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How to take steady steps towards fulfilling your potential

How to take steady steps towards fulfilling your potential
Stairs

Three steps cover most of what is needed to discover and then make full use of your potential:

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  • Exploration of options, strengths, and weaknesses, in depth and without haste.
  • Patient removal of blockages.
  • Long-term, continuous development and learning.

The first step increases your self-awareness and gets beyond superficial judgments about strengths and weaknesses. You mustn’t simply jog along and let your automatic habits take the strain, or you’ll become narrow and parochial, priding yourself on knowledge in some limited area and ignoring your ignorance of the rest of the world. If you look at yourself dispassionately, and listen without judgment and defensiveness to what others say, you’ll see quickly what is presently in the way of further progress. Then you can work to broaden your mind and increase the range and breadth of your options. Potential is always open, expansive, and inclusive. Narrow opinions that disdain the wider context will never lead to potential. Usually they lead to foolishness.

Before you start, check though these basic assumptions behind the work you need to do to realize your potential:

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  • In nearly all situations, something works. Don’t waste time wishing things were different. Where you are is where you start. Build on what works already.
  • Whatever you focus on expands and grows. Focusing on gifts expands them. Focusing on weaknesses makes you weaker, more miserable, and less able to cope.
  • Your choices, whether they are made consciously or not, always affect your future. Making choices consciously is common sense.
  • Potential is always based on adding to options, broadening viewpoints, and increasing competence. Realizing your potential always demands learning. Make learning a lifetime activity.
  • Automatic habits are constrictive. They close you down, narrow your options, and limit your perspectives. They encourage you to repeat the past, whether or not it still works for you. If you carry parts of yourself into the future, they should only be the best parts.
  • Potential is not fixed. It arises where present and future possibilities intersect with the willingness and skill to choose between them. Forget the nonsense about “you either have it or you don’t.”
  • Improvising is the surest sign of potential on the move. It isn’t indicative of some lack of basic ability. Not knowing is a better place to begin than assuming you know and then being proven wrong.

Along the way, you should take careful note of any habits that appear to block your progress or throw you off course. Blockages like these shouldn’t make you feel guilty or self-critical. Simply note each blockage carefully and let it go. Drop it. Step past it and move on. You may have to do this a hundred, a thousand, or ten thousand times, but in the end the habit will go away for good. That will be a famous victory.

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Don’t waste time and effort on trying to deal with weaknesses that are not blockages to potential. Do not worry about areas where there is little strength on which to build. It takes great energy and determination to improve from completely awful to solidly mediocre; maybe three or four times—even ten times—what it would take to go from good to great. Do you really want to work hard at becoming mediocre? Forget struggling to improve your natural weaknesses—beyond doing just enough to stop them spoiling your strengths. Forget trying to be perfect in every way. It’s impossible. Work to be the best possible version of yourself, even if that isn’t what you expected or the folks around you ordered. Anything else will condemn you to a lifetime of wasted effort and unsatisfied dreams.

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Potential is in the how, not in the what. It is the how that determines whether you can do the what to the standard required. It is the how that you can take to different fields of work, if you decide to move on and explore other fields of work. And as for satisfaction, the what may be the external measure of success, but it is the how that got you there and provided your internal satisfaction and enjoyment.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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