The Problem With ‘Living up to Your Full Potential’…

…and how it might really be holding you back

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What Does ‘Full Potential’ Mean?

It comes up a lot in conversations I have with people-not just clients, but it’s common with parents, friends, many of us-this idea that we, or another person isn’t living up to their ‘full potential’.

It’s seductive. I see it when I look at my kids-they engage with something, but perhaps we see a ‘gap’ between how much they’re engaging and what just a little more effort, or a little more time would bring…

Or it’s a sense we have for ourselves-that there is something ‘more’ we could be up to, if only we were utilising this potential thingy.

One of my clients used to use it as a strategy,

I set my expectations much higher than I think I’m going to achieve, she told me, because it motivates me to achieve more.

Yep, I get that, and I’ve probably done that too, still do to some extent I suspect. And I’m certainly conscious of it, in fractional moments, when I find myself wishing my student son, currently home from university, would spend a little less time on his PlayStation, and a little more focused on the mountain of essays he seems to have.

Doing Better?

That feeling that there is something we could do better or more of, if only…

…if only what? We weren’t as lazy? We worked harder? We were just better at something?

Behind that feeling is an oh-so-subtle judgement that there is some untapped ‘potential’ that, if utilised, would create a greater achievement. And there too is another thought, that a ‘good’ degree, for example, is somehow better than what I think my son might get without my wagging finger… I usually catch myself and leave him alone, which doesn’t mean I never talk to him about his work, but it does mean I know that now is not the moment.

Here’s the Problem…

Here’s the problem… the more we crave this ‘thing’, the more we are setting ourselves up to feel bad about this imaginary state of achievement that looks so important, so much ‘better’ than what we have now.

And what even is ‘better’?

Sure, we can define it in terms of a better degree leads to more job choices later, we can put parameters around our definition. But what are they made of?

This idea of ‘potential’, or ‘better’, or ‘more’, looks to me like an imaginary stick to beat ourselves up with.

No matter how much we think we’re wanting the best for ourselves, or for someone else, that ‘best’ only ever comes back to something we imagined in the moment we drew the imaginary ‘stop’ line.

It Feels Crappy to Always be ‘Less Than’…

My client used to tell me these standards she set herself, and the constant failing, made her feel bad a lot of the time.

She knew deep inside, it most likely limited her, and she could see that she was spending a lot of time thinking about how she was doing, rather than the work and the people in front of her. She didn’t want to rein in her ambition, though, because how else, and who else, would be as committed as her?

It felt like a trap she couldn’t break free of because it was the only strategy she knew. If she wasn’t working to her ‘full potential’ then surely it was all downhill from there?

No-One’s Saying ‘Stop Achieving’…

Paradoxically, perhaps, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t reach for things, that we shouldn’t have ambition, or start crazy, world-changing projects, or take risks, or attempt to achieve whatever it is that we want to achieve.

There’s a huge difference between attempting to work with the potential of what’s possible, and making ourselves less than the measure we’ve made up to be our personal potential.

If we can understand, or even start to glimpse, that difference, then we become free to play full-out with this stuff of life, free to co-create with others, to let ideas take form, to watch something come into existence and to see where it decides to go, and to reconnect with the joy of being as we do.

So much is possible, but none of it is as personal as we think it is.

With love,


Cathy Presland

Here to help with leadership and impact. I have lots of free resources here, including regular free seminars, if you’d like to explore more deeply or join a conversation.

My client, by the way, has come to see that she prefer not to think about herself so much, and that it’s considerably more productive, gives her more influence and engagement, and the ability to create impact in her organisation. She’s so much happier too, at home and at work-she told me it’s like she has a new responsibility to have fun, and still achieve more than she thought possible.

Originally published at on January 19, 2021.

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