The Great Fear of the Twenties: Wasting Our Potential


How often do you think about the potential of wasting your potential? Once a year? Once a month? Once a day? Once an hour? If you're anything like I was, that last choice rings the buzzer. If it comes with a parenthesis that says "or maybe more..."

I spent most of my twenties fearing I'd waste my potential. I mean, intensely fearing it. Thinking about it every time a room went quiet. Avoiding "successful" friends because they reminded me of it. Experiencing cardiovascular conditioning over it, without moving a single muscle.

Yet I never spoke this fear to anyone.

I'd picture myself old and gray, sitting on a porch talking to some faceless person, saying

"I could've been anything. I could've done so much with my life. And instead it all slipped by me."

I came to hate the word "potential" itself, resenting it and all that it symbolized. "Potential" was the concentrated pill containing crushed-up remnants of my hoped-for adult life.

"Potential" also feels so damn patronizing. Like, "oh, there's Sara. She has so much potential." And you just know that 9 times out of 10 that's said in that tone that implies "and she's not doing a frickin' thing about it."

I actually had a guidance counselor come up to me in high school and say, "I saw the colleges you applied to. Sure undershot your potential, didn't you?"

Did I? Well maybe in his book I did, but not in mine. I applied to schools that were a genuine "whole person" fit for me.

Which is how, for the most part, I lived my 20s - making choices that resonated with something deep within me and that squared with my awareness of my identity and deeply-held desires.

The rub was, I felt guilty about every single decision. Like I was "letting everyone down" by being true to me.

Like I was wasting my potential.

Smart people get PhDs, don't they? Star college students get high-paying jobs, don't they? Good daughters stay close to home, don't they?

At my core, I knew the answer to all of those questions is not necessarily. And that the answer for me personally was hell no.

Yet I felt pushed to live up to those stereotypical goals. Lest I waste my potential.

"Potential" felt like an imposition of another person's storyline on top of my unfolding story. (Cue Sara Bareilles' King of Anything).

I'm writing all of this not to complain but rather to say what someone might have said to me, had I had the guts to admit how much this fear ruled my life:  you do not have to live in fear of wasting your potential.

How do you break free?

By getting clear on this one key, vital, the-contentment-of-your-life-hinges-on-accepting-this-fact fact:

The only person who is going to be sitting in that rocking chair at 90 years old is you. Not your mom. Not your dad. Not your teacher or brother or best friend's aunt. YOU. What'll feel like wasting your potential then isn't having failed to live up to their standards for you. It's having lived someone else's story.


All clear? Good. Then you can move onto bigger and better things. Like figuring out what you want your story to be.