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Potential versus Capacity: A Lesson in Humility

First off, a picture for Throwback Thursday:

TBT washingtonThat’s me in the sweater vest, there in the middle. 11 years old. 6th grade. Exploring the nation’s capital with my family. Don’t knock the sweater vest; they’re totally making a comeback. Especially the teacher-themed ones. “Maybe it was prophetic”, I think as I remember that I am actually a teacher now…Yay for prophetic sweater vests!

What does it mean to live up to your potential?

And the second question should be, Is that really even a pertinent question?

Choosing the path of the academe, this question has haunted me for a long time. I remember when I told my advisor during my Master’s program that I had gotten engaged. He congratulated me, but was I imagining a lurking disappointment behind his eyes? I had several more chapters of my thesis to write still…

And then there was that time that I got pregnant. So no Ph.D. program for me in the immediate future. Telling my mentors at work was not the moment that I relished. (I should have known there was a heart issue begging to be explored when I looked forward to telling my non-academic friends more than my academic ones.)

What did I fear, actually? Disappointing people who thought I was smart, who thought I could really do this professor thing. Not living up to the spark of genius that I thought they saw in me. And it was probably all (or mostly) in my head, this plaguing fear: I AM NOT LIVING UP TO MY POTENTIAL.

If you’re an academic, maybe you’ve felt this before.

Maybe you’re guilty of this?

I can’t do x, y, and z, though very normal things for my life stage, because it would limit my potential, and I don’t want that.

Or this?

Because I’ve already done x, y, and z because they were natural and delightful in my life stage, I have limited myself and will never reach my full potential. That sucks.

I’m not entirely sure that these feelings are relegated to the academic life, but this is just my experience.

Potential for what?

What exactly is ‘my potential’? To be a brilliant scholar, illuminating the minds of my students and readers with my insights into the nature of this piece of literature or this grammar point for years to come!

I have to recognize that what I do have is a limited capacity. I can only do so much in one day, and I just happen to have a husband, two children, a dog, a house, and a family life to run, to organize, to make it through.

So, as I am at full capacity right now (8 hours of sleep—when I really need 9— and meals that are popped into the oven straight from the freezer and a house that is begging to be cleaned when I get a chance), I can’t put a lot of energy into achieving my full potential.

My capacity has limited my potential. But I think it should be that way.


Because if we view achieving our potential as the measure of success, that’s like my 19-month-old daughter condemning herself for not being able to write a 5-page paper yet. True, she has the potential to do so, but she does not have the capacity. She will one day, most likely. But it has to be a journey or WE WILL DIE EARLY.

Number 1: I need a lesson in humility.

I am not God’s gift to the world of Spanish pedagogy. I am a regular human being with normal impulses and needs, like sleeping, eating, and reading books in my native language. But in my mind, to live up to that thing called ‘potential’, all these really take a backseat to my ambition. And since I cannot do all the things that my ambition commands, I am a failure.

Number 2: I do not have the capacity to propel myself into the fullness of ‘my potential.’

Let’s say that I really do have something to say that people might want or need to hear. Without the right word at the right time, the perfect storm of publisher-meets-aspiring-writer-and-is-impressed, I will probably never reach the audience that I need to in order to really ‘make a difference’ (a concept that really completely revolves around me, at this stage, at least).

Number 3: My husband, children, dog, and household actually INCREASE my potential.

I may not be able to see it today or tomorrow or in a month at 3 a.m. when I am feeding my newborn son. But in 20 years, there will be no doubt that I have been shaped, changed, and molded for the better—by the grace of God—into someone with a much greater potential. Because I have loved. Because I have been loved. Because I have not let a timeline or agenda for my career make decisions that go against what is best for my heart and my soul, my body and my mind.

Life is really measured by the relationships you have. Friends, partners, mates, children, neighbors, students, teachers, mentors, bums on the side of the road. Don’t let potential drive you into loneliness and despair twenty years from now—let go of your potential and embrace what you can do in your present capacity! It is an act of humility that will bear fruit in time.

L’chaim! To life!

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