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We Can’t Reach Our Potential

Michael PhelpsI wrote a blog not too long ago about some bad parenting advice – always try your best! With the Olympics upon us, I’ll tackle another bit of parenting encouragement that is well-meaning but totally unrealistic (when we really think about it). I often hear parents say this, and I admittedly sometimes have this intention for my own kids (but I try to refrain from saying it!). The good parenting intention is this: I just want ______ to reach his/her potential. We apply this notion to ourselves too because WE want to reach our potential as well. But when we really examine this idea, we see that it is not only unrealistic, it can be harmful.

Why We Can’t Reach Our Potential

Michael Phelps is perhaps not only the greatest swimmer of all time but also the most successful Olympian of all time. In three Olympiads, he has won a total of 22 medals, with 18 of them being gold. This is double the number of gold medals as number 2 on that list. I don’t know that Michael Phelps would say that he has reached his full potential (I suppose “full potential” is redundant, right?) as a swimmer, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to say he has come very close to it! However, Michael Phelps is a miserable failure as far as reaching his potential…as a violinist…or a computer programmer…or a chess player…or a linguist…mathematician…an entomologist, etc. You get the picture. This, of course, is in NO way a knock on Michael Phelps (if you read this Michael Phelps – no harm intended!).

In a sense, we are virtually limitless in what we can accomplish, but we are very limited by one thing: Time. Time puts parameters on what we can accomplish in the life that we have been given. No matter how hard we work, there are only so many hours in the day, and we have a limited lifespan. This will not change…at least in the foreseeable future! Thus, a child can grow up to be anything he/she wants to be BUT they cannot grow up to be EVERYTHING he/she wants to be. Therefore, we can never truly reach our potential because, although our potential may be unlimited in a sense, it will always be bound by the limitations of time.

Whose Idea of “Potential?”

Perhaps the danger of thinking that we want our kids to “reach their potential” comes from this: Whose idea of “potential” are we talking about? Maybe Mom wants Johnny to be a great writer, but Dad wants him to be a star quarterback. Grandparents might want Johnny to be a doctor…or a lawyer. But what about Johnny? Does he have a say so in all of this? When parents try to impose their idea of “reaching your potential” onto Johnny, that’s a lot of pressure on him! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with folks who have felt the crushing weight of parents’ expectations on their backs. Kids might not learn what their own passions are…what really drives, inspires, and motivates them…if they are too busy trying to achieve their parents’ ideas of their potential. Some even come to resent their parents for pushing them to “reach their potential” in an area that ultimately doesn’t resonate with them. As far as I know, we don’t get a “do over” in life. We just can’t get those years back.

How Do We Encourage Our Kids?

Of course, as parents, we do want our children to learn and value the importance of working hard, taking on challenges, and stretching themselves. We want them to acquire knowledge, skills, and expertise in life so that they can be “successful.”  Striving for success can be a dangerous idea that is worthy of a blog its own, but I will touch on it here. In a sense, “reaching their potential” serves this higher master – success. It can be argued that success serves an even higher, and perhaps ultimate, master – happiness. I’m not talking the happiness of stimulating our nerve endings, which might be more accurately described as pleasure. Pleasure has its place in life but we all know that the mindless pursuit of pleasure can lead to A LOT of unhappiness!

In order to help our kids become happy in life, we need to encourage them to try new things, praise their hard work, and ask them to reflect on their experiences. We want them to internalize the belief that, if they work hard, the can be successful at what they choose to do. But they need to identify what inspires and drives them. While their potential is limitless, their time is finite. We want them to learn what inspires them for, if they find what they are truly passionate about in life, then “reaching their potential” is not the goal. “Reaching potential” implies that success in life is a specific destination that they can attain. Our children’s pursuit of what they are truly passionate about is where where their success and happiness reside.

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