The Myth of Limitless Potential

I have to start this blog by admitting that I do not know what potential is.  So perhaps my title is unfair as a claim.  Since I do not know yet what I am going to write I am going to let this blog emerge and fulfill whatever potential it has!  My own experience of working on potential owes much to Tim Galwey’s work.  Tim Galwey coined a formula: Performance=Potential-Interference.  His point was that in order to realise potential we need to reduce interference.  Yet what do we mean by interference?  Tim Galwey’s view was that it was the doubts, fears, limiting beliefs that we hold that cause interference.  I would largely concur with this although I would add to it, from my experience of working with Chrissy, and include inaccurate assumptions or mind-pictures about ourselves and the world around us.  Tim Galwey observed that much of interference, or doubts, fears etc. come from a judging voice.  Tim Galwey called this self one, as opposed to self two.  Self one is the internal conscious voice which judges and criticises us and tries to take over our actions and complete them consciously.  Coming from a sporting background Tim Galwey was looking at this particularly in the context of sport, where when the conscious mind tries to take over doing something physical it simply gets in the way since it is completely incapable of calculating the complex variables involved in even simple actions.  It is the same in everyday aspects of life; when we are fearful of being judged, our mind chatter takes over and tries to consciously relate to people.  The result is a very wooden, or forced way of being.  I notice that generally when things are going well in any given interaction with someone, we do far less judging of ourselves and them and far more noticing.  When they are going badly we do a huge amount of judging.

So far, so good, however, I notice that this has led to a current vogue of believing that we have limitless potential if only we could get rid of this judging voice; that we can become whoever we want to be, if we can overcome our limiting beliefs and be more confident.  Advocates of NLP seem to be particularly susceptible to this belief.  Whilst I have worked with some very wise advocates of NLP, it nevertheless seem to be a popular myth for proponents of NLP who seek to be free of limitations or weaknesses in anyway.  Recently friends of mine were advocating (somewhat humorously) that I listen to the wisdom of Arnold Schwarzenegger on the internet and he is perhaps not untypical in that one of his mantras was not to listen to others and believe in your ability to achieve the impossible.  The celebrity lifestyle that captures many of our global projections is infested with this notion that, if only you can overcome your limiting beliefs, you too can become whatever you want to be.

One of the values of astrology is that it gives us an objective framework for understanding our personalities and therefore our limitations.  Recently, I was on the Eurostar going to Paris and I was held up 5 mins outside Paris.  Given that I had left at four-thirty in the morning to try and get to Paris as early as possible to see a client this was frustrating since I was already not going to manage a full session.  I consulted the astrology programme on my phone and was amazed to find that the ascendant was exactly between the Neptune-Chiron conjunction.  The message that came over the tannoy was that the train in front had “hurt” something on the line and they were now investigating.  This could not have been more clearly described by Neptune and Chiron rising especially since over the coming minutes there were confused announcements about what was happening and how long the wait would be.  Neptune-Chiron was also square Jupiter in Gemini – ruling travel to foreign countries but also information about foreign journeys on the train network.  The Neptune-Chiron was square my Mercury in Sagittarius ruling travel and foreign countries and also the confused emails I was sending to my client having to correct earlier incorrect ones based on the confused messages from the train staff.  At the same time Mars in Aquarius was square Saturn in Scorpio hence delays due to having “hit” something.  As it turned out, it had been a suicide – sadly apt for Saturn in Scorpio trine Chiron and also the Neptune-Chiron rising.  The Saturn-Mars square reflected what turned out to be a very long delay of over two and a half hours.  There were further aspects which linked to my own chart, but the thing that struck me most was how perfectly everything fitted the chart and the relationship to my own chart.  It was a moment of awe at the sheer accuracy of Astrology.  What I realised was that the problems we have being able to see clearly what a chart is showing or to divine it’s meaning are not down to the inadequacies of Astrology but rather to our own limitations in understanding.  Most astrologers experience that moment when it is like the veil is drawn back and we see everything the chart is saying with a sense of wonder and awe at how accurate and precise it is.  I have experienced a similar phenomenon with the I-Ching where the hexagrams and lines are so absolutely apposite that it is quite stunning.  Indeed, I find as I study it more and learn from others, it becomes clearer and clearer.  I even have occasions when I am talking to someone about a line or hexagram and they throw that line or hexagram.  I also keep a diary of what I throw in the I-Ching and on occasion look back on what I have thrown.  Each time I have done this, it has made me aware of the fact that whilst I was unclear what the I-Ching was saying at the time, with hindsight it could not have been clearer or plainer.  These events make me realise that this accuracy exists all the time but is limited by my own inability to see clearly.

If this is true and tools like Astrology and the I-Ching can reflect, down to pinpoint accuracy, what is going on, then that suggests that our lives are not limitless in potential, as the the I-Ching itself says:

Unlimited possibilities are not suited to man; if they existed, his life 
would only dissolve in the boundless. To become strong, a man's life needs 
the limitations ordained by duty and voluntarily accepted. The individual 
attains significance as a free spirit only by surrounding himself with these 
limitations and by determining for himself what his duty is.

