“Reboot: Start Up Your Life Again” is my guest blog series featuring guest bloggers and interviewees who are not afraid to Re-Evaluate; redraw their inner boundaries; and find magic in their life all over again.

Our first guest entry features wise friend and work colleague, 
Alvin Shih, kicking off the idea of rebooting our lives by taking a 
fresh look at "Potential versus Actual."

Potential Versus Actual

Elizabeth Shieldkret once said:

“I used to worry that I wasn’t living up to my potential.
Now I worry that I *am*…”


This saying followed me around like a gray cloud.  As the years went on and I got further into “midlife”, the cloud got darker, threatening to spew lightning bolts.

“Not living up to my potential?”
– Could I be providing a better life for my family?
– Am I wasting a gift bestowed upon me by God?

“Living up to my potential?”
– Is this all I’ve *got*?
– Is it all downhill from here?!?
– Should I wish for a “Logan’s Run” scenario where I don’t have to worry about *becoming* “middle aged”?!?

It’s a no-win proposition!



I would like to save you some of the angst associated with midlife crisis!  Instead of trying to assess your “potential”, I’d like to reframe personal development in terms of (what I call), “actuals”.

To clarify the concept of “actuals”, I’ll talk about “agency” and how children instinctively try to expand it.  Then I will discuss two forces which extinguish this process: “The Fundamental Misunderstanding of Humanity” and “The Disapproving Voice”.

  • What is agency?

Agency, simply put, is the capacity to exert power–to affect something in the world.

It is a true marvel to behold an infant testing the limits of what their brains can affect in the world through a body they’ve no experience using.

I can still see in my mind’s eye each of my daughters going through a phase of looking at their fingers as they wiggled them as though studying them like a scientist.

After wiggling comes grasping.  After grasping comes dumping water from the high chair.  Then comes repeats of the experiments to see if the outcomes are the same after repeated trials!  Once they are satisfied that they have a statistically valid result, experiments move to oatmeal.  (Sigh.)

Some even try going down the slide face first!  And soon discovering a face full of sand is no fun!

A child also develops communication skills to see how she can influence others to do their bidding.  As teens, they do all sorts of crazy things to push your buttons!

They test the limits of their power–seeing if they can achieve absolute power and be corrupted absolutely.  They grab, they hit, they yell.

Once they come up against the laws of physics, or other individuals asserting their agency, they find their limits in some areas and then move on to probe in others.

Nevertheless, we witness seemingly exponential development!  They start out small and helpless–nothing more than eating/ sleeping/ pooping machines!  But in a few years that seem to pass in no time at all, we witness quantum leaps to walking, running, dancing. Singing, painting, building, and other talents unique to the child blossom before our very eyes!

But by middle age, somehow, it all seems to stop.

  • The Fundamental Misunderstanding of Humanity

Two forces work against seeking out new experiences and capabilities.

The first force is “The Fundamental Misunderstanding of Humanity” articulated by Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen.  He said, “the fundamental misunderstanding of humanity [is] believing that we can achieve all of our desires, without limitation.”

The key words here are “desires” and “limitations”.  We can make a choice.  We can work to overcome our limitations or modify our desires.

Some take a Buddhist approach and try to curtail their desires.

But others hate to admit “weakness” and prefer to challenge their limitations.  (Think of all the self-help courses and infomercials out there!)  Some can spend invest precious months or years fighting against self-inflicted shame when they could have spent the time discovering their other *gifts*.

One might wonder why the billionaire founder of a noodle empire would be  so philosophical.  It turns out he had several seemingly-successful businesses that failed for one reason or another.

Neighbours pitied his wife for being married to a man who spent months on end in a shack in his backyard trying to come up with an instant noodle recipe.

Ultimately, Ando “came to understand that all of my failure, all of my shame, was like muscle added to my body.”  In other words, his failures steered him towards discovering his strengths that allowed him to make his mark in the world.

  • The Disapproving Voice

Another force against maximizing agency is, “The Disapproving Voice”.  Andy Raskin [NPR commentator and author of The Ramen King and I] experienced a feeling in his gut that told him to give up on things before he got too deeply involved: relationships, careers, and so on.  He describes it as an internalization of various disapproving things his father said during his youth.

He learned that “The Disapproving Voice” is powerful when left unchecked in the dark recesses in one’s mind.  But when he turned those subconscious whispers into clearly articulated words, he could examine the words and what lay behind them.  Like most dreams, the force of them evaporated under the harsh light of logic.

He could then stride unimpeded into his future…
He could once again start testing, and reaping the benefits of, his “agency envelope”.

  • Actuals

“Potential” is a vague term.  Putting oneself out there and testing capabilities in new arenas amounts to “experiments” in the scientific sense.  I call the outcomes of these experiments, “actuals”.  These actuals map out your “agency envelope” and can provide data on one’s skills in isolation, as well as ideas on how to combine these skills in uncharted ways.  In many cases combination is greater than the sum of its parts.

  • Summary

I began with angst about potential.
I described how babies achieve their awesome development through  scientifically testing of their agency.
And then I showed how “The Fundamental Misunderstanding of Humanity” tells us to accept our weaknesses that have been proven out and to move on to find our true strengths.
Finally, I talked about “The Disapproving Voice” who holds us back and prevents us from finding the true border between capability and limitation.

  • In The End

I used to worry that I wasn’t living up to my potential.day-sky-md
Then I worried that I *was*.
Now I see that potential is an unhelpful concept altogether.

Seek to accumulate “actuals” — results of experiments — to map out the ever-expanding boundaries of your *agency*.

— ACS (Alvin C. Shih)