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How to actualize your potential

One of my favourite philosophies is Aristotle’s theory about potential. If you regularly read my articles, you’ll notice it’s a term I frequently use. So today, let’s look at it in more depth. For the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, life is intimately connected to potential. Life is all about ‘becoming’, aka. the actualizing of potential. Take a seed. A seed carries within itself the potential to become a mature tree. This potentiality is a possibility, but not a necessity: for if the seed isn’t planted and nurtured, it will fail to turn this possibility into a reality. In that case, its potentiality would never become an actuality.

Aristotle describes potentiality as matter, and actuality as form. Matter is marked by inaction, whereas actualization is all about… Guess what? ACTION. Actuality is the shape we give to our potential, through the actions we take. As such, actuality is the tangible manifestation of fulfilled potentiality. And it’s the act of action-taking that makes all the difference.

As human beings, we carry a lot of different kinds of potential inside of us. This ranges from potentialities commonly shared (our potential to grow old, to become parents, etc), to potentialities that differ from one individual to the next.

You might have a talent for numbers and abstract thinking, which, through stimulation and nurturing, can lead you to become a mathematician. Or a talent for languages, which may lead you to become a polyglot. Perhaps you have an eye for light and composition, which may lead you to become a painter.

But having the potential doesn’t mean it will necessarily become an actuality. It’s the crucial element of action that bridges between them.

Without developing your gifts, they won’t blossom.

Without nurturing your talents, they won’t mature.

Without action, you won’t achieve.


High-potential and giftedness

Gifted people, by virtue of having a higher intelligence than average, are often high-potential as well as multi-potential people. We can become and achieve a lot of different things, at the highest level.

While this is a blessing, and a true gift, it comes with its own challenges. Because it can be deeply confusing to understand which talents to nurture and stimulate, which ambitions to pursue, and how to construct a fulfilling career in a world that constantly tells you to narrow down and 'stick with it'.

This is why we often don’t fit into predesigned boxes, why a lot of gifted students experience anxiety around picking a study course, and why a lot of career paths feel too restrictive. It's also why gifted people tend to hop from one job to the next, feeling like failures, because they just can't seem to find their 'one passion'.

From the moment we’re asked as kids ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’, we’re made to feel like we must shrink ourselves to fit a professional label that is actually too narrow for us. Others see us as being too ‘all over the place’ and we might hear from the outside world that we should ‘make up our mind already’.

This is why a lot of us feel stressed out by our own potential. We freeze, we delay decision-making because we don’t want to cut off any potential paths and interests for us to explore. Some of us get completely paralyzed and are unable to make any move at all, because we just don’t know what to do anymore.

For gifted people, it’s often not as simple as that seed becoming a tree, because if you’ve been bestowed with so many gifts, you could develop into a medic, an artist, a teacher, a politician, a writer, a scientist, a financial advisor, a business owner, and 258 other things….

Sometimes this might make us wish we could be more like that seed, with one clear destination, so we know which steps to take to get there. How much easier would life be! It’s this sentiment that might make us envy people who have one particular calling and a straight-forward path to follow.

And when you combine all that indecisiveness, self-imposed pressure, societally imposed pressure, an overall sense of overwhelm with all the possibilities out there, with perfectionism, imposter syndrome, and a constant effort to adapt and fit in…

Even just writing this exhausts me. Because my goodness, it’s a lot.

This is precisely why lots of gifted people are high-potential but NOT high-achievers. Most of us are in fact high-potential underachievers.

This tragic combination breaks my heart, because of two reasons:

1) the amount of pain this causes the gifted individual her/himself is absolutely saddening,

2) the world misses out on a valuable contribution this gifted soul could be making.

It’s a double loss, both for the individual and the world, when there’s so much that potentially could be, but never actually comes to flourish.


The pain of unactualized potential

This stagnation leads to all sorts of emotional blockages. You might experience bursts of anger. You might be easily triggered. You might feel a constant sense of frustration and dissatisfaction. And if you’ve been in that dark emotional space for long enough, chances are you’ll develop a deep-seated sense of spite, a resentment towards yourself and the people around you, and an animosity towards the world.