Charlie is a twenty-four year old who is autistic.  He came to my wife five years ago to work with horses.  Since then Charlie has, with help, bought his own horse, Spirit, and started to do his own demonstrations and talks, including talking to the Education sub-committee about autism.  He has also written his own book which he is looking to publish.  Recently Charlie was asked by his great hero Monty Roberts, the Horse Whisperer, to talk at a demonstration with Monty.  Charlie was ecstatic and when it came to the show he took over, which went down well with everyone.  Monty and his main representative in the UK, Kelly Marks, suggested Charlie could work further with them.  Charlie is also an ardent facebooker with over a thousand friends.  Everything on the surface seems great, people on facebook continually encourage Charlie with his plans and ideas, telling him to have confidence in himself, not to listen to others who doubt him because of his autism and take his side unstintingly in all his problems or difficulties.  The difficulty with all of this, is the impact on Charlie has been to spin him into a big black hole.  Carried away with his dreams and plans he became agitated and angry with the limitations of his current situation and very disturbed indeed.  He wanted to throw away all that he had actually achieved and was feeding himself on a diet of imagined future fame (working with his hero Monty) and prosperity which did not match the reality of his situation or capability.  I have noticed a similar, paradoxical element in coaching others and my own development.  It does not seem to be that we develop our potential by bursting through limitations but rather by accepting and coming to terms with the reality of who we are and the limitations of our nature and situation.  For Charlie, understanding his own Icarus like nature, his own tendency to extreme anger and frustration and accepting the reality of his own nature and autism seem to be more productive in terms of his development than being told that he can break through or break away from this.  I think that are our limitations in terms of context and personality are perhaps the key to developing our potential rather than the obstacle.

I have always considered the Icarus myth to be concerned with fulfilling our potential.  The flight from being locked up in a tower – at first we are blind and have little knowledge or ourselves or the world around us, the flight away from the tower symbolises our journey towards knowledge and wisdom and fulfilling this potential – we want to fly, to grow, to expand.  Too much focus on the Sun (the vision of our own potential and all we want to and think we can become) derails our journey and causes an uncomfortable collision with the reality of the ground (or sea) below.  On the other hand, not to aspire or to have some vision of becoming more than we are, means there is no movement and we cannot fly, we are stuck in the current or past, unwilling to move beyond our present position.  Whilst the myth focuses on Icarus, perhaps the more interesting character is Daedalus whose instruction to Icarus is not to fly too close to the sea, lest the foam from the waves should wet the feathers and drag him down nor too high lest the heat of the sun melt the wax binding his feathers.  We can see that too negative a view of ourselves holds the possibility of drowning in our fears and negative emotions, however, too glorious a view of potential and too much praise holds the danger of melting the solidity of that groundedness in reality which holds us together.

The I-Ching talks about how to develop our potential in Gradual Progress, it says:

A tree on a mountain develops slowly according to the law of its being and consequently stands 
firmly rooted. This gives the idea of a development that proceeds gradually, 
step by step. The attributes of the trigrams also point to this: within is 
tranquillity, which guards against precipitate actions, and without is 
penetration, which makes development and progress possible.....
  Within the personality too, development must follow the same course if 
lasting results are to be achieved. Gentleness that is adaptable, but at the same 
time penetrating, is the outer form that should proceed from inner calm.
  The very gradualness of the development makes it necessary to have 
perseverance, for perseverance alone prevents slow progress from dwindling 
to nothing.


	On the mountain, a tree:
	The image of DEVELOPMENT.
	Thus the superior man abides in dignity and virtue,
	In order to improve the mores.

The tree on the mountain is visible from afar, and its development 
influences the landscape of the entire region. It does not shoot up like a 
swamp plant; its growth proceeds gradually. Thus also the work of 
influencing people can be only gradual. No sudden influence or awakening 
is of lasting effect. Progress must be quite gradual, and in order to obtain such 
progress in public opinion and in the mores of the people, it is necessary for 
the personality to acquire influence and weight. This comes about through 
careful and constant work on one's own moral development.

To develop, it is a question of self-knowledge rather than just aspiration; the more we know ourselves the more our development is in accordance with our own nature and successfully rooted in our own being. This requires that we know ourselves, including the limitations of our own nature and the nature of our environment.  Like most wisdom, I have found it bafflingly paradoxical; that inquiring more deeply into our own nature gives us insight into the nature of others and our environment which allow us to see possibilities and opportunities to grow and develop and achieve our potential.  This does not then mean that we should dismiss or deny limitations but rather embrace them as part of our journey into understanding our own and others natures and differentiating real limitations from self-constructed ones in order that we can accept these limitations without necessarily being dominated by them.  After all, like Icarus, seeking to fly beyond our limitations or become limitless is really to be dominated by a fear of them.






Filed under On Life the Universe and Everything

2 responses to “The Myth of Limitless Potential

  1. Dick

    Mmmmm……food for thought. And having not read your blog for a while I read this at the very moment I needed to read it, I guess that’s more a comment on your words on the laws of probability.
    It feels to me that your staring point of what potential is may be central. And using your equation it also asks what is performance. My experience is that it is more common that these are seen (and measured) as outwards manifestations – my potential, and performance, is measured as an external change in the world (I achieve). In that sense then maybe potential isn’t limitless, or at least as you say it would be wise not to attempt more than we are capable of (see even that language is wrong, self limiting – better phrased as attempting more than I think I’m capable of while not being afraid of (attached to) not succeeding). I wonder if your view would be the same if it was more considered an inner manifestation. I often think when I’ve hit a new level in myself, or made a new stretch, surely I don’t have to aim higher again, can’t I just stay at this level…for a while? And then I know I can’t I take a deep breath and go on to attempt the next level. And fail, maybe once, twice, do I have the courage for a third try? If I’m really brave I might ask for help! In this sense ones inner potential is maybe limitless, and your equation works well because inner interference is real. Whether really inner or an outer interference triggering an inner one (even if I want to believe it’s an outer one).

    PS There’s certainly more potential in black text on a white background – good change!

  2. Ruth

    Nick – you are awesome…and as you know, I am a reluctant follower but the story of Charile is very powerful. You seem to me of course as usual correct – self knowledge is crucial…talk soon, Ruth xx

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