Potential Is Worthless

JaMarcus Russell was one of the most highly touted college prospects that the NFL had seen in some time. Here are some of the things scouts and NFL experts said about him…

“Three years from now you could be looking at a guy who’s one of the elite, top five quarterbacks in this league. The skill level he has is certainly John Elway like.”

“From a physical skill set perspective, I’ve never seen a college quarterback with more ability than Russell.”

“He’ll be a big-time player.”

JaMarcus Russell struggled for a few years before dropping out of the league. For whatever reason, he wasn’t able to play up to his seemingly-monstrous potential. This is one example of many that shows why potential is worthless in reality.

Potential Isn’t Enough

I remember out of college when I sulked about not getting a job.

“I have so much potential, they just can’t see it,” I would think.

I would feel comforted by the fact that I knew I had potential. This, I realized later, was holding me back. It’s helpful to have a chip on your shoulder, but for a few months, I used the comforting idea of my potential to be passive. I believed that someone would see it without much effort on my part, and I was wrong.

If you find yourself frequently thinking about how you have the potential to get fit, get healthy, travel the world, be in a healthy relationship, write a book, develop good habits, or otherwise succeed in your ventures, it probably means you aren’t yet executing in those areas.

This is not to say that you will succeed on your first try. That rarely happens. It’s to say that we should spend our energy and focus on taking action on things we can control rather than hoping to be seen or hoping for our potential to magically be realized somehow, some way.

Now, when I begin to think of my potential in an area, I immediately counter that thought with, “Okay, then prove it.” It’s certainly good to believe in yourself and your potential, but if you’re like me, potential easily becomes an excuse to procrastinate, as if it’s a worthy fallback option for failure.

“Well, at least I’ve still got the potential to do it!”

Potential is obviously worthless unless it’s realized, but the very idea of having potential can distract us from reaching it.

Potential is Part of the Tomorrow Delusion

One of the more popular posts I’ve written is about how tomorrow claims it’s our friend. Tomorrow says, “Why do that now? Tomorrow is a better time to start because [excuse]. You’ll get it done later, so go ahead and take today off.” Then, the instant tomorrow arrives, it’s gone! It’s today again, and the cycle repeats, keeping us from reaching our potential.

Like tomorrow or someday, potential is a future term. They all suggest that the future could be better than the present. That’s true, the future might be better, but that generally only happens if you make it better. And progress can only be made today.

You can’t hope yourself into reaching your potential, but you can act.

Potential is Projection (and It Usually Conflicts With Reality)

The other problem with potential is inaccuracy.

Tom Brady is arguably the greatest NFL quarterback of all time. For all of the potential-drenched comments JaMarcus Russell received as a college recruit, well, Brady didn’t, probably in part because he ran the 40-yard dash in 5.28 seconds. That’s really, really slow. Here’s what “really, really slow” looks like on film.

Based on his projected potential and sloth-like speed, Brady was drafted in the 6th round. There are only 7 rounds in an NFL draft, meaning he almost didn’t get drafted!

We can only speculate about what Brady was thinking this whole time he was undervalued, but we do know what he did. Brady worked. He trained obsessively and still does. In the face of his “6th round potential,” he kept showing up every day.

When starting Patriots QB Drew Bledsoe got injured by a brutal hit in a 2001 game, Tom Brady was next up. Brady became the starter and never looked back. The Patriots won the Super Bowl that same year with Brady at QB and two of the next three in one of the greatest stretches of dominance in NFL history.

And therein lies the major pitfall of potential—it’s just a guess.

People thought JaMarcus Russell would be a great NFL player and he wasn’t. People thought Tom Brady would become a mediocre NFL player and he became elite. We only found out through reality. There were clues, though.

JaMarcus seemed like he may have been relying on his natural strength and talent, and not putting in a lot of effort in day-to-day activities.

“I keep talking to him, I ask him questions and he looks at his watch,” (Matt) Millen said. “I said, ‘You got some place you need to be?’ And he goes, ‘Oh, no, no, no. I’m sorry. Sorry, sir.’

“So I ask him another question, he looks at his watch and I said, ‘You’re done, get out of here.” (from SI.com)

Offensive Coordinator Bill O’Brien paints a very different picture of Brady (emphasis mine).

“One of the most difficult jobs you can have is coaching Tom because he wants to be coached. You coach him every single day, every minute of the day, and all year round because he’s all football. He’s a phenomenal guy and the reason why he is what he is, is because he’s obsessed with football. He’s a great family guy, don’t get me wrong, but I mean, he’s obsessed with football. So when you’re coaching him you better be ready to go at a moment’s notice whether it’s for a meeting, or practice or game, and it made me a much better coach when I was fortunate enough to coach him.” (from Business Insider)

While Brady’s obsession with football drives him to work hard at it, that doesn’t mean you or I must be obsessed with something to succeed with it. Passion and obsession are not required for success

The key to success is not obsession, it’s to show up and put the work in, and any way you can get yourself to do it will work.

I mean any way. If you bribe yourself with food or money, trick yourself, or promise to embarrass yourself as collateral, and it gets you to show up consistently, you will still get results. The key challenge there is consistency, because most strategies aren’t conducive to that. 

For Brady, football obsession makes it easy for him to show up every day. Me? I don’t have that level of obsession with writing. I’m not as emotionally driven as most people in general. But you better believe that I care and that I’m going to show up consistently because of my strategies (e.g, Mini Habits, Mini Flex, just showing up without expectations/pressure, etc)!

If you show up consistently, you’ll push the limits of your potential, and if you don’t, you’ll wallow well below it, looking up at your potential, hoping that it’s high and reachable.

Whether you’re evaluating your own potential or watching others evaluate your potential, consider this: nobody is going to be correct about what you can or can’t do. The only way to find out your potential is to keep showing up every day to learn and train the skills that align with your dreams. It seems that those who put in the time are the people who exceed everyone’s expectations, including their own.

The greatest people in their fields have one thing in common: they train more consistently than anyone else. Mr. Genius himself even says it.

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.”

– Albert Einstein

The takeaway: Don’t concern yourself with your potential, whether you think it’s high or low. Potential doesn’t matter. If anything, it tends to distract us from doing the daily actions that can improve our lives. Focus on showing up and doing your best, and you’ll see your potential become reality, and reality is not worthless.

Whether you go with one of my strategies or something else, I strongly suggest that you track yourself. I use a giant desk calendar (here are some other options) to mark the days when I show up, and I try to keep the streak alive. If I mess up—and I do—I start a new streak ASAP and it’s still compelling.

For something so cheap and easy to set up, the personal returns from tracking behaviors can be huge. If you don’t track it, you can’t be sure that you’re showing up consistently. If you do track it, you will prove to yourself and everyone else that you’re showing up. In my experience, showing up is way more than half the battle. It’s like… 85% of the battle. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure my books—which show people the easiest strategies to show up consistently—would be flops instead of international bestsellers changing lives in multiple languages!

(Photo by Matt)

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