Warning: this post contains not much of interest to anyone but myself and those close to me. If you’re a stranger, or even an acquaintance, and you happen on it, you might seriously want to start somewhere else. It’s not a business post, and it’s not a community post. There is, obviously, nothing here I’m ashamed of, and you can read it if you want, and it might even be interesting. But it’s pretty obscure in places. You’ve been warned.
My sister Alison Wonderland recently wrote a post about my post about potential. In it, she heaps a lot of fulsome praise on me, says some very nice things, and brings up the possibility (true, I think) that the whole “reaching your potential” thing is complicated by gender, as in, my sisters are routinely told that they are amazing, inspirational people, while hardly anyone ever says anything like that to me. You could contend that that is because they ARE amazing, inspirational people and I am not, but they argue otherwise and provide evidence.
But I don’t want to talk about that. What I want to talk about is three different things; one, that I haven’t reached “my potential” because of some choices I’ve made; two, that in one, usually ignored way, it is possible to see that those choices have led me to far exceed my potential; and three, that nobody reaches his potential in this life. Three mutually contradictory things ought to keep me writing for a while, don’t you think?
I haven’t reached my potential because of some of the choices I’ve made. I am a good actor, but not a great one. I am a good singer, but not a great one. I am a good writer, but not a great one. I am a good businessman, but not a great one. I am a good basketball player, but not a great one. I am a good chess player and teacher and journalist, but not great at any of those things. I am not even a great husband and father. Not a great gardener. I am great, truly great, at nothing.
I don’t think I could have been a great basketball player no matter what I did. I could probably have played D II ball in college, but nothing better. I’m not built for it. But I could have been a great singer or actor. I could one day still become a great writer (though for reasons I’m about to elaborate, I doubt that I will). I will become truly excellent at nothing at all in my life, I strongly suspect.
Because I won’t ever put that focused time in that it takes to become great. There are men (I use men in the generic sense) that can become great at more than one thing in their lives, but those men are so vanishingly rare that I’ve only ever heard of a few. There are men – perhaps most men – that can become excellent at one thing, as long as they put the time into it. [Fun reader's aside: Malcolm Gladwell says the magic amount of time is 10,000 hours, but whatever. He also says that natural ability doesn't matter very much, and in that he's probably right, except that I would argue that without natural ability - or let's call it inclination instead - it's almost impossible to do that many hours of anything.] But if they don’t put the time in, they don’t reach greatness. I chose a long time ago not to put the time in.
Some of that choice was conscious; I have eight children and yes, I do know how that kind of thing happens. I chose a faith that smiles on large families, and that in and of itself requires a huge commitment of time and money. That choice was conscious and I knew that it would likely preclude my being a concert-level musician or a Broadway actor. But some of it was unconscious; I gravitated away from many things just at the point where I was getting to be pretty good at them. I did that because there is a point where the initial flush of success wears off, where there is a lengthy plateau that requires a lot of effort to climb off of. I’m lazy and don’t like to do that much work, so, being interested in lots of things and naturally good at many of them, I just move on to something else. That leads to things like having 10 different careers after 5 different majors in college. Stuff like that.
Bottom line is, if you want to become great at something, you have to work at it and work very hard at it. I never have. I have chosen not to do that. Perhaps that makes me a very interesting person. It does not make me excellent. When one’s potential is measured, it is nearly always measured in one area. Rarely do you hear someone say, “you know, if he gets a degree in Roman History, dabbles with basketball and being a chess coach, teaches part time and sings opera and does community theater, he might become a relatively successful businessman.” We always measure someone’s potential at its peak in one area. “He could become a concert violinist,” we say, but we don’t say, “he could become a concert violinist unless he decides to have ten kids and volunteer at the local battered women’s shelter.”
So that’s one reason I “never reached my potential.”
Because of some of those choices, I have, actually, already exceeded my potential. By so far that it’s hard to even fathom it. And I never thought about it until I read my sister’s blog after reading an Orson Scott Card story, “The Originist.”
The most important thing in the world to me is my wife Jeanette. More than the kids, more than my parents, more than anyone or anything. I have a friend that would love to be married to her. Anyone sane would love to be married to her. But something Card wrote jogged an idea for me. I know that the person that I am, the parts of me that I’m proud of, anyway, did not exist or existed only embryonically before Jeanette. She has made me what I am. Some of it she did on purpose, like teaching me to pick my clothes up, and some of it I did, because pleasing her is delicious to me, but either way it’s her fault. The good me is her work, her creation. If I’ve done anything to be proud of, it is every bit as much she that has done it. My resume is her resume. I am her work.
But if that is true, then as much as I don’t want to take any credit for it, what she is is what I helped make her. And she is a work of art. She is a gem. She is…she is breath and beauty and life itself. I get to take some credit for that.
More than that, what we are making together is a marriage and a life, and that is entirely ours. It is a thing I am enormously proud of. I am an indispensable part of that. Without me there is no marriage, no partnership. Our marriage is not perfect, but it is far, far more perfect that I am alone. It is, even I admit, a thing of great beauty and eternal permanence. It far exceeds what I could predictably achieved. It exceeds my potential, and I believe it exceeds my wife’s potential as well. What we are building together is far beyond our individual top-end limit.
So in that way, I’ve already exceeded my potential.
Nobody reaches his potential in this life. (Warning: explicit religion) I believe that the purpose of my life, the purpose of everyone’s life, is to learn to become God. I believe that when Jesus says “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” and “those things ye see me do, even that shall ye do,” and “as I have loved you, love one another,” he is prescribing behavior. He is literally asking us to become what He is, to do what He does, to eventually take our place with Him, as children take their place with their fathers. As a child of God, my potential is to become what my Father is.
That is never, ever going to happen in this life. We’re beings of such immense difference that it’s silly to even mention us in the same breath. God is God, and He’s perfect at it, and I am just Chris, and I suck at it, and right there we have a yawning gap that will never discernibly close no matter what I do. But still, He’s asked me to be like Him. He’s asked me to reach for that potential. He hasn’t stopped asking despite my pathetic and failed attempts. He’s omniscient, so He knows I’m not going to make it, not if I live a thousand years. But He also lives outside time, so what is a thousand years to Him?
Even the greatest geniuses are nothing to the intelligence of God. The most accomplished men, the most holy saints, are like stars in the sky when the sun arises. They shine, but who can see them when He is there? Thus if our potential is to be what He is, no possible achievement in this life can ever reach that potential.
Therefore no one reaches his potential in this life.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our time together. Please forgive this rather journal-like post, which probably has no significance to anyone but me.