Great Expectations? Why Striving To ‘Achieve Our Potential’ May Not Make Us Happier

When it comes to career, we’re told we should love what we do, and need to achieve our potential. But what if we could just be happy with where we’re at and let ‘achieving your potential’ slide? Sarah Lang investigates and asks, should we let go of these Great Expectations and just be happy?

A friend of mine Kirsty*, from Wellington, often berates herself when it comes to her job and career. “I feel like I’m not ‘achieving my potential’,” she says. Although she has a specialised position in the civil service, generally enjoys her job, and is well regarded by her colleagues, boss and others she interacts with, Kirsty (39) reprimands herself for not starting her current career earlier (she switched fields aged 29), and, since then, for not climbing the ladder quickly enough.

Kirsty also believes she has untapped potential that could have been harnessed in a different type of career if only she’d known which one to choose.

Though I’m not great at taking advice myself, I try to give her some. It’s usually along the lines of ‘firstly, you’re paying the bills; secondly, you like your job; thirdly, you’re making a difference in your sector; and lastly, this idea of unrealised potential is not serving you well; it’s just making you feel bad about yourself’. I also tell her that people contemplating their ‘if-only,’ idealised alternative careers often don’t contemplate alternative-career scenarios in which they’re actually worse off.

Kirsty definitely isn’t alone. Many of us have grown up being taught – and internalising – the idea that we should ‘chase our dreams’, ‘pursue our passions’ and ‘achieving your potential’ as the ultimate goals. ‘Love What You Do’ has become a mantra, as has ‘Hustle Culture’ – the idea that your career is all consuming, or if it’s not it’s your side hustle, that you’ve somehow found the time to start. And of course, we’ve all heard some version of “you have to be passionate about your job”.

When passion is a problem and achieving your potential is tough

You could argue that these mantras are modern Western inventions. Being passionate about your job hasn’t been a ‘thing’ for most of human existence. Hunter-gatherers presumably weren’t deeply passionate about their foraging and hunting (other than to stay alive). And it’s not that many decades since the expectation was that ‘company men’ would always work for the same employer before a send-off with a long-service certificate and sausage rolls.

It’s only been half a century or so since women – in some countries and socio-economic brackets – have had the opportunity to pursue a job they’re passionate about – and, hell yes, it was about time.  

Striving to achieve your potential can absolutely be positive. Trying to achieve goals, stepping outside your comfort zone, or changing your job (if you want to) are all fantastic things for self-growth.  But sometimes, as with Kirsty, feeling you absolutely must ‘achieve your potential’ is unhelpful. What if it always keeps you stuck in a mental place of feeling your job isn’t ‘good enough’ or even feeling that you yourself aren’t ‘good enough’? Might the mantra that you must ‘achieve your potential’ actually make you less happy, because there’s always a gap between reality and ‘what could be’?

And who says we have to squeeze every drop out of our potential? ‘Potential’ is an amorphous term that, arguably, has no upper limit, so, in a way, we’ll always fall short – and then we get to burnout.

Also, there’s so much in our working lives that we can’t control – for instance, luck in landing a particular job at the right time, and having a supportive boss. Those are external factors. But somehow if you’re not ‘achieving your potential’, then it’s generally seen as an internalised problem: for instance, you procrastinate, lack focus or lack ambition.

Grace, a lawyer from Wellington, has decided to be happy with where she’s at. “I’m a relatively ambitious person, but I went through a process of accepting that I didn’t want to work at the best law firm, do the most challenging work, get a Masters, be the fanciest lawyer. I felt that because I probably could achieve my potential if I worked harder, I should. I do still think that sometimes, but not as much. I’m much more focused on trying to have the career I want while also [enjoying] the rest of my life.”

Wellington IT manager Emma* has some thoughts. “This idea that ‘we need to achieve our potential’ often comes from the education system, after so many years of school reports and assessments, and whatever expectations [placed] upon us by family or institutions about the level of qualification we’d achieve.” When she left university with “just” a Bachelor of Arts, she felt judged.

Claire Jolly is a primary-school teacher from Wellington. “I love being in the classroom and I’m proud of my interactions with the kids.” However, she’s seen her peers go into principal and deputy-principal roles. “Surely I should be management now? I’ve really struggled with my lack of ambition. I feel like, to achieve my potential, I should have done something different to ensure career progression, or studied more.” Why should Claire, who is doing important work she loves, feel like she’s lacking?

Stop the hustle and help yourself

Dr Miya Tokumitsu, who wrote the 2016 book Do What You Love and Other Lies About Success and Happiness, has studied and written about the cultural values that work holds in the 21st century.

“There’s a lot of mythology and rhetoric about what motivates people to do work, and a lot of that is rooted in the rhetoric of ‘you should love what you do’, or that you’re ‘pursuing a passion’,” Tokumitsu said during an interview on Radio New Zealand. In fact, she said there’s a kind of “moral obligation” to love what you do – and a sense of being judged by others if you don’t.

“This move to the word ‘passion’ regarding your work is really remarkable – a ‘passion’ is something that can be incredibly private or intimate, yet it’s a common question in job interviews. It’s the idea that your ‘passion’ for your work is truly who you are.”

Tokumitsu mentions Steve Jobs’ speech to graduating students of Stanford University. “He said something remarkable: that ‘the only way to do great work is to love what you do’. I take exception to that. I think you can do great work without being in some sort of thrall to it.”

The article ‘Finding the Right Career’, written for HelpGuide (an independent non-profit that runs a leading mental-health website), has some advice. “Ultimately, when it comes to finding satisfaction at work, you have two choices. 1: You can choose or change careers to something that you love and are passionate about. 2: You can find purpose and joy in a job you don’t love.”

Linda* from Dunedin doesn’t love, but enjoys, her job at a library. “But I always feel like I ‘should be doing more’ career-wise. I sometimes can’t figure out if I actually want to do more, or if I just feel like I ‘should’ want to do more, or whether I’m looking at my work [in a negative way] as ‘just’ writing or ‘just’ being a library assistant. There isn’t much encouragement in our society for being content with what you do.”

Here’s a radical proposition. Maybe, if we like our jobs, we can stop putting pressure on ourselves to ‘achieve our potential’ or meet too many great expectations – and, hopefully, be happier about where we’re at.  

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