You are the architect of your future, not the tenant of your past

November 20, 2022

Someone asked me last week “how do I fulfil my potential?”

My answer may have lacked a little in hard-nosed strategy, and perhaps suggested that I had seen far too many “inspirational” posters with sunrises or eagles soaring over mountains. However, I could not bring myself to talk of finding a high-performance culture, or of stretch targets, or profile-raising networking, or of writing a more compelling Linked-in profile; instead, I said, “You will fulfil your potential when you find the joy in your work.”

I do not believe we are fulfilled (for long) by status or role titles, or by the brands that employ us temporarily for now, or in what we are paid. These things appeal to our inner trinket hoarding magpie, but not to what makes us feel truly fulfilled. I believe we are fulfilled when we make our difference, when we feel heard and when we believe that making our difference has an essential connection with our character and values, and is not just a casual correlation with our to-do list. I believe it is about finding joy in the gifts that are uniquely ours, and then using those gifts to make our mark on the world.

Let me share with you the conundrum of the so called “career path.” There isn’t ever a path that is visibly unfurled in front of us. The only path that is visible is the one behind us. From where we stand, looking back we can see our hopes and dreams, some achieved, some cast aside; but when we look forward our next step is neither certain nor real until it is made. It is as if we are perpetually on the edge of darkness. We know that it might be wonderful, or challenging, or even a wrong turn, but life’s unpredictability and our unique mix of hope, ambition and fickle confidence, will cloak our view. We stand at the entrance to a cathedral of possibility, but we are in the dark.

There is a reason for the darkness; it is to discourage us from staring in vain at uncertainty. When we illuminate our present, we see more of our potential than we ever will by spending time peering into a shrouded future of what-ifs and maybes. Our potential is not something we can order to be delivered on a future date, like a parcel of fulfilment waiting in a depot for a van and a bar code to be scanned. Potential is what we find when we decide to occupy the here and now.

One of the lines I often use in my work is that we should be “the architects of our future and not the tenants of our past.” I say it so predictably that in some of my presentations I am sure a few people now finish the sentence for me. However, it isn’t just a nice line to pop into a talk, for me it goes to the heart of my work.

We are not trapped by our past, because now does not have a past. Neither can we be certain of a glorious future, because now is all that we have for sure. However, because we have now, with its foundations of experience and expertise, and because we have the tools of kindness, hope, generosity and care, we can make now better. To make something better is joyful and to use our gifts well is to fulfil our potential.

The way forward will never be clear, but our past does not constrain us if we decide to use our gifts to shine our light in the present. When we let go of what the future might be, we can focus on making now kinder, more thoughtful, more hopeful, more loving and more secure. When we look to meet the needs of others, and ask others to help us meet our needs, then fulfilment is possible in the joy of knowing we did what the moment needed us to do and what the moment needed us to be.

We can all take a wrong turn in a career; we can all find ourselves in places that do not value us as we would hope. In a career of thirty or forty years, it will be impossible not to have moments of great stress and regret. However, we always have now to make a difference. Our potential is not in a job, or a brand, a grade or a reporting line; our potential is in the joy we find in today.

If this sounds all too wishy-washy and jars with your reality, and I get that it might, please just ask yourself what harm will ever come from being kinder, listening better, supporting more and also asking for help when we need it? I understand that you may have been through a horrible period and your confidence is low, but the way back to finding the best of you is to stay close to the moment and to make the difference you can. Alternatively you may be on a leadership fast-track superstar grid; but if you are a knob, you will never know the full extent of the difference you could make.

I hope your career path is decorated with care and pride in all that you achieve. I hope your potential is always fulfilled by finding some joy in each and every day. The future will be what it will be, but whoever we are, wherever we are and whatever we are – none of us are the tenants of our past, and all of us can be architects of our future when we decide to light up the moment and shine.

Take care. Paul xx

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