Actual vs. Theoretical Potential
By Jennifer Harvey Sallin
Visionaries aren’t just “people with lots of ideas.” Rather, a gifted visionary’s brain has an astounding ability to make sense of seemingly millions of complex associations at lightning speed, working and reworking the puzzle of an uncountable number of infinitesimal factors, and seeing possibilities and obstacles that many couldn’t have conceptualized given a year’s time to reflect, research and plan. On one hand, it’s fun be a visionary. On the other, there arrives a moment when all of the speedy imagining must slow down: the connections have to converge in order for the brain and mind to focus on the attainment of a singular integrated goal. And for many visionaries and other types of global thinkers, this is the really, really hard part of the process.
Many visionaries have incredible potential, but haven’t yet mastered the art of realization or do not have the adequate tools and support to realize their dreams, and often blame themselves for their short-comings. Coaching clients sometimes self-deprecatingly tell me about their “lack of will,” their “lack of self-discipline,” and their “laziness,” sure that if they could just “get over themselves” or “get their act together,” they’d accomplish all their dreams, and maybe more. After all, “the potential is there”.
It’s important to distinguish the essential difference in types of potential – actual potential vs. theoretical potential – so that they can have a clearer sense of whether their visions match the complex conditions required for realization.
Actual potential only exists under certain highly complex conditions:
one has the tools
knows how to properly use them
has access to the adequate physical, social and moral support that gives birth to and nurtures concrete action over the long term
Without any one of these essential ingredients, we move into the realm of theoretical potential – what could be if things would be or had been different.
Some visionaries tend to struggle to realize when they are in the theoretical-only dimension, and try to hold themselves (and often others) to realizing currently impossible visions. Often they fail to notice when they don’t have the tools they need (i.e. resources, and in the case of gifted people, adequate patience and capacity to carry out the slow, step-by-step process of realizing very complex visions); or they that they don’t know how to properly use the tools they do have (i.e. leverage their relationships); or to what degree experiencing a lack of mirroring, moral support, and peer resonance is a true hinderance to their own thriving and the realization of their complex goals.
Taken to the extreme, visionaries who get stuck in an effort to force the realization of theoretical visions, can end up navigating periods of extreme frustration, self-doubt, strained relations, and even a sort of chronic defeatism. Thus, it’s important – if we want to see our projects to completion – that we find a way to acknowledge the elements that are missing for us to realize our theoretical visions; and that we avoid blaming ourselves (or others) for the missing elements that we would have needed to realize our theoretical potential. Maybe we didn’t have our parents’ support to pursue a certain career path, maybe we weren’t surrounded by people who understood our minds well enough to guide and nurture us as we needed, maybe we had other anxieties or psychological blocks that kept us from wholeheartedly pursuing a dream that felt crucially important to us, maybe we don’t have enough money or energy to build our visions right now. The list goes on and extends to complex cultural and economic factors that are far beyond our individual control
Much (if not all) of what is missing from our current context is not our fault. We each have complex life circumstances with areas of abundance and areas of lack to navigate. And, of course, some of what is missing is not set in stone – we can in many ways take action to procure the tools we need, learn how to properly use them, and connect to supportive resources, in order to bring our actual potential closer to our theoretical vision. However, to do this, we must start with where we are and act from there:
1) We sort out the theoretical from the actual potentials;
2) We forgive ourselves for not having lived up to our theoretical potential;
3) We decide what actual potential we care about most in the present;
4) We focus our energies, visions and talents to construct, from the ground up, the structure we need – this time with all of the essential ingredients – to realize our actual vision
As we work from actual potentials, we align ourselves with the power of full engagement in the now. This, in turn, expands our current contexts, tools, capacities and resources – and of course, the field of our actual potentials.