to gather.
At 73 he published Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases and continued to make revisions to it until he died in 1869.
That’s right… he started what would become his life’s magnum opus at the age of 61, and continued to work on it into his 90’s.
I could give another dozen examples of the cliche stories about Michael Jordan not making his high school basketball team… Mike Tyson getting the shit beat out of him when he was a kid… or Bill Gates dropping out of school to eventually achieve massive success…
But here’s what this article is really about…
People don’t live up to what they could be because they let fear win.
Unrealized potential is the default, not the exception, because fear gets in our way.
The fear of not being good enough. Smart enough. Attractive enough. Capable enough. Simply, enough.
The fear of what others will think. What will my family think. What will my friends think. What will my colleagues think.
The fear of being seen as foolish, incapable, or ridiculous.
“The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.” – Helmut Schmidt
We let these boring, predictable fears get in the way of us leaning into what matters most to us.
Even though, when it comes time to die, you will be the only one who can die your death for you. And when that time comes, do you think you will have given your gifts totally? Will you be able to die feeling empty, used up, and complete?
I’m not just talking about your career and vocational gifts.
Did you always want to run a marathon? Or write a children’s story? Or go camping by yourself?
Did you hold back from going after the intimate partner you truly wanted?
Did you hold back on allowing yourself to have kids? Or get married? Or did you need to let go of the societally imposed desire to have kids or be married and follow your own path?
Did you treat your mind and body well so that you had the spaciousness to give your gifts fully… or did you constantly sabotage yourself by numbing out with drugs, alcohol, and petty relational drama?
Did you let go of your aspirations of going to med school because you didn’t think you’d be smart enough to handle it?
Did you let go of your aspirations of being a painter because you didn’t think you could make a living off of it?
On your death bed, you will be the one who has to look back at the choices you made with your life, and quietly answer the question, “Would have I done it all the same way again… or did my gifts go ungiven?”
How To Realize Your Potential
Not a single person on this planet will ever realize all of their potential. Full stop. We all die with a trail of moments behind us where we chose fear over courage. This is inevitable. But the point of life is to narrow the gap between our potential life and our actual life to the greatest degree possible.
Want to get closer to realizing your potential? Start here.
1. Ask your friends for reflections
Do you have a close handful of friends that you can go to for high-quality reflections? If not, read this and go create the relationships starting today.
If you do have close confidantes, great. Time to leverage those friends.
Either take each one out, face to face, for a conversation, or phone them up, one at a time, and ask them direct, and potentially difficult questions.
– “Where do you see me falling short in my life?”
– “What do you think I could work on in terms of realizing more of my potential?”
– “What do you see me doing that is holding me back in my life?”
Above all else, you must only ask these questions if you are 100% willing to hear the honest answers.
DO NOT soften your questions by half-jokingly prefacing your questions with things like, “Go easy on me… heh heh.”
No. Fuck that. You want the full truth and nothing but, or you’re not ready to lean into this process.
You should be hungry for friendship-ending-ly honest feedback. And nothing short of this.
Trust that, if you have loving, non-shaming friends in your life who you know care about you… whatever difficult truths they bring you, they are doing so because they care about you and they want to see you succeed.
And if, when your friends give you their reflections about what you need to do, you find yourself saying “I knowwww” repeatedly to their feedback, then you might just need to skip to the following tips.
2. Listen to the messages that your body is already sending you
While you can absolutely get some high quality reflections from your friends and close confidantes, I would wager that your body/heart/gut is already sending you information as to what you’re supposed to lean into next in your life.
So, listen to it.
Whether you sit and meditate for ten minutes a day… or you take a full weekend away to be by yourself in a cabin… or you sit quietly in a bath for an hour until the water loses it’s heat… make self-reflection a priority.
Give your heart the space it needs to speak to you directly. And be ready to listen.
3. Make a list
You’ve received reflections from other people who know you well… and you’ve received messages from yourself. Now it’s time to compile them all.
Write out all of the things you need to do (on a piece of paper, or a whiteboard) so that they’re all just sitting there… staring at you in the face.
Once you’ve written it out by hand, there’s no denying them.
You might think, “Well… there’s the next year/five years/decade/fifty years of my life.” And hey, great. Realizing your potential is never an overnight process.
Personally, I have been writing full time for the last six years, and I still have dreams about what kinds of things I’ll be writing about fifty years from now.
Again, there is no finish line. There is simply you doing the work you were meant to, or you numbing out and living a life of, as Thoreau would say, “quiet desperation” to mask the fact that you never really went for it in life.
4. Take consistent and small actions
Now that your list is tangible, and taunting you with its mere existence, it’s time to start chipping away at the motherfucker.
Some people need to start with the small item, and others need to pick the biggest beast on the list and commit to that one first. You know how you work. Pick your poison.
As a rule of thumb, in order to get positive forward momentum, you’ll most likely do the best by picking the smallest item on the list, and achieving that in short order.
Do the thing, achieve a small result, feel better about yourself, feel more confident in doing another challenging thing, repeat. Upward spiral ensues.
To get even more leverage on yourself, ask one of your close friends if they will be your accountability partner.
Tell them, ‘Hey, I’m going to be working on bringing X dream into reality over the coming X time frame. Would you help keep me accountable?”
Inform that that if you don’t achieve what you tell them you’re going to do, then you have to pay them an amount of money that would be painful for you. Or, if the money doesn’t go to them, then it should go to a charity or organization that you vehemently disagree with. Yeah, you know the one. The one that makes your blood boil.
And if you DO achieve the thing you set out to do, then achieving it will be its own reward. But you can also attach a bonus reward to the completion of your goal if you so choose. Some people are more carrot motivated, and others are more stick motivated. Generally, it’s good practice to have both a punishment and a reward in place to keep you in line when your inner resistance wants to kick up and take over.
Final note for this section: I’ve written before about my involvement with men’s groups. If you are in a men’s group/women’s group/book club/social group where publicly committing your goals to others would be appropriate, I would also recommend doing that. Since no one wants to be the person who said they were going to do something, and then have to report back that they didn’t end up doing it after all (like a lazy, pathetic, loser who probably lives in Loserville).
You Only Have Yourself To Blame
At the end of your life, you’ll only have yourself to face.
Did you go for it? Did you throw caution to the wind and say “FUCK IT! I’m going after what I want even if it kills me!”
Or did you consistently prioritize comfort over courage? Fear over love? Complacency over tenacity?
You can fade into oblivion, with your songs unsung… your poetry unwritten… your potential unrealized.
Or you can sprint across the finish line, guns a-blazing, with a full heart, trail of achievements behind you, and millions of people who benefited from knowing you in your wake.
Your life, your choice.
Dedicated to your success,
Ps. If you enjoyed reading this, you will also love checking out:
– The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield (my favourite book in the world about overcoming unrealized potential)