Ask MR: What If I Never Amount to Anything?
10.23.17

Dear Man Repeller,

I’m afraid I’m never going to amount to anything — that I’ll never become who I’m meant to be. Help.

Signed,

Scared


Dear Scared,

I recently saw a dystopian thriller starring Emma Watson about what would happen if a tech giant were to rule the world. In Watson’s interview to work at said tech giant (think Facebook, but evil), she cited unfulfilled potential as her biggest fear. The movie wasn’t great but that comment was; I adopted the principle as my own and have since used it to describe the self-imposed limitations that cripple me on at least three occasions. Something about the simplicity of these words that so poignantly articulated a feeling I have been dancing around for, I don’t know, 28 years, made me feel understood. I hope it provides some version of a reprieve for you, too.

To some degree, we all fear unfulfilled potential. We call it various things: fear of not becoming who we are meant to be, escaping the stereotypes of the identities imparted upon us or relentlessly attempting to succeed, but the crux of what we’re saying when we talk about these synonyms for self-improvement is entirely imbued with this notion that we could always be better, that we’re not doing enough to be the best — that unfulfilled potential is gently knocking at all of our doors. Just recognizing this was huge for me. It gave me a more pointed anxiety to work against.

Here’s the other thing, though. It is wildly uncommon that someone who worries about not amounting to anything actually ends up amounting to nothing. Do you really believe that if you were destined for nothingness you’d spend much time thinking about it? What even is nothingness? The important thing for you to remember is something that Diane von Furstenberg said to me two years ago: when you doubt your power you give power to your doubts. Those fears and doubts have an uncanny dexterity to act like a cancer that kiboshes your dreams. But you steer the ship, Scared! It’s your fucking rocket.

This brings me to my final question:

Who, other than you, is to say who (or what) you are meant to be? To think that your agency runs independent of the decisions that you make, that the company you keep, the work you choose as meaningful and the words that come out of your mouth are out of your jurisdiction of control seems to indicate that you’re not yet aware of your humanly power. We are all authors, you know. We write the stories of our lives and in doing so, either pen them in the ink of love or fear. If we’re writing out of love, we’re building in the direction that our dreams are willing to take us, but if we’re writing in fear, we’re constantly focused on what we don’t want instead of what we do. This focus, of course, only brings us closer to what we don’t want, so I encourage you to tap into your power as an author. Forget about who you’re not meant to be. Who are you meant to be? No one can answer that question, or act it out, but you. Dream it out! You have nothing to lose. And if you just can’t shake that half-empty glass of your potential on your night table, drain that shit and refill it. Simple as that.

Signed,

Half Full

Feature photo by Nina Leen/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images.

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  • Hannah Nichols

    Thanks for this Leandra <3

  • Laura

    I never realised that my biggest fear could be summed up so eloquently. Potential is a rather dangerous word that is thrust on us from a young age. Teachers (from sports to maths) tell us we have “so much potential” that it becomes a constant internal battle to live up to said potential and if we don’t, or if something sets us in a different direction than we thought, we can see this as a failure.

  • Daniel Szilagyi

    I think there is this pressure that you have to become “something” but i also think it’s perfectly fine to just do a job that pays you well enough to live and be happy.
    If you aren’t happy, and you feel like you need to explore and find that thing that does, it’s not always easy because not everyone is lucky enough to be in a position where they can be doing something that they love and get paid enough to live from it.
    Also some people take longer, i worked with an older person who was near retirement age and did a huge career change because it was something they were passionate about.

    For myself I went to school thinking i’d be one thing, was lucky enough to try that in my field for a number of years before changing and moving into my current field and being perfectly happy with that, I’m sure i’ll evolve and change in time as well though

  • Adrianna

    I love listening to interview-based podcasts/NPR shows because, you quickly learn there’s one main theme: everyone has had a job they hated, and they question when they’re going to become what they’re supposed to be at all levels of success.

    I recommend:
    How to be Amazing with Michael Ian Black
    Longform (this is interviews with writers/editors/media professionals)
    Fresh Air

  • Hayley

    I know it’s a hard thing to do, and much easier said/typed than done, but it’s worth shifting your perspective on what you think you should be, and instead, really analyzing why you think you should be one way or the other.

    Is it something you were told you’d be or you’d do from the get-go? Is it something imposed by parents, family, friends, etc.? To really break down that goal, that pressure, than unobtainable “ideal”, into its root causes can be really insightful as to a) why you may not be achieving that goal, and more importantly, b) determine if it’s really something you find ideal.

    • Julia

      YES.

      My partner has been heightening my fears of not living up to my potential lately, and I wish I knew how to convince him to examine his assumptions about what I “should” do/my potential.

      • Hayley

        You define your potential, no one else!

    • Suzan

      But… What if you don’t know what your goal/direction in life (or just for now) is?
      I’m in my early thirties and feel like what I once could call my quarter-life-crisis is going straight into mid-life-crises! Ack!

