There is a famous story about a block of marble back in the 1400s. For over 40 years the block of marble was deemed flawed, useless and had been cast aside. Many sculptors looked at it but none believed it to be useful for sculpture until in 1501 a 26-year-old young man saw something very different. He alone saw the potential inherent in this block of marble.

Inside what others saw as a formless mass of stone, the young sculptor saw the heroic beauty, grace and wonder of a man who would one day become known to the world as David. Michelangelo could see David inside, he just had to release (his potential) by chipping away at the marble that had trapped him inside.

This article is about potential; what it is and why so few people truly achieve it. Let’s begin by defining what potential actually is. Here are just a few definitions:

- possible but not yet actual
- capable of being or becoming but not yet in existence
- latent but unrealized ability or capacity
- unrealised excellence or ability that may or may not be developed

Reaching one’s potential, being the best that you can be, is surely the key objective of life. Abraham Maslow referred to it as the need for self actualization; the highest level on his hierarchy of need model. Like the late Dr Ben Herbster, I believe that, “The greatest waste in the world is the difference between what we are and what we are capable of.” Mahatma Gandhi echoed this when he claimed that the difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world's problem.

Dale Carnegie also put it well when he said, “We all have possibilities we don't know about. We can do things we don't even dream we can do.”

So, where does the failure to fulfil our potential actually begin? As children we begin our lives with an incredible gift: the gift of a limitless mindset that is open to our potential. We truly believe that we can do, be, or have anything.

However, as we ‘grow up’ and become adults, we begin to let other people and circumstances begin to impose their limits on our thinking and all too often we begin to develop a more negative mindset; one that stifles our growth and prevents us from reaching our full potential as we cease to dare to dream about what is possible.

We also begin to settle for what is easy and comfortable; physically comfortable, mentally comfortable and socially comfortable. We stop wanting to do more, achieve more and become more than we are so we take the easy path and sit, too often absorbed by reality TV or surf the net rather than challenge ourselves to grow.

As Marshall Goldsmith writes in his book, “Mojo”, we begin to live our lives vicariously through the lives of so-called celebrities. Who really does care what Paris Hilton did today? As writer Alan Coren noted, “Being a personality is not the same thing as having one.”

We all have vast potential. Most people are capable of achieving extraordinary things. Yet most people don't. They sit in front of the telly and treat life as if it will go on forever but it won’t.

Another reason for failing to realise our potential is fear. We are afraid of failure for sure. We are afraid of making mistakes and looking foolish. Well, maybe we have got it wrong about getting it wrong and we just need to reframe our thinking about what it means to make a mistake

But perhaps a bigger fear is being afraid of what we are truly capable of. As Thomas Edison once said, “If we all did the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves” and maybe that is our deepest fear.

It is said we are not limited by our abilities or by our current circumstances as much as by our vision of what can be. A vision is not just a picture of what could be; it is an appeal to our better selves, a call to become something bigger. This is the scary part – that you will never rise above the image you have in your mind in any area of your life.

You will live up to your vision of yourself - literally. How we see ourselves is what we become. Our lives will only be as grand as our vision for it. Helen Keller once said that the most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight, but has no vision and that we can change our future by simply changing our vision for it.

Our potential is also limited by the degree to which we let the negativity of others shape our own beliefs and values. My mother, with the best of positive intent I’m sure, once told me not to expect too much out of life. In that way, she argued, I would not be disappointed when I didn’t achieve the things that I didn’t do because I didn’t expect to succeed.

The other side of that coin is to live up to other peoples’ expectations of you; your parents, family, teachers. How might you be living up to other people’s expectations; or living up to expectations that aren’t your own? We all do it.

Realising our potential is also a risk. Life is an ongoing process of choosing between playing it safe and taking a risk to step out of that comfort zone that keeps you safe but that prevents growth and development.

Finally, a barrier to fulfilling our potential is dependency, expecting someone else to do it for us and so failing to take personal responsibility. This is one of the hardest for people to grasp. They might think they are being responsible, but ultimately point to circumstances and other people for why things happen in their life.

So, how can we overcome these barriers? There are a few key things that we can do. Firstly, stop saying that you are fine. When someone asks you how you are tell the truth instead of trotting out the usual ‘fair to middling’ line. Stop being happy operating from a three or four out of ten.
Decide what you want your life to mean, its purpose or vision, and then commit to it.

Take responsibility for making it happen. It is often said, but no less true for that, that you are the product of your choices and you have a choice every day; to stay committed to achieving your potential or take the easy path and allow yourself to be discouraged by adversity and circumstances. Commitment is nothing more than attitude manifested into action, becoming a cause of events rather than a victim of them.

Finally, refuse to accept the limitations imposed on you by other people, however well meaning they may be or have been. Make your life just that; yours!

Tony Robbins once said that your past does equal your future. I totally agree. While it might be a guide, your past is not a predictor of your potential. You can choose to set your potential free now.

Anne Frank put it so well when she said that, "Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don't know how great you can be! How much you can love, what you can accomplish and what your true potential is!"

Author's Bio: 

Ian Henderson is a highly experienced trainer, consultant and speaker. In a 20 year career he has worked with thousands of people from a wide range of organisations in the UK, the USA, Europe and Africa. He is the director of training of Eagle Training Ltd, one of the UK's leading management, leadership and personal development training companies. For more information go to