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Thinking Small: Overcoming The Curse of Potential

This short story will explain how small successes can keep you from taking risks that lead to big success.

Growing up in a garage sale household, world domination wasn’t a sought-after goal.

Not because it was impossible but because it was inconceivable. No one had ever done it. Our neighborhood bread laborers and employees are cogs in the machine.

We may have had imagination but not big goals because we simply didn’t know what was possible.

This isn’t an indictment of my parents’ or the New York public education, or the University I attended.

I didn’t learn to think small from a book, experience, or mentor…

It was potential.

Potential taught me to think small.

I don’t come from family money, but as a child, I was smart, athletic, tall, outgoing, and ambitious. I was given opportunities in high school, college, and the corporate world because of these attributes.

I had “Potential,” people would say.

And no doubt I did. Following each opportunity would always come small successes.

Each small success would raise the bar of potential success. I became addicted, no, dependent on potential. And then I became afraid. Afraid of what it meant to lose the small successes I had gained.

I began to think small.

Neither society, nor circumstance taught me to think small. I taught myself.

At a certain point, potential starts to become underachievement.

I was a good baseball player and was able to use my skills to pay for college partially. But I never truly applied myself to put in the effort and become great. Ultimately, I peaked well below my potential.

I’ve always been good at science and math. I originally attended university to become a mechanical engineer. But when the course got tough, and I needed to bear down and study hard, I gave up. I told myself I didn’t want to become an engineer and settled for the easiest path to graduation.

I’ve never not been hired for a job I’ve interviewed for. Managers like me, co-workers like me, and I fit in well with most corporate cultures. I work hard enough, I’m friendly enough, and I produce enough to be an adequate employee. I’ve held well-paying jobs at two highly respected international corporations in Washington, DC, and NYC.

But I never took proactive measures to move my career forward.

We think small so that we can fail small.

Thinking small allows us to convince ourselves that we’re doing everything we can to be the success we dream of without ever actually having to put in the work to become that success.

When success never comes, we can use our small failures as excuses for underachievement, and our friends and loved ones will listen and nod and believe us.

For so too long, I knew this about myself but took no action.

I painted over this character flaw with “Potential.” I had potential; that’s what people told me, so I’d say things like “if only” and “someday.”

Then I’d return home, disgusted with myself.

Potential is a narcotic.

We all have potential. To think that my potential is different from yours is naïve and ignorant and presumptuous and arrogant and fatal.

Fatal to the success our potential is supposed to predict.

If we shouldn’t think small, we should think big, right?

I struggle with putting the idea of “Thinking big” in a nice, neat package. How does one think big?

I honestly don’t have a definition for “Think big.”

However, I do know this: I don’t ever want to think small again.

I may not be able to give you an answer to “Think big,” but I can give you a solution to thinking small.

Do the work.

Push through the pain.

Embrace failure.

Don’t succumb to your own potential.

Believe in what you do, not what you can do.

If thinking small is the cardboard box that keeps your potential caged then thinking big is the box cutter you use to break out.

Thinking big is breaking free. It’s blasting loose. It’s not giving a shit about criticism or expectation or potential.

Do the work that needs to be done to get you where your potential was supposed to take you.

No excuses.

Do this, and thinking small won’t be an option.

For me, my box cutter has been writing.

The experience of creating, nurturing, and growing an audience of relationships.

Relationships I cherish.

Relationships I am accountable to.

Potential is an empty promise.

What matters is your determination to be the thing you want.

This is the way.


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