There are many things that can keep you small, preventing you from coming anywhere near your full potential. Some of them are the result of your environment, but most are the result of the decisions you make: show me your decisions, and I will show you your results.
The seven factors given here are personal to me, and it would not be difficult to list a dozen more. Your specific obstacles to growth may be different, but I am confident that removing and reversing these seven will open up new potential, allowing you to produce better results and achieve more.
Too Small of a Vision of Yourself
There was no model of success in the apartment complex where I spent my childhood. The people who lived in the surrounding apartments just wanted a job that paid enough that they could survive and take care of their families. There was no talk about going to college, and many kids my age dropped out of high school to start a job and a family. When you don’t have an example of what’s possible, you are left with only what surrounds you.
I tried desperately to drop out of high school, so I could make money, but my mother resisted my every attempt, forcing me to graduate. Fortunately, my Mother was an unlikely entrepreneur, and I adopted her work ethic and eventually her values. It would take me many years (and brain surgery) for me to start capturing a bigger vision of myself.
Too Little Effort
I attended a grade school called St. James the Less. Every two years, all the students were given a test to see how they were progressing against certain goals. I learned to read when I was four years old, so I always tested very high on these tests. But at St. James the Less, you received two grades, a letter grade (A-F), and an effort grade (1-4). My report card would always contain a lot of B4 and C4 grades, with an occasional F4.
One of the ways to stay small is to refuse to exert the effort necessary to produce a better result, including the effort required to grow and develop yourself—something schools don’t do well enough. Later, when I started playing music, I started to put forth the effort to improve myself by taking voice lessons and running every day. When you want something, the drive to improve shows up. But first you need a vision.
The Wrong Crowd
There are two kinds of people that go to Catholic schools: the good kids, and the kids who are so bad that they have been expelled or removed from public schools (their parents usually hope that Catholic discipline will help, but it rarely does). Without a vision, it’s easy to fall in with the wrong crowd, a group whose only standard for membership is that you agree to their low standards. Shared mediocrity made my friends and me feel good about ourselves, so we accepted each other without hesitation.
You have no doubt heard that you are going to become a composite of the five people you spend the most time with and the books you read. This is true when you’re 13 years old and desperate to belong, but it’s no less true for you today. Eventually, I raised my standards, starting by surrounding myself with people who had already raised theirs. You cannot grow and become who you are when your peer group pulls you down a level or two. But you can still love them while leaving them.
Recklessness and Bad Decisions
Many kids run away from home. Not many of them drive to Florida from Ohio in an El Camino at fourteen years old, which I guess makes me an overachiever. When you have no vision of yourself and your future, it’s easy to make bad and reckless decisions.
A chronicle of my bad decisions would require bleeding out hundreds of thousands of words, all leading to the same point: reckless behavior and bad decisions slam the brakes on your growth. When you free yourself from a small vision, change your peer group, and raise your standards, your growth will accelerate.
Substance abuse is both reckless and an incredibly bad decision, but when you are surrounded by people who routinely abuse drugs and alcohol, it’s easy to find yourself doing the same.
The first time I was offered alcohol was in Sister Mary Katherine’s eighth-grade history class. I was thirteen years old. My friend, Jimmy Petruzzi, lived across the street from a wine distributor. The distributor’s garage was always open, and there was always a case of wine inside. Jimmy would sneak across the street and steal the wine. We had no idea that the wine in the garage was only there because it was being returned.
When you aren’t harmed by alcohol, it’s easy to ignore the risks of more dangerous drugs. Substance abuse is like planting your feet in concrete; you aren’t going anywhere until you break free, even if you are fortunate enough not to get addicted.
Just Enough Money
Having just enough money will prevent you from growing. Part of the problem is a lack of vision, but the other part is your own comfort. When you have too little, what you desire is enough—not more than enough. When you can pay your bills and save a little money, that is enough. But it’s not your full potential. This is not to say that money is your goal, but when you endeavor to reach your full potential, the rewards are a byproduct.
Your capacity to grow and contribute more isn’t arrested by the fact that you can now comfortably pay your bills. The opposite is true: with the certainty you have created, you have a platform from which you launch yourself to a higher level.
No Examples to Model
The fastest and perhaps most reliable way to recognize and pursue your full potential is to model someone who has already created a path. Being deprived of a model deprives you of both the example and the mechanics of success.
When you find a model, one of the things you will notice is that they are no different from you. You may have different talents, but that difference won’t be enough to prevent you from following their path. What one human can do, others can do too. Positive models are more available to you than ever; all you have to do is look for them.
No matter your age, these factors prevent growth and the pursuit of your full potential. They say wisdom is making good decisions, and often identifying the good decisions comes from making bad ones first.
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