The older we get, the more our dreams fade away.
It’s a sad fact of life, if not a very real one. Early on, you have an entire slew of things you want to accomplish. Enthusiasm, energy and excitement pump through your veins as you picture yourself reaching those achievements.
Yet those feelings gradually die down with time. For some aspirations, you might have set the benchmark incredibly high and then failed to get where you thought you’d be. Maybe you talked yourself out of even trying.
And when you did accomplish something, it didn’t live up to your expectations. Reaching a goal wasn’t the be-all-end-all you anticipated. Afterward, there was a void as you thought, “What next?”
Eventually, it becomes exhausting to keep trying (and often failing). You stop resisting to the pressures of everyday life and succumb to the routine. It’s comfortable. It’s safe.
But it’s also dangerous.
You see, that monotonous lull lures you into a false sense of security. Everything feels okay as you coast by on a daily basis….until one day you wake up and realize that you’ve done the same thing over and over again. The years have slipped by and you find yourself a decade or two older. As you sit and reflect, you wonder if you could have done more with the time you had.
Before you get to that point though, ask yourself right now, “Am I living up to my potential?” Here are six questions to help you reach that answer:
1. Are you intentional in your actions?
Are you performing actions in a deliberate manner? Not a task your boss asked you to complete, not a chore someone expects from you, but something that you want to do.
That something means doing whatever you’re passionate about. It includes making plans to travel to a place you’ve always wanted to visit, practicing your hobby, or working on a personal project. It doesn’t include browsing the web, watching videos your friend passed along, or simply reading about someone else’s experiences.
At the end of the day, you’ll look back on the things you wanted to do, not what someone else expected of you. If something is truly important to you, you need to make time for it. It might mean waking up earlier before work, setting aside time when you get home, or carving out a section of your weekend.
Being intentional in your actions means making purpose-based decisions. If you don’t make decisions for yourself, someone else will make them for you. Make things happen.
2. When’s the last time you took a risk?
When I use the word “risk”, I don’t mean something reckless like speed driving or gambling away your savings. Those are simply what I refer to as “blind risks”, or risks done without planning or analysis. They’re risks that simply provide a temporary adrenaline rush with no long-term rewards.
On the other hand, there are “calculating risks,” risks that are carefully evaluated on both their upside and downside levels before performed. These risks, like any other type of risk, have potential loss involved, but they also have potentially great rewards in the long run.
For instance, you’ve always dreamed of going to a faraway place with beautiful landscapes and a unique cultural experience. However, as you picture what might happen, fear and trepidation begin to form:
- You shell out money for something you end up hating.
- You feel extremely uncomfortable and want to return home.
- You get stranded in the middle of nowhere.
But you also picture the good things that can happen:
- You get the experience of a lifetime.
- You meet interesting people and form connections.
- You learn new things about both yourself and the places you visit.
Understandably, a big decision like this requires time and thought. At the same time, it’s tempting to keep putting things off into perpetuity, even if we genuinely want to do something that doesn’t have any sense of urgency (which applies to most important things). After awhile, those daydreams go stale.
So you need to consider what you would regret more: looking back and having tried at something, or never trying at all.
3. Do you feel constricted or free?
When you rest your head on your pillow at night, how do you feel? When you wake up in the morning, what sorts of thoughts go through your head? That sleeping period is a critical time for your body to rest, but it’s also a period for your mind to reflect on what’s happening in your life.
The way you feel during those night hours is an indicator on whether or not you’re satisfied with how things are going. The quality of your sleep is also an indicator. If you’re making good progress in your goals, you sleep deeply during the night and feel light during the day.
If you’re stuck in a bad or less-than-ideal situation, it feels like a raincloud is perpetually hovering over you. You feel restless when you should be asleep and fatigued when you should be wide awake. But remember, no matter how dead-ended your situation may seem, there is always a way out.
Don’t ignore those inner sentiments nagging away at you. They act like a gauge for whether you’re satisfied with the direction your life is headed.
