The Patchwork of Our Potential

“Every day opens and closes like a flower, noiseless, effortless.

Divine peace glows on all the majestic landscape,

Like the silent enthusiastic joy that

sometimes transfigures a noble human face.”

~John Muir, 1988, p. 13

Let’s start with a proposition or two or three. One proposition is this, “At birth, each person is endowed with a bundle of potentialities.” A second proposition is this, “Circumstances may support or hinder the development of each different potentiality one carries.” And a third, “No one reaches their full potential in every one of those.”

Conclusion: No matter how hard we try we will not reach our ‘full potential”.

Therefore, why worry about it?

Our potential is cumulative of many different pieces of who we are. There are so many variegated strips aggregated here, in this pail of personal potentiality:

  • Potential earnings
  • Potential athletic ability
  • Potential to develop knowledge, skills, to learn
  • Potential common sense
  • Potential to lead
  • Potential to make a positive difference in the world (so many strands just in this one…)
  • Potential to create stuff that didn’t exist before – art or invention or products–lots here!
  • Potential potential. I’m not even going to try to unpack what one’s potential potential might mean. It’s like additives in gasoline, I guess, making something more potent than it would otherwise be potent.

And on and on, including every scrap in the wad of our latent abilities, wrapped within opportunities, each enabled by effort and infused by desire. We are a patchwork of potential, boys and girls, ladies and gentlemen.  Not an original metaphor, but evocative still.

Looking at it that way, each of us is comprised of a vast array of potentialities, for each person, intertwined uniquely.  Considering the cumulative potential for any one person is bracing.  Even inspiring.  Hopeful, certainly.

But never attained.

No one can maximize all of those.  To excel in any of them, a person must choose a small number to work on to the exclusion of others.  Even a great pitcher has to concentrate on a suite of pitches, letting, perhaps, the knuckleball go by the wayside.  The potential to be the next Phil Niekro instead becomes a Nolan Ryan wannabe. So choosing what to work on, out of all those potentialities, is a strategic decision which may evolve over time.

Even polymaths, like a Da Vinci, aren’t able to shine in everything they might have. Theoretical physics might have taken priority instead of scuba diving or making boats that fit in bottles. Making boats that fit in bottles might have taken priority over playing the stock market. Might do a few really well. Can’t do them all.  Much less do them all well.

That should take some inner or imposed pressure off your shoulders.

We’ll never reach our potential, and it’s surely impossible to exceed 100% of our potential.  It is, of course, quite possible to exceed 100% of our current effort (as in, “I gave it 110%!”) but that is another discussion perhaps.

One characteristic of the patchwork of potential offered above is that some are external outcomes, like security in retirement, long term health, or contribution to others.  These are not to be sneezed at – they are important – but there will always be more that could have been done.

Others are more inner potential, like the potential to love, to care, to grow in depth and breadth. Another form of potential might be the promise of living right now, for now, instead of for the future or in the past.  To have fun. To experience.  Can we fully reach those kinds of potential?




Well…at least not for mere mortals. There may be some gurus out there, some mystics, some wilderness explorers who manage a good deal of it. Maybe. But most of us will have to make do with taking each step each day, just trying to be as aware as possible.  We will have to concentrate on a few areas of interest or need. To do our best with those. To let other matters go.

To immerse ourselves in just this or just that, fully filled, fleshed out, filamentally afire. 

To extract all we can from living as fully and as joyfully we can, in a world that keeps asking us to do more, to be more, to make more of ourselves.

That is just fine though, isn’t it?

Maybe that is the real meaning of fulfilling our potential.  It is attaining the richness of each splitch of time, each beat of the heart, each bite of the apple, each breath of air, each day, each month, each year. It is living in grace and gratitude and giving.

The disparate scraps uniquely comprising our quainted quilt are sewn together with translucent threads of life. ‘Tis a patchwork of particular potential, best wrapped simply and lovingly around our heart. Characterized not simply by what we might be but as much by richly experiencing who we are and what we are doing right now.

Taken from La Sacra di San Michele - 11-9-13 091 (2)
A view from La Sacra di San Michele, just north of Torino, Italy

“We might live free, rich, comfortable lives just as well as not.

Yet how hard most people work for mere dust and ashes and care,

taking no thought of growing in knowledge and grace,

never having time to get in sight of their vast ignorance”

~John Muir, 1988, p. 69

Muir, J. (1988). John Muir, in his own words: a book of quotations (P. Browning Ed.). Lafayette, Calif.: Great West Books.

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4 thoughts on “The Patchwork of Our Potential

  1. “So choosing what to work on, out of all those potentialities, is a strategic decision which may evolve over time.” I question how strategic that decision is, for many, including myself. Sometimes a door opens, and we fall through, without even realizing we’ve made a choice.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. So true, and there’s a great book called the surrender experiment which I recommend to folks. On the other hand many times doors open because people have prepared. And they are ready to step through. And, the other option of course, is to not prepare anything and end up doing nothing, Or only things which people who have planned strategically have you do for them. Which might not be so bad.


    2. I think it was Ken Blanchard who said, in the course situational self leader ship, Something like the people who don’t have plans end up doing what those who have plans want them to do. Or something more elegant than that.

      Liked by 1 person

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