Getting Lost in Potential
Deep Fix №17
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Until I was 28, I chased a life that was not my own. I was drunk on a cocktail of ambition, achievement, and accomplishment. The firewater could not quench my thirst. No matter how much I drank, I never even tasted it.
The cocktail was my “potential.” The possibility that I had great things to birth into the world. My towering contributions that would provide me with financial freedom and solve world hunger. This white-boy delusion has been aptly described as a Silicon Valley savior complex. But the phenomenon extends beyond the Bay Area: the yearning to “live up to potential” is pervasive to the human condition(ing), something relatable to anyone who did not grow up in a commune, village, or First Nations community.
And as far as I can tell, everyone has some potential dwelling inside them that demands to be explored. The potential can manifest in many different forms, like the desire to create art and music, build a company, study science, and to birth new life into the world as a parent.
When this potential is wholly ignored, it eats at the soul, wearing people down into prisons of self-doubt.
The problem, however: most people—like my former self—cannot differentiate their dormant potential from societal conditioning.
Stephen Jenkinson, who has served as a death doula for over 1,500 dying humans, describes potential “as a disease of Western culture.” He explains that the “illusion of potential” prevents us from dying well and living in the truth of the present moment.
How inaccurate is it to say that a ten-year-old dying of cancer has not lived a “full life”? How sad is it that on death’s doorsteps, a person will fight and writhe and scream and demand to be sedated—denying the Deity of Death, literally the only Truth we have in this life—because they have not lived up to their potential?
Psychologists continue to grapple with this issue as well. Most people, I suspect, understand the nuts and bolts of the early twentieth century model of self-actualization: Once our physiological and safety needs are met, and once we are recognized and respected by others, we can reach the top of Abraham Maslow’s pyramid—becoming “one’s best self,” and living a life of creativity ... Self-actualizing our potential!
Alas, if only it were so simple. Turns out, in modern Western “First World” countries—where most get their basic needs met—suicide rates are substantially greater in areas of higher socio-economic strata than lower ones. Divorce rates, too. Instead of erupting with creativity and uplifting those beneath them, people in the West are bored, entitled, and despairing.
Today people are not self-actualizing. They are self-destructing.
It appears the self-actualization model further crumbles under the reality (and scrutiny) of income inequality, systemic structures of power, multi-generational timelines, and the twenty-first century personal meaning crisis—where people no longer know what or who to believe in.
Nonetheless, I do not believe the solution to our existential gripes is to forgo all notions of potential. That we should pass our days loafing and dallying. The concept of potential serves an important psychological function. And more specifically, the human ability to create short-term goals—that reflect our potential for abstraction and cooperation—provided a critical evolutionary adaptation for our species.
When we were hunter gatherers roaming the savannah, our primary goal was immediate and real: to adventure into the land and come back with food to eat and share with the clan. When this did not happen, people would be depressed, purposeless, and hungry.
Today our food can be delivered via a drone while we swipe right for potential mates sitting on our Poäng armchairs. The information ecology is so confusing and distracting, we often feel rudderless, like a ship lost at sea. Modern life rigs the deck against us. Personal goals can be as elusive as the broken “follow your passion” millennial ethos.
In response to the cries of a directionless generation, I do not find it helpful to utter some New Age mantras like, your purpose is whatever’s happening right in front of you! Or, you don’t have to be anything other than yourself!
While on a spiritual and metaphysical level, those statements are true, they’re not enough for most, and can feel like a kick of sand straight into the eyes. When I was a tech hustler and drug addict yearning to taste a deeper, truer potential, if someone told me to open my heart to the universe, I would have told them, kindly, to get fucked.
From my dances between intellectual atheism and unshakeable spirituality, I’ve come to understand that a better substitute for potential is becoming.
“You know, a seed has to totally destroy itself to become a flower. That’s a violent act, honey boy.” —Shia LaBeouf playing his abusive father in his 2019 autobiographical film Honey Boy
As nature so elegantly reminds us, the seed’s willingness to destroy itself is as natural as it is radical. The acorn does not obsess over its potential to become an Oak tree. The caterpillar does not require a vision board to become a butterfly. Becoming is potential in action, the living verb of transformation—and of self-annihilation.
Becoming is not what we think it is. It’s not an intellectual exercise, believing we can simply find a career path, climb its ladder, and become whatever that thing is supposed to be at the top. Becoming is not what capitalism wants it to be. It’s also not, necessarily, wailing against our economic system, whining about Jeff Bezos, and deciding to move to a serene tropical location free from Prime deliveries.
Carl Jung, the legendary psychologist, had some extraordinary ideas around potential. He believed the experience of the Self—the highest version of what a human can become—is always a defeat to the Ego. Jung also believed that our future Selves beckon to us in the present moment, gripping our attention with glimpses of intuition or numinous insight.
My experience with recovery has proven this to be true. I did not know what I was supposed to become until I was willing to lose a part of myself. What my Ego thought was a grand catastrophe ended up being my most potent medicine. As it is often the case.
I’ve learned that potential—and the full flowering of who we are meant to be—is dependent on a willingness to make sacrifices. To let things go. To die and be reborn in the service of a greater good.
🧙♂️ Dialogue. We are dialoguing in two weeks about: Psychedelics and altered states of consciousness (such as spirituality, breathwork, and religious experiences). How have you personally benefited from your own experiences, or observed changes within others? Click here to register.
🫀Discord. I’m keeping the Deep Fix Discord server open for another week for folks who want to introduce themselves. Click here to join our digital campfire.
📕 Book Club. We’ll be meeting on October 10th to discuss The More Beautiful World Our Heart’s Know Is Possible by Charles Eisenstein. Plenty of time if you’d like to join for the read.
🙋♀️Cruel Summer Book Club. Jillian Anthony writes a fantastic newsletter ripe with raw personal essays about change and living well. My all-time favorite is Single Woman, a Cheryl Strayed-esque tale of Jillian’s road tripping and solo backpacking adventures. And her most recent “compendium” edition introduced me to the sobriety meme account I didn't know I needed. Subscribe here.
☠️ Death and Dying Wise. Stephen Jenkison believes we live in a “death-phobic” culture that distracts and deludes us from the profundity of death. He speaks of the importance of elders, ancestors, and how “dying well” (rather than electing to be sedated or euthanized) can inspire an entire family for generations. Thanks Jon, a community member and friend, for telling me I had to watch this challenging and important lecture.
🍯 Honey Boy. This film moved me. Exceptional performances from Shia LaBeouf and Lucas Hedges. The autobiographical feature sheds light on the trauma that perhaps led to LeBeouf’s recent (inexcusable) abuse towards his former girlfriend, FKA Twigs, who also stars in the movie. The lines between the art and the artist are fully blurred here.
Thanks for reading Deep Fix. I’d love to know what you think about today’s essay on potential. It’s a topic that could fill many books …
Also, no newsletter next week. I’m blocking off time to make it through the final stretches of my memoir proposal, which is like a “pitch deck for a book” used to land publishing deals (!)
Until next time …
P.S… if you enjoyed this week’s missive, could you let me know by smashing the heart button below? 🖤