“There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living” – Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013.
Of all the inspiring Mandela quotes I’ve read since his death, this one moved me the most. Partly because it was spoken by a man who did everything possible to live the life he was capable of living and to encourage others to do the same. But also because I came across it just as I was pondering what it takes to live to our potential and what differentiates those who achieve what they are capable of achieving from those who struggle to do so or don’t even dream of trying.
And how do we know or measure what we’re capable of anyway? Do we take into account the cost to ourselves or to others of achieving this potential? Or do we gauge our potential by looking at what we can achieve without harming or abandoning ourselves or others in the process? Should we look at our potential as that which we are capable of doing while maintaining our peace of mind, being kind to ourselves and others and enjoying our lives?
Why so many questions and why now? Well, these questions came to me last week when I was helping out at a women’s rights conference hosted by Thomson Reuters Foundation. Over the course of two days, I was blown away by the level of passion, commitment and dedication to a cause shown by the long line of women’s rights activists, writers, photojournalists, documentary film makers, anti-slavery campaigners, lawyers, prosecutors and human trafficking survivors, amongst others, who took to the stage. Here were people who, to my eyes, were living to their potential, passionate about their work, inspired to change the status quo and who were actually making a difference, rather than merely thinking about it. They were game changers, if you’ll excuse the jargon.
And there I was, in the audience, doing work which I felt was a fair way beneath my potential. I was live blogging the sessions for a small audience and capturing the best quotes to use in video wrap-ups. I couldn’t help but wonder why I wasn’t on the stage, talking about an impact I had made or a cause I had championed to great effect. I have passion, I have a desire to make a difference and I have plenty of skills. Why wasn’t I putting them to better use? Why was I observing and documenting instead of doing? Why was I, to use Mandela’s words, settling for a life or for work that was less than what I was capable of? And what would it take for me to achieve my potential?
But I wasn’t just impressed by the speakers – I was also a little bemused by them. Because so many of these people were not only making a difference, using their gifts and talents to expose injustice or help those less fortunate than themselves, but they also had rings on their fingers – engagement and wedding rings – not to mention children back home.
OK, so this may seem a strange thing to notice but it’s not the first time I’ve felt utterly in awe of a person’s ability not only to do game changing work, but also to have managed to have found a partner, committed to a relationship and had a family. Why? Because each one of these things on its own seems such a momentous achievement to me – never mind both at the same time. How do they do it?
That said, I’ve learned enough over the past years to know it’s unwise to compare my insides to other people’s outsides. None of us know what goes on behind closed doors, what condition other people’s relationships are in, how much their dedication to their work has jeopardised or damaged their personal lives. It’s all too easy to assume a sharp suit, a successful cause, a number of published books or a sparkling ring equate to a contented professional and personal life.
But it’s not always the case.
Perhaps some of the passion, commitment, dedication and achievement I witnessed at that event came at a cost. Indeed, I have come across enough people who have been brave enough to share the reality of what lay behind a façade of achievement or success. And I’m prompted to ponder the impact Mandela’s indisputable political and social legacy had on his closest personal relationships, particularly his children.
Do some of those people who are out there making a difference harm those close to them – their partners and offspring – because they never see them or have time for them? Does living to one’s potential always come at a cost? And is the price worth paying in some cases? Or can you live to your potential, be true to yourself, avoid self-harm and avoid harming others? How do you strike that balance?
And how do we know how high to aim? We’re not all destined to be like Mandela – to change the course of history. Is it enough to love and be loved, to find contentment, to bring up children (if we have them)? Is it enough simply to enjoy our lives, if that’s something we struggle to do?
Besides those questions, though, I’m left wondering what makes a man like Mandela? What is it that makes the difference between those who go on to do great things and those who only dream of them or never dare to dream of them? Self-belief, self-discipline, persistence, motivation? Faith, healthy self-esteem, good parenting, great support? I imagine one needs a strong sense of self, a solid core, an inner strength and perhaps a great sense of humour to truly explore one’s potential, particularly in the face of adversity.
But whatever it takes, I question whether I’ve got it. Have I got what it takes to live, in Mandela’s words, “the life I am capable of living”? Have I got what it takes to do this without paying a price? And what does that life look like anyway?
Years ago, I was living and working in a way that, from the outside, must have looked like I was achieving my potential. Living abroad, working as a foreign correspondent, travelling the globe with prime ministers, using my gift for languages, covering extraordinary news events from the Asian tsunami to the Haitian earthquake.
