Why ‘potential’ is bullshit
I once wrote an article on my understanding of the concept of “responsibility.”
My definition for responsibility is rather simple: quite literally, it’s your ability to respond.
A favourite quote I often forget in moments of panic is that “you don’t always get what you want in life; only what you need.” More often than not, you don’t really get to control what happens to you.
But you can control what you do about what happens.
You get to decide how you react to the problems that beset you.
to the parking ticket you received only two minutes before you paid.
to the taste of ketchup in your burger after you explicitly asked for sauce on the side.
You can’t control what happens to you. But you can control how you respond.
Upon reading my explanation, a friend of mine offered his own point of view.
He suggested that responsibility is about unlocking your potential. And I agree. You owe it to yourself to discover what you’re truly capable of as an individual. There’s always more to you than you know.
Yet I can’t help but feel like “unlocking your potential” is too vague a definition of responsibility.
It doesn’t say anything about what ‘potential’ is supposed to mean. Or who exactly gets to decide what ‘potential’ means.
Insofar as your ‘potential’ refers to anything you could become that you aren’t right now, there’s a whole swathe of potential for you to choose from.
Like the you that potentially turns into a drug addict.
Or the potential you that sacrifices all materiality and vanishes into a cavern.
Or the potential you that incites an anarchistic revolution and brings about Skynet.
Potential itself is boundless. To quote an overly zealous Kevin Garnett, “ANYTHING is POSSIBLLLLLLLLE.” That’s the purest sense of potential — that which could be.
Sure. I might be nit-picking at my friend’s understanding of responsibility and potential.
But in a world where expectations are still abound, and perhaps more so now with the advent of the digital age.
When half the world seems to be obsessed with becoming millionaires as a proxy for a penis contest,
when we equate the experience of travelling the world with being “cultured,”
where the ability to deceive others with unbreakable confidence is not only tolerated but praised,
maybe it’s important to take a step back and question what’s actually important. What do we value about humanity?
Who do you want to become? Not according to what others tell you. Not based on what your friend or your lover or even what your mom thinks you should do. What do you feel personally and emotionally compelled to do with your life?
Consider another potential version of yourself: the dead you.
When it’s all said and done, what kind of mark would you like to leave on this world?
How can you leverage this short time you have in this gifted curse of life to justify your existence?
That is your ultimate responsibility.
Because you don’t get to control when you die. You can’t stop a car from appearing out of nowhere and striking you from the face of consciousness. You can’t control whether or not that someone “accidentally” sends ICBMs halfway around the world and obliterates you and everything around you.
You only get to control what you’re gonna do about the fact that one day you will die.
Of course, it’s no easy matter to resolve. And maybe it’s a question that you’ll never really be able to answer.
Many choose to resign themselves to one field or occupation for the remainder of their lives, complacent it would seem in the fact that they’ve found “it.” In the same way finding a “soulmate” might permanently solve the riddle that is inescapable loneliness as an individual.
The problem with any solution, however, is that it brings with it a whole host of other problems. The car as a solution for getting from A to B more quickly ushers in many a youthful cry of global warming. The power of the smartphone results in mentally damaging social media and the anxiety of getting an urgent email from your boss at 8:32 pm on a Saturday.
In a sense that borders on intellectual masturbation, the answer to the question “what do I do with my death sentence?” lies not in the solution.
The answer comes from the mechanism that generates the solution.
As Gary Vee likes to say: “fall in love with the process.”
Counterintuitively, life is in fact an endless re-run of Groundhog Day, without commercial interruptions. Life is lived not once, but over and over and over again.
It’s a never-ending game of figuring out just what it is you’re supposed to do now that you’re stuck with being alive. Until you’re not.
You can’t win the game once and for all. Because life isn’t a game that you can win. But it’s a game that you must play.
That’s your responsibility. To play the game, and to give it everything you’ve got, whether you win or lose.
Plenty of people lose simply because they’d rather be benchwarmers or permanent members of the disabled list.
Others lose because they want to win so badly that they’d sacrifice the integrity of the game for a flashy press conference.
But if you decide to step on the field.
To risk getting your teeth knocked in because you’re not satisfied with standing on the sidelines.
To chase after the ball not for the performance bonus but for the love of the game.
To hoist your teammates on your shoulders because you believe they’d do the same for you.
Then you know it’s not about what you end up becoming. It’s just about becoming.
Potential isn’t a singular state. And responsibility isn’t an option.
You owe it to yourself to go on discovering what you’re made of.
You have a responsibility not to unlock your potential, but to guide it.
One wise piece of advice this same friend also likes to proffer is that nobody has things figured out.
Not your mentors. Not your parents. Even the world’s largest multinational money machines have loose ends they don’t know about.
At the end of the day, no one can ever say for sure that they’ve figured out this puzzle we call life.
But you can’t fault yourself for trying.