4. If you were to fast forward your life a few decades from now, would you be proud of yourself?
Look at what you’re doing today, or at least where your actions are leading you. Now project that direction to twenty years from now. Would you be pleased with the results?
When you look back on what you did over the past week, think about how much of that time was spent doing something that was important versus something urgent. It’s easy to get swept up in the everyday necessities: grocery shopping, sorting emails, or catching up on administrative work. These tasks are fine.
But are you so caught up in your tasks that you keep pushing aside things that are important to you? Maybe you always say that you’ll work for yourself one day, but that idea doesn’t come to fruition because yet another pile of work just landed on your desk again, or you found the sheer enormity of carrying out that goal too stressful.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by it all, you can break up that one important thing into pieces. What’s the one piece you’ll work on today? For instance, you can start by reaching out to someone with the guidance you need, or setting aside half an hour in your calendar to brainstorm. When you set aside time every day, you get closer to achieving the things you’re proud about.
5. How do you look?
Are you in shape? Do you care about your appearance? These questions might seem odd at first within the context of living up to your potential, but they’re really not.
After all, your appearance is not simply about how you look on the outside. The way you present yourself to the world is a reflection of how you feel on the inside. If you are disheveled, out of shape, or fatigued-looking, these factors reflect your inner state of mind. Someone who doesn’t take care of themselves generally doesn’t care about their well-being.
The way you look is also about your body posture. From glancing at someone, you can tell what type of day they’re having. You can perhaps even tell what type of life they’re having. A confident person who feels good about things will be more “open”: shoulders back, back straight, and solid eye contact. Someone who isn’t doing so great, on the other hand, will be more “closed”: shoulders forward, back hunched, and eyes cast downward.
Body posture can change depending on our environment and mood, but we usually revert to certain mannerisms on a default basis. The good news is that even if you’re not feeling so confident, simply assuming confident body postures (such as hands on hips or hands up in the air) can boost your mood and improve your performance before entering high-pressure situations, such as interviews or public performances.
Try it. Try it even when you’re not feeling under any pressure at all.
6. What is your actual potential?
The word “potential” itself is an interesting one. It denotes promise and ability, as if someone can reach great heights if he or she were to apply the maximum amount of effort and determination. We use phrases such as “The sky’s the limit” or “You can do anything you set your mind to.”
Yet all people have constraints. It isn’t feasible for most to become professional athletes. Or maybe you want to enter a certain profession but you either don’t have the grades or the opportunity. Age could be a barrier.
In such cases, it’s useful to use adaptive preferences, which are preferences developed in response to the feasible options available in front of you. One way to do this is to not only consider the benefits of attaining something, but also its drawbacks. Let’s say you didn’t get a job offer you really wanted. You can think of the negatives associated with the position: poor fit, long hours, limited flexibility, and so on.
Another way to use adaptive preferences is to change how you incorporate that preference into your life. Maybe your childhood dream was to be a professional musician, but it never panned out. Someone I know performs in a band for local organizations on weekends, and then sells music CDs to audiences afterward. It can be perfectly fine to keep a passion as a hobby.
While we suffer from constraints such as time, ability, and luck, we have a lot of power in how we choose to work within those limitations.
The Difference Between Growing Up and Giving Up
As we progress in life, our dreams evolve as well. We might realize that an aspiration we had wasn’t so realistic, or we question the things we previously wanted. These changes are a normal part of getting older.
But there’s a difference between growing up and giving up altogether. Sure, we all have our limits, but it doesn’t mean retaining the status quo. It doesn’t mean staying still in one place simply because it’s the safest course.
What are your limits? What’s the highest you can reach? These are questions that only you can figure out. When you start living up to your potential, you might be surprised at the answers.
Melissa Chu writes about creating great work and successful habits at JumpstartYourDreamLife.com. You can grab the guide How to Get Anything You Want.