In defense of not living up to your potential

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Betsy Greer shared some pages from Carol Dweck’s book Mindset on Twitter this morning. I was reading along, thinking, “YEAH!” and being proud of myself for moving from the fixed mindset of my youth to the mostly growth mindset of my adulthood, when I bumped up against the end of the second quote she had highlighted:

[In a growth mindset, failure] means you’re not fulfilling your potential.

Not. Fulfilling. Your. Potential.

This set of words and its variant, “not living up to your potential,” make me grouchy. It’s not right to say they’re triggering, but they are an echo of educators from my past who made me feel I had a responsibility to live up to their assessment of my potential.

I don’t.

My potential is mine to fulfill or to waste.

This might not seem like a big deal to many people. But for a person with anxiety, this phraseology feels like a confirmation of all the unkind things I say to myself.

I have a PhD. That’s something only 1.2% of the US population can accurately say about themselves.

But I also was not very productive in the academic sense: my publications are all in either revision or preparation even after I graduated, I didn’t get any awards or grants on my own, etc etc. So it’s easy to scold myself for not having been productive enough during my PhD. For not having lived up to my potential.

I have to remind myself that the PhD was instrumental: I wanted time to read and write and understand qualitative methodology better, and I got all of those things. I didn’t go in caring about publications so why should I start now?

My potential is mine to fulfill or to waste.

The list of things I haven’t done is long. The list of things I have done is also long. I tend to be guided by my intuition and while my big life decisions may be based on logic and in consultation with important people in my life, my day-to-day is generally led by what feels possible and what feels good. (Hat-tip to Katy Peplin for “what feels possible.") There are more things I will do. There are many things I won’t do. All of that is okay.

I have no obligation to live up to someone else’s perception of my potential. And neither do you.

Your potential is yours to fulfill or to waste.

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