Is Living Up To Your Potential Really That Important?

Is Living Up To Your Potential Really That Important?

Moss Jackson, PhD
Psychologist and Success Coach

When I was a child and teenager, I thought my mother was a constant “pain in the ass!”

None of us, my older brother, my younger sister, myself and especially my father, ever seemed to live up to her expectations. My brother, who was brilliant, often failed in school; probably because he was bored to death. My father was basically an easy going guy who loved to smoke his pipe while reading a detective novel, and he seldom earned much money. All my sister wanted was a Xmas tree every winter, but our mother thought Xmas trees were the exclusive property of Gentiles. And as far as I was concerned, I was somewhat unsure of myself and had a speech articulation handicap; I never seemed to fit into our family, school or Synagogue. In fact, both my brother and I hated our religious training. He was kicked out of a couple of Hebrew classes, while I managed to continually flunk almost every lesson. All the members of my family had little interest in fitting in and doing our best. We just wanted to do what we wanted to do!
According to our mother, none of us were “living up to our potential.” All I wanted to do was to have a good time while playing with my Lionel train set and spitting on passerbys from the roof of our five story apartment building. My brother, Bruce, loved to collect stamps and blow up the kitchen on a regular basis with his chemistry set. My father liked his scotch and plate of herring, while our sister, Candy, was just a sweet kid who wanted some affection. We would all have been content to travel our unique paths of personal interest if it were not for our mother’s incessant demands to work harder, clean our rooms better, study more, and fit into her rigid code of expectations to do what she expected us to do: “Live Up To Our Potential.”

I thought then, as I still do now, that it is a waste of time and emotional energy to try to convince kids or teenagers to “live up to their potentials!” Most kids and teenagers turn out just fine in the end if they are left to find their way through life and make their own mistakes. Some guidance and coaching are certainly helpful, but constantly being told they are not doing well enough is dangerous to an emerging sense of self and well-being. Sooner or later, reality testing sets in and people end up doing what works best for them, not necessarily by living up to others’ expectations. We learn from our actions and the consequences that follow, not from the hovering helicopter parents who seem so frightened that their children will not succeed.

Over the last twenty years, I have worked with children, teenagers and adults who have struggled with finding their way through life. My friend, Alan Saul, suggested I take my work on helping adults to navigate successful lives and adapt some of these ideas to raising successful children and adolescents. I like his suggestion!  I believe that my Navigating For Success Formula is a more practical and healthier perspective than a “living up to your potential” philosophy. The formula is based on what many other psychologists and success coaches have advocated. Basically, it goes something like this:

Success = Passion + Goals + Action + Resiliency.

As a child-rearing philosophy, it translates into helping your children find something they are passionate about, i.e., art, sports, music, history, school or video games, and doing your best as a parent to create projects where your kids can learn to set clear goals and helping guide them to discover what actions they should take in order to meet their goals. Most young people have a natural curiosity about life and want to throw themselves with passion into their chosen activities. In addition, they prefer not to be told where they should or should not be channeling their energies. I think they will discover what works and what does not work and learn to live their lives accordingly.

It can be difficult for a parent to develop the patience needed to allow their children to experiment, and to let them fail. I think the parents’ job is to provide support, empathy and a word or two of encouragement. Stop trying to make kids heroes or villains when they fail. Failure is simply failure and the job of parents is to teach their children grit and resilience in the face of inevitable failure. Failing does not make their children “failures”: it simply means they failed to accomplish a particular goal, as we all do time and time again. Failure and resilience are key experiences that help to shape character. Like a forged sword needs fire to create flexibility and strength to its chemical make-up, children need difficulty and challenge to forge their own character and foster a willingness to take chances.

Navigating a great life is a great vision to have. No one has the power to make another person live up to their own vision. Each of us has a personal mission to live a life of passion and powerful focus. It is in a child’s nature to continually shift focus and to try many different roads of travel. Fortunately, they have a long time, currently around twenty five years or more, to get their act together. There is no practical need to decide on your child’s destiny and future direction before their nervous systems have fully matured. Pushing them to “live up to their potential” too early may even create pressure and chronic stress for children to perform, rather nurturing their passion to live a great life.

Parenting is hard, as is the process of growing up. Why not take a deep breath, be curious about your child’s interests, impractical as they might seem, and encourage their emerging explorations and discoveries. My brother never totally burned the kitchen down, our irreverent religious attitudes did not bring disgrace upon our family, and my father’s love of scotch and reading have given me my own appreciation of such delights.

In my new book, “I Didn’t Come To Say Goodbye,” I describe the skills and toolkit that all of us need to thrive and not just survive. Check it out on Amazon.