Now notice that the headline doesn’t say anything about discovering your potential in ‘one easy step’. That’s because I don’t want to lead you astray from the beginning. Later on, maybe; right from the start, no. That would be plain wrong.
Let’s start by acknowledging that ‘potential’ comes from the same stem as ‘power’. My favourite definition is:
“latent qualities or abilities that may be developed and lead to future success or usefulness”.
That strikes me as worth some effort, as worth taking a difficult step or even two. And the one step may be difficult because, in my experience, finding our potential requires us to face our biggest fear. There: I’ve said it. Our biggest fear masks that patch where there’s the greatest scope for potential.
Overcoming our fears
So what’s your biggest fear? Tell you what: you whisper yours, and I’ll tell you a story about mine, or at least what mine used to be. It’s a good story. It even has a fairytale ending.
I used to be terrified of public speaking. I spent my whole life avoiding it. After a particularly humiliating experience in corporate life, I’d even promised myself that I’d never do it again. As we’re in sharing mode here, I’ll tell you how that humiliation went.
I’m on a management training course in the Netherlands, and the course leader suddenly announces that we all have to prepare a five-minute speech on a topic of our choice and deliver it later that afternoon. It’s the only time in my life that I’ve been involved in collective hyperventilating. At least I’m not the only one to feel anxious.
My turn comes. I walk over to the corner of the room from which everyone else has delivered their speech and begin talking. When I finish, the course tutor looks at me, and says:
‘Elaine, do you have any idea where you were standing when you gave us your speech?’
I shake my head.
What kind of a bonkers question is that?
She asks another participant to demonstrate. This young woman walks to the corner of the room and positions at least 90% of her body behind the flipchart stand. While everyone else in the room erupts into laughter at the look on my face, I go inwards:
For heaven’s sake, I’ve got such an aversion to public speaking that it permeates my whole body. I don’t even want to be seen doing it. Right: that’s it. From henceforth, public speaking and I shall be as strangers to one another.
But that was before I walked the Camino de Santiago. That can be a life-changing experience. It certainly was in my case. I found it impossible to ignore my fear any longer. Believe me, I tried – really, really hard.
Almost against my will, I enrolled on a public speaking course. And it was difficult at first. Every time I stood up to speak, I felt nervous and afraid. I ran out of breath and saliva, and a muscle in my left buttock developed this annoying habit of twitching uncontrollably.
Progressing towards potential
In spite of these minor irritants, I still made progress. My fears lessened, especially after the course leader pointed out to me that fear and excitement are the same emotion. They’re just at opposite ends of the scale. How could I not feel excited at the prospect of mastering a skill that had previously been a source of terror?
Over the six months of the course, I did master public speaking. I mastered it to such an extent that, when we went to Speakers’ Corner to address the crowds in Hyde Park, I didn’t even prepare a topic in advance. When my turn came, I was more concerned about falling off the stepladder than I was about speaking in public.
Instead of being my greatest fear, public speaking has become one of my greatest joys. Giving my gala finale speech at the end of the course was one of the best experiences of my life. And what could I speak about but potential?
To return to our initial definition: have I developed a latent ability that may lead to future success or usefulness? I’ll say. As an aspiring author, I need to build a list of potential readers. Public speaking is one of the most effective ways of doing that.
I’m giving a big speech in the US in April 2018, and I’m already excited at the prospect. But excitement isn’t the only new thing that taking that first step into my potential has brought me. It’s also brought me a sense of lightness. Suppressing my fear didn’t just block my potential; it also sapped my energy. In hindsight, it was a complete waste of time.
Five top tips for potential-seekers
So, if you’re ready to take that first step into your potential (NB: that means wanting to rather than feeling that you should), here are some handy tips.
1) If it’s fear that’s holding you back, name the fear out loud and you’ll lessen its power.
2) Find yourself a master or role model who excels at the skill you want to acquire.
3) Adopt the mindset of a five-year old. In the first five years of life, our brain develops more and faster than at any other time in life. Crucially, we’re not hampered by a fear of failure. Take a look at this master class.
4) Get out of your comfort zone and get over yourself. You will make mistakes, look like a bloody fool, and embarrass yourself. But so will everyone else in the class. Your classmates aren’t laughing at you; they’re laughing with you.
5) Practise, practise, and practise again. We get good at what we practise, but only if we practise properly. And practice is the path that leads to mastery, and hence into our potential.
Look closely at the letters and you’ll see the secret of potential. It’s just a question of rearranging what you’ve already got.