On Fulfilling Your Potential

If we accept that our two-fold task in life is to accept ourselves as we are, and, at the same time, to grow and change, we must ask the “Difficult Question.”

What is it that we should become? or, put another way, what changes should we be making in our lives? This is among the hardest questions in all of human thought. It is a variation of that question that has occupied philosopher’s since the time of Socrates, how are we to live a good life?

One way to approach this question is to consider the goal of a human life to be a fulfillment of individual human potential. That is, we should work to become that which it is possible for us to become, making the most out of our individual human abilities.

And what is it that is possible for us to become? Again there is no easy way to answer this question. The answer will vary for each person, and therefore no one can tell you what it would mean for you to fulfill your potential. But here are some things that we can say about fulfilling your potential:

  1. Fulfilling your potential is not based on reaching an arbitrary standard imposed by culture or society. It does not mean that you become a “doctor or lawyer.” It does not mean having children or getting married. It does not mean owning a house or a herd of cattle or any of the other standard measures of success that your culture imposes. Of course these accomplishments may be involved in your meeting your potential, but they should not be seen as the actual measure of success.
  2. Your potential will be based on your actual abilities and strengths. It is a manifestation of what you can do when you put effort into achieving your goals in a balanced way.
  3. Your potential is not necessarily a measure of academic or professional success. It certainly is not based on how much money you can make.
  4. Fulfilling your potential is based only on things that are under your control. If forces beyond your control stop you from reaching a certain goal, then that goal had nothing to do with fulfilling your potential. As a result, wealth, health, physical appearance, and reputation, all of which rely on factors that are largely beyond our control, are not necessary to achieve your potential (although they will certainly help if you have them).
  5. Fulfilling your potential can only come about by trial and error. No one can measure your ability and tell you exactly what you can do with your life. Even if you did seek out expert opinions, in the end, you would still need to roll up your sleeves and see what you can do.
  6. Fulfilling your human potential will involve your ability to do those things that humans can do. This almost certainly includes the ability to be rational, the ability to form relationships with others, the ability to have compassion, the ability to endure difficulty, and the ability to solve problems.

So that is what we can say in general about fulfilling potential. Next, we will turn to a different approach to understand human potential for change and growth—examining the characteristic of humans who have fulfilled their potential.

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In the end, all that matters is that you lived with and for virtue. Because there is only virtue. 

The final idea in my series of the 12 ideas that can change your life.

Your mind will tell you that your worth comes from without—that your value as a person is reflected in how others judge you. As such, you should always do what will increase your estimation in the eyes of others. This gets it all wrong—in multiple ways. Your worth would not come from your achievements, your status, or the admiration given to you by others. These things are beyond your control, and therefore cannot be indications of your worth.  But why do we even need to know what we are worth? Are we for sale? Do we ever get to cash in on our worth? No. ‘Self-worth’ is the wrong concept. What really matters is our virtue—how we are fulfilling our unique potential to live according to our values.

Virtue is the only thing really good in life. It is the only thing that cannot be corrupted to serve evil ends. The central idea here—the genius idea at the core of Stoic philosophy is that the purpose of our lives is to do good AND that good can only come from what is up to us. Those may sound like simple ideas, but together they are powerful. Yes, it is true that much of what happens to us is beyond our control—losses, sickness, tragedy, bad luck, faulty genes, people slandering us, betrayal, nasty relatives, natural disasters, war, and death can all happen to us—and most of these will happen to us. But these things are absolutely powerless over our virtue because they are not the product of our free choice.  This means that if you accept that the purpose of your life is to live with virtue, nothing can stop you from doing so. Living for virtue yields a kind of invincibility. 

Virtue requires living according to your values. So what are those?

No one can truly tell you what your values must be.  Others can only tell you what values hold meaning for them. The Ancient Greeks recognized four primary values:

  • Courage—the ability to endure the fear and difficulty that would stop us from achieving our goals.
  • Temperance (or self-control)—the ability to resist excesses.
  • Justice—the ability to treat the people we interact with fairly and compassionately.
  • Wisdom—the ability to make effective decisions in response to practical problems.

Now, it is up to you to define what your values are, but you could certainly do a lot worse than these four. Notice that these values provide direction in how you would try to live your life, but they are not goals unto themselves. For example, you never get to say you have achieved Self-control and can cross that off your to-do list. Alas, there is always another batch of warm cookies on the horizon. Also notice that no matter what your life circumstances—even if you are in a prison cell, exiled to a foreign land, lingering on your deathbed, or (gasp!) have to wait three minutes in line at the deli counter, it is still possible to live according to your values.

In a Nutshell: Virtue means making the most of your human potential—living according to the values you have chosen rationally. Virtue requires choice. Fate, fortune, luck, the actions of others and everything else you can’t control are irrelevant. If you choose to make virtue your purpose, nothing can ever get in your way.

How to Use This Idea:

Your task, if you choose to accept it, is to live the most excellent life you can live. There are three parts to doing this: Values Clarification, Responding to Problems, and Reviewing Your Progress.

