Sunday, 19 April 2015

The Chimera of Potential

There are so many self-help books out there, all about how you can reach your full potential, and I always think they are missing something. Potential is actually a noun derived from an adjective, and as an adjective it makes a lot of sense.

For instance, if I said that someone should reach their full potential as a tennis player, or someone failed to reach their potential as a piano player, I am saying something quite definite. You have a standard, a goal, and the potential as opposed to the actual is to reach that goal. It implies moving towards a limit.

We all know individuals who are focused on doing something. They have a set goal – to be the best footballer in the world, to be Prime Minister, to walk on the moon.

But in the world of wishy-washy pop-psychology, “potential” is co-opted as a noun, and it is a very bad noun, as if it is always something positive. You could say of a schoolboy – he has a wicked glint in his eye – I think he could be a potential troublemaker. Would you encourage him to live up to that potential? Of course not! To paraphrase Chesterton, potential is a comparative of which we have not settled the superlative.

The best safeguard against all the pop-psychology about “reaching your full potential” has to come from comedian Dylan Moran, who suggests that the reality of our potential may well not live up to expectations. Alas, I am not going to ever be a world class pianist, or even a second rate one. And here is what he has to say about potential:

“You should stay away from your potential. I mean, that is something you should leave absolutely alone! You’ll mess it up! It’s potential, leave it! And anyway, it’s like your bank balance, you know - you always have much less than you think. Leave it as the locked door within yourself and then at least, in your mind, the interior will always be palatial. “

“Wonderful gleaming marble floors, brocaded drapes. Mullioned windows, covered in mullions, whatever they are. Flamingos serving drinks. Pianos shooting out canapés into the mouths of elegant men and women who are exchanging witticisms... "Oh yes, this reminds me of the time I was in BudaPESHT with Binky... We were trying to steal a goose from the casino, muahahaha..."

“But it won’t be like that! You don't want to find out that the most you could possibly achieve, if you gave it your all, if you harvested every screed of energy within you, and devoted yourself to improving yourself, that all you would get to, would be maybe eating less cheesy snacks.”

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