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.

 

You Can Do Good Work or Seek Perfection, But You Can’t Do Both.

The Twelve Ideas That Can Change Your Life (Part 11)

Your mind will tell you that  your good work is not good enough. Do good work anyway. Avoid striving for perfection at all costs. Perfectionism is the idea that no standard other than flawlessness is acceptable. But it rarely stops there. Hidden within our demands for the perfect performance is the desire to be perfect ourselves. Indeed only such a perfect person could achieve the level of perfect performance that the perfectionist demands. You need not concern yourself with that. Perfection is an illusion.  It is like a light that seems to be atop the next hill—distant but attainable—but which is, in fact, a star rising in the evening, hopelessly out of reach. Excellence, by contrast, is in the here and now. It occurs within the moment of action. It emerges only from doing with intention.

Perfectionism is a trap. Once you allow your goal to be tainted with it, you will become paralyzed by the expectation that your work could—and should—be flawless. Perfectionism will force you to immediately confront the possibility that it might not be so (in fact it definitely won’t be so!). And if it isn’t? That would be horrible! You would be a failure! And you just can’t take that can you? The result? Doing nothing.

Well let’s climb out of that particular bog. Your goal is to do good work. This will take effort, but it need not be a herculean endeavor. Moderate effort sustained over time will lead to the completion of achievable goals.

Perfectionism will call for the rejection of the achievable goal. But large goals are only attained by the successive completion of small goals. Achievable goals—those that can be executed within minutes,  hours, or the working day—are the only goals that matter. It is in the completion of these stepping stone tasks that we fulfill our potential and flourish.

The Fine Print:

Achieving your potential doesn’t mean living up to some arbitrary standard imposed from without. No one—not even you can know  what your potential truly is in advance. Potential is revealed only in the doing. You don’t have to win that golden medal, sell the most widgets, or claim the corner office. You must set the goal for yourself and it must be measured against yourself. If life is a race, the other runners are irrelevant. Their speed  is an arbitrary measure based on an accidental sample. Fulfilling your potential may mean just running any part of the race at all or completing it with a faster time than your last effort—even if you come in dead last! Your excellence is not borne of besting others. It is not forged in the fires of competition. Competition may inspire you to push yourself, but it must never be a measuring rod of your worth.  Excellence is borne of your intention to do good work, and forged in the fires of your own effort.

In a Nutshell:

To strive for perfection is to be stagnant. Instead, seek to do good work by putting forth moderate effort over time to complete achievable tasks. Seek to fulfill your unique potential without resorting to comparison with others.

What This Will Help You Avoid:

Stagnation. Nothing will destroy your productivity and fulfillment faster than perfectionism. Perfectionism will turn your successes into perceived defeats and your ability to accomplish into seeming helplessness.

What This Will Help You Gain:

Mastery. Here mastery is a personal value—the preference to work to attain proficiency at a skill. Mastery follows from effort put forth over time. Your failures will not destroy your resolve (as they would if your goal was perfection) but rather you will learn from each one, honing your skill ever more. In time, you will be able to accomplish tasks of such difficulty that you would once have thought them impossible.

The Source of this Idea:

Many have sited the dangers of perfectionism. One thinker who articulated the problems that result from the “should’s” and “must’s” that compose perfectionism is Albert Ellis, whose views on the subject can be seen here.  His thoughts on perfectionism might provide a clue to how he was able to author or co-author over 75 books (no stagnation going on there!).

[Alright!  I am one idea away from completing my list!  This has been a very interesting project for me.  These ideas are usually pressed as negatives. Trying to phrase them as positive ideas has been a very useful exercise. Please let me know what you think! ]

 

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.