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One of the most often mis-understood aspects of self-development is the concept of potential. We are often told that we can achieve our full potential, however, what does this really mean? When the focus is building self-esteem and motivating individuals to do better, there is often the implication that potential is a destination or an end-point that can be reached, and if we just strive for "it", we will reach "it". But, what is "it"?

The Meaning of "It"

The definition that I particularly like states that potential is "the inherent ability or capacity for growth, development, or coming into being" ( What is particularly appropriate about this definition is that "it" is not a destination. "It" is a capacity or ability that we all have within us that can be brought to bear to improve ourselves and, by extension, our lives. Potential is one aspect of a process that enables us to grow and develop. If we think of potential as a destination, we limit our thinking and our actions to that which we believe we are capable or to the state of being that we have currently achieved. While we may lead ourselves to believe that we have "achieved" our potential (i.e. reached our destination), in reality, we have simply settled on a level of potential that we find comfortable, at least initially. Unfortunately, without the challenge of more to come, the comfort goes away and we become disappointed. After having worked so hard to get somewhere, we find that that somewhere is not where we want to be. If we believe that we have "achieved" our potential, we may also begin to believe that there is no further development possible and, as a result, our disappointment turns into unhappiness. This unhappiness then begins to drive our lives such that we become focused on eliminating the unhappiness rather than on being happy. This is a subtle difference, but one that can have a profound impact on our view of ourselves and our lives. If we rightly believe that our potential is simply part of the ongoing process that is our life and that what we have achieved is not the end but the beginning of more things to come, we can avoid the negativity of disappointment and unhappiness and create, for ourselves, an environment in which we can continue to grow and prosper.

Continuous Improvement

Fundamental to potential is the human capacity to learn, to take on new experiences and to use those experiences to influence our thinking, our feelings and our behaviours. This means that our potential is limitless as it continues to grow throughout our lives. It also means that the greater and more varied our experiences, the greater is our ability to grow and develop. As we go through our daily routines, it is important to take the attitude that each moment is an opportunity to learn something new in order to increase our potential for further growth. Each new lesson builds on the previous in a limitless cycle of lesson-potential-development. We need to believe that our future lies not in our current abilities, skills and experiences but in our capacity to learn, grow and develop. It is this potential for continuous improvement that leads to contentment and optimism in our lives.

Copyright © 2005 by Peter Cartmill, All rights reserved.

Peter Cartmill is a Personal and Career Coach and the founder of To learn more about how Coaching can benefit you, visit

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