But even when I was out there doing that, I never felt I was working to my potential. In fact, I know I shied away from it. From those years of foreign travel and extraordinary access to momentous global events, I can count the stories I’m truly proud of on one hand, or perhaps two. They’re the stories that took guts, initiative, imagination and emotional risk-taking (I was always good at taking physical risks – jumping out of planes, hitch hiking alone – but not the emotional ones). But there were too few of those stories, despite there being so many opportunities. I’m sad to think I had the Amazon on my doorstep, with all the wealth of possible features contained therein, and I was too scared to aim high, to suggest exciting stories, to plan interesting trips and come back with great ideas. My reporting was reactive. I did what I was told – and I did it really well – but I rarely ventured outside my comfort zone. I rarely did the work I really wanted to do. I had plenty of ideas, many moments of inspiration but I was held back – by fear, by a sense my work would never be good enough, by a deep-seated belief that I was an imposter on the verge of being found out.
Then in the final years of my work as a jetsetting political correspondent, I uncovered a truth I’d been hiding for quite a while – that I was in that job because I thought others expected great things of me. I was doing it to impress people, to give myself an external status because I felt so undeserving on the inside. Perhaps to be someone others would feel wowed by, inspired by and even write a blog about out.
And all the while, whether I was achieving my potential or not, the cost was high. I was too scared of making a mistake, of getting it wrong, of being judged; too mistrustful of myself; too doubting of my abilities. I climbed high in my profession with the help of a number of crutches that got me through the stress, smothered my anxiety and compensated for my low self-esteem: primarily unhealthy, compulsive, destructive behaviours around food (bingeing, starving, overexercising) but also around alcohol, work and other people. In short, I completely abandoned myself.
Looking back over those years has got me thinking about my time at Oxford University. I remember telling my tutor towards the end of my final year that I wanted to be a journalist – apply for a masters in journalism or to the Reuters or BBC trainee schemes. She told me I wouldn’t make it. I hadn’t done any journalism at Oxford so they wouldn’t look at me, she said. She didn’t have any other suggestions, as far I recall, but the careers advisory service did. After completing a test and having a chat, a university careers’ advisor suggested I consider working in insurance and perhaps returning to Liverpool. ‘You must be crazy’, I thought. ‘I’m destined for great things! I’m not going back to Liverpool. I’m moving forward.’ And off I went, around the world.
I use those two examples when I speak to teenagers in schools about how you should never let anyone understimate you or suggest you’re not capable of achieving what you want to achieve. After all, I went on to work for Reuters as a foreign correspondent – exactly what I’d been aiming for.
But I can’t help thinking whether perhaps those advisors had the measure of me. After all, the cost of achieving my dreams turned out to be pretty high. I couldn’t – at the time and perhaps not even today – get where I got without addiction, without self-harming or using crutches to try and compensate for my feelings of inadequacy and low self-worth.
All this leaves me wondering what my potential is today and how to achieve it, without having to pay a high price. I want to write, teach, coach, inspire and give of myself. But I also want to feel peace, joy, love and be content with who I am and what I have. I want to work hard and live the life I’m capable of living, but I don’t want to harm myself in the process or sabotage my personal life or my emotional or spiritual wellbeing. How can I do that? Is it even possible?
But perhaps there is a way. Perhaps I need to take everything more slowly and more gently than I’d ever have imagined. Perhaps I have to keep stopping and checking in with myself, asking myself what I need to be healthy and happy and being bold enough to respect the answers. Perhaps if I do that, I will achieve my potential without a cost. And maybe as I continue to honour who I am and what I need in order to feel peace and experience wellbeing, things will flow, without effort, struggle or strain. I can only experiment, step out a little, pull back a bit, accept the mistakes I’ll make along the way and keep nudging at the boundaries, while always respecting myself and my vulnerabilities.
As an aside, I wrote some of this post in my head (and dictated it into my iPhone) as I wandered alone across Hampstead Heath in the autumn sunshine on Sunday morning. As I pondered my potential, who I was and what I wanted to do or be, and what made great men and women great, I said to myself, ‘I’m inspired to write.’ Because I was. It felt true, it felt real, it came from my heart and soul. But then if I didn’t write, would it matter? I could let this blog slide. I haven’t written for over a month (travel, holiday, ear infection, food poisoning, amongst other reasons). I could let the ideas, the words and phrases come and go without ever sharing them. Nobody would be any the wiser. No big deal.
But I am inspired to write (all 2,000 words of this post!). And perhaps all I have to do is listen to that and go along with it, slowly and gently.