In Defence of Lost Potential


I used to believe that anything was possible if you really set your mind to it.

Now that I’ve hit 40, I have realized this: I probably won’t achieve even half of what I am capable of in this lifetime. It’s a sad realization, but equally freeing.

While I still concur with the basic tenet of my youthful belief, experience has shown me a hidden clause – that it would be virtually impossible to set my mind to one thing. If I really wanted to be an astrophysicist, and it was my sole priority in life, then nothing could stop me. But I am not built to be singularly focused on one pursuit. I’m guessing you aren’t either.

So what does that mean for me, or for you?

I know you have many lingering regrets about what could have been if only you had learned to manage your ADHD better at an earlier age. The most frustrating part of ADHD is this phenomena of not living up to potential.

Almost all of us are afflicted. We could be achieving more with our lives but because we lack focus and some of the skills necessary to make things happen, we fail to live up to our true potential. We could have done better or tried harder. We could have made something out of ourselves.

But actually, that’s not the problem at all. “Potential” is a synonym for capacity, for possibility, or for what’s imaginable. In that context, “potential” is limitless. There are infinite options as to what we could do or be. How can anyone live up to something that has no limits? It would be like racing towards a finish-line scripted in invisible ink.

Society celebrates those who achieve excellence in a certain endeavor or field of occupation. Celebrities, politicians, philanthropists, moguls and magnates… that’s all we hear about these days. Books preach the good news – how we can achieve (business/academic/financial/professional/weight loss/etc) success in 97 simple steps. In turn, we are seduced to lust after lofty goals, so that we too can leave indelible marks on this world.

It’s bullshit. There are 7.2 billion of us on this planet. If we all left our marks the world would become a giant golf ball.

The ADDer’s biggest struggle is that our insatiable curiosity and abounding interests in varied pursuits prevent many of us achieving greatness in any one thing. We can’t set our minds to anything. We set our minds to many things, and with that comes the side effect of not reaching our so-called “true potential”.

Instead, we get part-way to many different potentials.

Some of us do go on to start IKEA or become the greatest basketball player of all time. Some of us start record companies and airlines, write best-selling novels, or develop the general theory of relativity.

The rest of us? We’re weekend basketball players who reach the middle rungs of our careers, while occasionally writing prose for fun or playing video games or building crude garden furniture out of upcycled materials.

Let me ask you this:

What’s wrong with that?

It looks like mediocrity from the outside. But what it’s really is a rich diversity within our own complex make-up. We cannot be happy to do one thing really well. We aren’t even happy with a couple of things. We need to do a lot, and because of that – we have to learn to accept what it means to live in “good enoughness”.

A few in our cohort have the gift of hyperfocus. They find “that thing” that captivates them and steers their lives in the direction of notoriety. Thank God for them – they inspire us.  They are ambassadors for the tribe. They make us feel that anything could be possible for us, too, if we really set our minds to it.

But if we did, we’d have to unset our minds – almost exclusively – from everything else that allures them.

I’m not willing to do that, are you? My brain lusts after so many interests that I’d rather forfeit major success in any one of them than to give up the rest of them.

What are we really cursed with? Brains that have limitless potentials but are confined to bodies with a finite timeline. If we had a few hundred more years on this earth, no doubt we could live up to our potentials. We could give ourselves over, fully and wholly, to everything that interests us.

In the meantime, reach for the stars. Pursue your goals and work hard at furthering your accomplishments. Go back to school, get a better job. Start a business, write a book, play a sport, or solve world peace. Try to do something extraordinary with your life.

But do not – not for one minute – feel like you are not a success if you haven’t done any of those things. Lost potential doesn’t point to failure. It only tells us what we haven’t, or haven’t yet, done. Recognizing it is an opportunity to survey the landscape of our lives and assess where we go from here.

Frequently, moving forward means choosing a new path in life. But other times, it means choosing to see the path we are already on in a new way. Let go of your “potential” and focus on what already is, here and now. What do you already do well? How do you affect the people in your life? What have you learned through your experiences? And how do your rich and varied interests contribute to the world in small ways?

All these little things… they make indelible marks on the world just as much as the extraordinary things. You may feel like you haven’t lived up to your potential, but potential can be defined in many different ways. The opportunity you have now is to redefine it and start living it.