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You Have No Potential: Here’s Why!

You Have No Potential: Here’s Why!

A Perspective Shift To Challenge The Way You Think About Growth

Potential. This is a word that we in the dominant society of North America use a lot. And it’s a funny one, if you let yourself be bothered by it a little. “You have your whole life ahead of you.” “You have so much potential.” “You’re not living up to your true potential.” But if we linger over this word when it’s used in these kind of incantations, we may find that there’s more trouble behind it than we thought.

You see, the way in which we use language, carries consequences in our consciousness and communities. And in this episode, I’m here to challenge the way you think about these spells, and offer you some key perspective shifts. Potential? You don’t have any. And neither do I. Here’s why …


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Track: Colores

Artist: Juan Rios

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Excerpts from Come Of Age by Stephen Jenkinson


Chances are that some well-meaning teacher offered this to you, in the name of inspiring you or goading you: “You’re not living up to your potential.” When you hear this as an older person, it amounts not to inspiration but indictment. If you hear this as a young student, you are cast adrift on the secret sea of “could be.”

Potential means something like “could be, but isn’t.” Held to a standard of “maybe,” young peoples’ potential is fated to remain an allegation. Forever in the future, drawing you towards itself, somehow more authentically real than you are—that’s your potential.

It seems to me that much is now hanging in the balance. There are young people, hosts of them, watching the self-absorbed bulge of boomers passing from this mortal coil bedraggled and betrayed by the old promises of limitless potential and self-actualization and personal growth, and retirement savings plans. They see the retreat centers full of retreating, the gated communities full of retiring, just at the time when everything points from bad to worse.

“You have your whole life ahead of you.” This phrase is routinely used to get young people to line up at the productivity trough, and it is virtually never used on older people. Why, do you suppose? Because our general view of aging comes from our understanding of the passage of time. Because aging and time put everything behind you, in the file folder marked “Done,” that’s why.

Now, the observable ripple of the thing is that everyone’s life is the same length. By this I mean that every life has its allotment, the duration of which is confirmed at its end. Measured not in days but in fullness, each life is a completed life. A fifty-year-old’s life is no more full than an eight-year-old’s—particularly from where the eight-year-old stands. It is the rumor of potential that prompts that strange conceit that the eight-year-old hasn’t enjoyed the kind of fullness that can only come from an as-yet unlived life.

Potential: all those things you’ve not yet done, those people you’ve not yet been, everything you could be, known to the shamanic guides and the life coaches and the parents, and unknown to you.


Growth for its own sake seems to be the mantra of the self-improvement industry in North America.

The change of the meaning of the word growth to something like “unerringly good for you and for the world” signals, among other things, a steep and intolerant shift in the place granted to limit, frailty, age, and elderhood by which our time is now recognizable. In our regime, growth is something between a mania and a moral obligation. In its spatial iteration it certainly evokes the sense of “increase,” of “more where there once was less.” Growth accumulates. It takes up room. It occupies. It swells. The way the word is used now, growth is inherently good.

Look to the self-help industry, the retreat industry, the personal-growth industry in North America. There you will find that growth has become a moral order unto itself. Personal growth is secular salvation for the nonaligned, for that demographic swell that elbows its way to the front of every line, and the personal-growth industry strikes me, for the most part, as an elder-free zone.

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