Lost Potential

January 4, 2014

Do you know what the scariest thing is? To not know your place in this world, to not know why you’re here. That’s just an awful feeling.

Sometimes I feel particularly despondent hearing stories of success. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook in college. Steve Jobs had his own company before he was thirty. Kerouac belted out his masterpiece On The Road while still young and vibrant. These accomplishments in and of themselves do not upset me, any more than Facebook wedding and birth announcements. What gets to me is knowing just how fortunate these regular human beings were to realize their purpose while there was still time and energy to put it to good use. If Zuckerberg had been too poor to attend Harvard or even afford a computer, would he have been given another opportunity to fulfill his potential? Facebook, Apple, and On The Road weren’t mere flashes of inspiration, but creations made possible by ability, the awareness of that ability, opportunity, and the drive to make it happen.

As a personal opinion, I’ve never met anyone who has met these requirements, nor do I believe the majority of the six billion of us ever will. I have friends who are clearly ambitious and successful, but not one person I have ever met made me think “he/she has found his/her passion, and pursuing it with all available strength.” Maybe I missed something. Maybe some people are completely in love with the idea of selling health products or teaching English in Asia for the rest of their lives.

But I’m not. I’ve used what time I’ve had on this planet to eliminate passions (not professions) from the infinite index in my mind, but have yet to discover my purpose, what I’m not only best at doing but wanting to do for all the years to come. I excel at math, but have no desire to write equations or formulate new theorems. I can stand at the head of a classroom and speak with ease about a variety of subjects, but even teaching for years still leaves me with a lingering sadness.

It’s not as though I haven’t had some clues pushing me in certain directions. Obviously, I love to travel, but this is mere enrichment, not creation; most of my travels have done nothing but expand my knowledge and boost my ego, and I fail to see how anyone besides me has benefitted from them.

When I was about fifteen my parents took me to a psychologist for one of those trendy aptitude tests. In addition to discovering I was exceptionally gifted at spatial relations, he recommended I’d be most suited to a career as a file clerk or research assistant… at fifteen. Simply because I was more introverted at that time. Even without knowing myself very well, I couldn’t help but angrily dismiss his findings. He may have asked me hundreds of questions, but not one of them was “what do you want?”

I’ve been in the zone only a few times in thirty years. Instinct combined with ability and drive came without effort. My first piece for Vagabondish about the immaturity of long-term travelers was written in one sitting over several hours. No pauses, bathroom breaks, or even looking out the window. I didn’t know the sun had set until I finished. Running also provided me with an outlet, but I think the first time I ever felt in the zone while on the move was after getting the hang of barefoot running and sprinting up and down a grassy field.

As much as I wish finding my purpose could be as simply as looking at this evidence and postulating – writing, running… write about running – the fact remains even travel writing about running cultures doesn’t leave me feeling satisfied. I may simply be missing one or more components of a successful equation, i.e. running + writing + ? = passion, but knowing this is about as helpful as the underpants gnomes’ formula:

Collect underpants + ? = profit

What bothers me the most is friends, family, and even strangers pitching me ideas as though I hadn’t considered them a billion times over. Maybe I’m too cynical or not aware enough to find the solution myself, but I’m confident (or arrogant) enough to say my element lies in something no one has ever done or even conceived of. That line of thinking is what kills me, the idea that I know I have a purpose but maybe it’s inaccessible to me. Maybe I was born in the wrong time, in the wrong place, without access to the right technology or people necessary for me to bloom. It’s not as though I’m alone in this: there could be a boy capable of producing the finest music on Earth stuck in a North Korean prison camp. Maybe the woman most suited to create a quantum computer was born in the Dark Ages.

Look in front of you. How far is it to the nearest wall? Could you guess? Could you believe that there exists or has existed someone in this world who could tell you how far aware things are to ridiculous accuracy just by looking? Of course you could. Just as there have been people to whom creating comes as naturally as breathing. I want to be one of them.

I’m not really one to be afraid, but the most frightening thing I can imagine is lost potential. Forgive my nerdy references, but I must use a scene in a DC Comics movie as the ultimate example of this. My hypothetical situations about being out of place, out of time, truly scare me, but seeing a powerful character like Superman experience something so similar sends chills down my spine. We all know the story: alien parents send space baby to escape exploding planet, baby finds his way to loving nurturing parents, baby becomes really strong superhero.

What if just one element were changed, and Superman had landed somewhere far away from people willing to adopt and care for him? What if he were caged when he was most vulnerable, denied the opportunity to develop his powers and help others?

Obviously, what’s left of the man in that clip always had the potential to become Superman. Just as everyone alive today has innate abilities, but only a select few have not only the awareness, but also the means, opportunity, and drive to make use of them.

When I’m alone and thinking of each passing year without realizing my potential, I think of that scene. Under different circumstances, I might have been Superman.

Fortunately, I still can be.

2 Responses to Lost Potential

  1. Earl on January 6, 2014 at 2:35 am

    I don’t think you’ve thought out this post as well as usual. If there is such a thing as Purpose then how could the Universe bungle in it’s delivery? If you’re “meant to do something” or destined or whatever…Then it will happen. The idea of Purpose is far too linear for something as complex as a single human life, let alone the Universe. Even though you say you were far more introverted then than you are now, would your old self be surprised or unsurprised by what you’ve become? What would HE say his purpose was?…Probably influenced his choice in college degree, for one.

    We’re more travelled but not necessarily wiser for our years. You create Purpose by giving meaning to what you do, it’s not a given. You’re looking for the divine lightning bolt that will strike you when you’re in the right groove to remove all doubts but it’s not going to come like that…I think. I’m still waiting for my lightning bolt, too. I’m in Hanoi and I catch myself planning my next two years after China, as if those plans ever pan out but when you’re untethered and capable of reaching anything you set your mind to, its scary being so unmoored, isn’t it?

  2. Turner on January 7, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    It is, that’s true. But I think the lightning bolt is the only way it happens. Granted, it can strike you early, late, or only through certain experiences. However, it has only struck a few of us, and may continue to do so for eons.

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