Values Clarification. Spend some time evaluating what your values are—what you would consider the essential characteristics of a life well lived to be? One tried and true (if a tad morbid) method of doing this is to imagine your own funeral (or at least a party given in your honor years from now) and ask yourself how you would like to be described and remembered.

Responding to Problems. Whenever you encounter a problem, focus only on the part of it that you can do something about. As you consider your options, ask yourself what kind of response would be consistent with your values. If you confront a problem that you cannot do anything about, accept it, or use the classic Stoic response, “This is nothing to me.”

Reviewing Your Progress. At the end of every day (or week, or whatever timeframe works for you), think back over your actions and evaluate how well you did at living according to your values.  If you did well at something, acknowledge it, and encourage yourself to continue in that fashion. If you did something that was not in line with your values, accept that, but also recommit yourself to living according to your values going forward.

The Fine Print:

You might as well accept this now: You are never going to live according to your values, at least not perfectly. We humans are flawed creatures, capable of doing good only by constantly pushing back against our irrational tendencies. But this shouldn’t stop you. Virtue is about the journey—it’s something you move towards, slowly over time.  The ancient Stoics sometimes employed the idea of a Stoic Sage—a being who could have perfect virtue. It wasn’t that they believed that he really existed or should be worshiped.  Instead, the Sage was a useful concept, one that allowed them to ask ‘What would the Sage do’ in any given circumstance? This provided them with a model that they could seek to emulate, even though they would never attain the status of a Sage.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

A mis-lived life. Humans waste a great deal of effort obsessing on and making futile demands about what is not up to them. Making Virtue your purpose will ensure that you do not live your life focused on trivialities. By setting our sights on goals that are not up to us, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Living for attainment, achievement, wealth, or status will, for all but a lucky few, lead to a life lacking in some essential quality.

What This Will Help You Gain:

Self-Actualization. Making the most of your human potential means doing what you can to live according to your values. Over time this will lead to your flourishing.

The Source of this Idea:

This idea is old. It is the core of Stoic Philosophy, a school of thought that originated in ancient Greece and later spread to Ancient Rome. It is most associated with the philosophers Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. My understanding of Stoic philosophy has been shaped primarily by two modern writers, William B. Irvine and Massimo Pigliucci.  Some of the treatment I gave to Values also reflects principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, associated with Steven Hayes. The critique of the view of self-worth given at the beginning of this post, and indeed many of the ideas that run throughout all of the 12 ideas comes directly from Albert Ellis, the creator of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).  Ellis saw REBT as an application of ancient and modern philosophies including stoicism.

 

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (so far)

Idea #12: In the end, all that matters is that you lived with and for virtue. Because there is only virtue.

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that other’s must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.

 

Others Will Not Approve. Carry On Without Approval.

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 5)

The approval of our peers is something we have a natural tendency to desire.  And our society seems to continually reinforce the message that the most important thing in the world is to elevate your status and thereby to win the begrudging respect of others. The problem is that since we cannot control how others view us, to see approval as something we MUST have will lead to misery. More than that, it is simply not possible to make everyone happy. Every goal that you complete in your life will carry the risk of making someone, somewhere unhappy with you.

Living to please others, or living to win admiration, is not the path to a satisfying life. It is, rather a way to feel perpetually uneasy with your standing. After all, if you must be admired by others to attain your worth, your worth will always depend on their whims. This is hardly the stable ground to build your identity upon.

You were not put on this earth to win universal admiration. You can live well even if others do not approve of you. In fact, in order to live the best life you can—in order to be true to your values and sincerely pursue your goals, it may be necessary to lose the approval of some people. But rejection doesn’t kill us—particularly if we are being rejected for something we believe in.

One particularly damaging arrangement is to believe that not only do you require admiration but that you require a specific person to admire (need, desire, love) you.  How much collective heartache do humans experience the world over from the belief that one specific person’s love is their unique opportunity for happiness?

In a Nutshell: It’s just not true that it is mandatory to be admired. Some people are not going to like you, and they don’t even need a good reason for it. And while it is natural and often sensible to prefer to be liked and admired, it is never mandatory. Your worth as a person is not based on the views others take of you.

HOW TO USE THIS IDEA:

When you find yourself smarting from some real (or imagined) rejection, say to yourself, “I’m disappointed. I would have preferred others to approve of me…but this is not a catastrophe. I can live with this rejection. I do not NEED approval. My worth is not tied to what other people think of me.”

THE FINE PRINT:

Now this doesn’t mean that you should purposefully behave in a way that others will find despicable. This isn’t an excuse to be a hermit, a miscreant, an internet troll, or a recluse. It is healthy to have friends and loving relationships. It is also healthy to be respectful of others, even when you are not doing what they would wish you to do. But if living according to your values results in others rejecting you, or if there is nothing you could have done to win their admiration, then you should accept that they do not HAVE TO admire you (even though you would have preferred that they did), that you do not NEED admiration, and that you will be OK without it (even if it is disappointing).

WHAT THIS WILL HELP YOU AVOID:

Leaving behind the notion that others must approve of you will go a long way to reducing social anxiety and the paralysis that comes with it. Needing approval limits our ability to interact with others (or to be our authentic self in their presence).

WHAT THIS IDEA WILL HELP YOU GAIN:

Needing approval leads to stagnation—particularly because not everyone values the things you do. Not everyone will approve of you reaching your goals. So achieving self-assuredness will help you gain a sense of meaning in your life because it will allow you to live according to your own values—not the values of others.

THE SOURCE OF THIS IDEA: 

In Stoic Philosophy the admiration of others, even the love of your spouse is seen as a “Preferred Indifferent” meaning that it is something we are right to prefer. But it is not innately a good (or necessary) thing because only those things that are up to us, can be good. Because we cannot control what others think of us, it is not required for our virtue. This idea is echoed in the psychotherapy of REBT created by Albert Ellis who cited the irrational belief that we must be loved as a source of much human misery.

Next: People Suck Sometimes. Accept them Anyway.

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (So Far)

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that other’s must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.

Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease Is Not Required.

Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 10)

Everything worth doing is worth putting effort into. We know this. But despite this awareness, there is often a lingering childishness in us, demanding that our path should be easy, that we should not have to work hard, and that we should never be uncomfortable. But a life lived according to your values will never be completely comfortable. Learning to tolerate the discomfort of effort is an important part of achieving your goals and fulfilling your potential.

The good news is that the more you put effort into your goals, the easier putting in effort becomes. It’s as if when we use effort to do good work, we get a discount on any future effort we put forth. For example, if you imagine a day where you have been very lazy, haven’t gotten off the couch and haven’t done anything difficult at all, how hard would it then be to do a chore like cook a meal, wash some dishes or do a load of laundry? You certainly could do it, but it would be difficult. In comparison to your lazy day, it would seem to be a high-effort task. Now imagine a day where you have been very productive and have already done several difficult things. How much effort would it take to put on that same load of laundry? Hardly any at all. That is the nature of effort. The extent to which effort is unpleasant varies greatly. But one sure way to make effort much more unpleasant and “expensive” is to tell yourself that you can’t tolerate it, or worse, that you shouldn’t have to.

In a Nutshell:

Life will present us with no shortage of situations where we will be uncomfortable, particularly when we are working towards our goals—and especially when those goals involve not giving in to harmful urges. But being uncomfortable does not harm us. We can put in the effort. We can accomplish our goals and live according to our values despite discomfort.

How to Use This Idea:

Be on the lookout for thoughts that tell you that you shouldn’t be uncomfortable, that something is too hard (when you know it’s not), and that you can’t put in the effort to do something important. Whenever you find these thoughts, question them and push back against them. Say to yourself, “Ok. This will make me uncomfortable. This is difficult.” But then ask yourself, “Why am I doing this? What is my goal? How important is that goal to me?” Remind yourself that you can tolerate being uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable is not going to harm you.

The Fine Print:

Please don’t take this as an instruction to work hard just for the sake of working hard. The point is to do what is important to you—to get something worthwhile out of your efforts. Don’t be cruel with yourself. Don’t expect yourself to put in Herculean efforts. If you can, routinely put in a modest amount of effort. Don’t feel like you need to always take the more difficult road just because it is difficult. Shortcuts are not always bad ideas if they really do bring you to the same place. Don’t treat being uncomfortable as a goal unto itself. When you tolerate discomfort you should know what purpose it serves.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

This idea will help you avoid stagnation—especially the stagnation that comes from not working on your goals. If you can only do what comes easily, you will rarely achieve anything. If you rule out any course of action that requires effort or discomfort you will probably rule out the best option you have. And if you give into every urge that surfaces (because resisting it is uncomfortable) your life will very quickly become a downward spiral of misery.

What This Will Help You Gain:

Discipline. Whether we are doing our job, eating right, exercising, acting morally, or accomplishing your goals, discipline will be required. We build discipline only by deciding to do difficult, uncomfortable things even though it would be easier (in the short term) not to do them. We need to remind ourselves that these acts will serve us well, in the long run, acknowledge the discomfort, and do them anyway.

The Source of this Idea:

This post is a synthesis of many ideas. The discussion of self-discipline is inspired by Stoic philosophy. Albert Ellis’s (REBT-related) concept of Frustration Intolerance has certainly contributed to my thinking. And the experimental psychology concept of Learned Industriousness, Associated with Robert Eisenberger (and which my dissertation dealt with) is relevant as well.

Next: You Can Do Good Work Or Seek Perfection. But You Can’t Do Both

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (So Far)

Idea #11: You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both

Idea #10: Your Path Will Not Be Easy. But Ease is Not Required.

Idea #9: Emotions are not your guide. Without reason they will lead you astray

Idea #8: You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings.

Idea #7: Whenever it seems that other’s must change, accept that they don’t.

Idea #6: People Suck Sometimes. Accept Them Anyway.

Idea #5: Others will not approve. Carry on without approval.

Idea #4: The world is unjust. Live there anyway.

Idea#3: To live is to confront adversity. But to be alive is to have limitless resilience. 

Idea#2: Life is risky. Live anyway.

Idea#1: Be curious. Learn what you can, but hold lightly to your truths.