      • Hayley

        I’m not a therapist, but I think writing down and sorting all aspects of your life (whether that be lifestyle, job musts, things, relationships, etc.) that you need, want, don’t need, don’t want, and what you are ambivalent towards could help you. Perhaps by defining what you do need and want, and by defining what you do not want or need, it’ll give you some clarification on what steps to take moving forward…

        • Suzan

          So sweet of you to reply, I just threw that out there in a sort of rhetorical fashion. And with good advice to boot. I do need a proper sitdown with myself, been swimming too long in the grey area (sucks up the motivation). X

          • Hayley

            I think you’ll find that the MR community is typically very supportive of fellow MRs. It’s a good place to hangout. 🙂

        • This is excellent advice and I am going to do this right the fuck now! As a 27-year old who is still finishing up her bachelor’s degree and just got out of a relationship and is being (somewhat) pressured to grow into the family business, I’m at a loss.

  • Emily M

    This particular question has been plaguing me a lot recently as well, so thank you for writing this – it helps.
    Also, that DVF quote is fantastic. Printing it out and taping it everywhere.

    • Kinjal Pandey

      “Printing it out and taping it everywhere”- exactly my thoughts !

  • Teddie Roke

    LADIES, my life changed when I read “the gift of imperfections” by Brene Brown. The whole point is to let go of who you THINK you’re supposed to be, and to embrace who you are! It’s a quick read, super straight forward, and will leave you feeling enlightened, confident, and ready to tackle your personal goals. I 100% recommend it to anyone questioning their self-worth or doubting their power!

    • Autumn

      Love Brene Brown so much!

  • Gab

    This is so beautifully expressed.

  • Erika Galan

    <3

  • Alexandra Queiroz

    I saw it somewhere and loved it: “Failure is an option, giving up is not.” We become sooo afraid of failure, as if failing in something would kill us. But it really doesn’t! Nor there’s an “expiration date” on our ability to accomplish things in life – things that matter to us, not things other people made us believe we’re supposed to accomplish. Let’s live our life to the fullest and be happy while doing so!

  • Caroline Fallon

    I grew up in a household where there was a lot of pressure for me to “actualize my potential” (whatever the hell that means). However this pressure is a double edged sword. It has motivated me through life but also made me rethink what being my best self means. To some, achieving full potential might means never messing up, having financial success, or being adored by everyone. But I’ve painfully come to realize that my best self means that not everyone is going to love me and that I might not be a genius or billionaire. While continuing to set the bar high, I’ve realized my best self is not afraid to make mistakes and keep trying. Even if I never technically “amount to anything,” what is more important to me is that I always kept trying. Refusing to give up can be more noble than actual accomplishments in my book.

  • Jay

    I read all those books about „finding your purpose“ and „the one thing“ in your life… and that one should follow ones passions.

    And I was crushed.

    Cause seriously, though I was doing everything „right“ (more or less) like go to school, study hard, get a job, earn money…

    I was really struggling to find that my purpose?

    What is that anyways?

    And what is living up to your potential?!

    I would like to think of myself who chases her own dreams and makes the magic in her life. And in the life of others.

    But oftentimes, well… I am not.

    I work. I work out. I come home. I read a little. I have thousands of ideas on what I read or what I see or what I hear or… but most of them I dont act upon.

    And yeah… maybe I wanna change that.

    Actually, my insta account made me realise I wanna write again. Not for no one. But for me.

    And possibly to be able to say I didn’t miss out on my potential.

    (As actually I always wanted to be a writer…)

    Oh, and by the way: Please read Hunger by Roxane Gay. Doesn’t fit here, but as reading is my sincere and upright passion (as might writing become again), this book so moved me.

  • Love this. Thank you, Leandra. Came at a really good time, I’m just in this limbo between having just finished uni and now trying to find a job that, you know, is fulfilling and challenging yet fun and brings me forward and pays the rent and what not… A job is such an identification factor nowadays and I get that anxious thought of “Is this really all you will become?” every time I read another job title. I had my first interview yesterday, and it went well, but I could hardly be happy about it, because I immediately doubted if I should not be doing something “better”, if I should not pursue my “dreams” more… Reading this just felt really good. I’m in charge of my own story and I needn’t worry I’ll be stuck in a corner. If I end up hating the job, the city or anything, I can change it. Love you Leandra, so nice to hear from you again.

  • Amelia Diamond

    i love this a lot

  • Kate

    Sometimes I think that as women, this idea bears down on us extra hard, simply because our mothers and grandmothers couldn’t have dreamt of ‘making the best of themselves’ or living their dreams. My mum was a super optimistic person but the one thing that would cloud her face over was talking about the things she didn’t get to do, just because of the time she was born in (1933 and married with 3 kids by the time she was 25). Maybe its a Gen X specific thing, but I feel like I should have things all figured out so that I can do the living she didn’t get to do.

  • Cynthia Schoonover

    Ever since I’ve read this post, I’ve been thinking. If you have a job that pays the bills, a roof over your head, food to eat, and clothes to wear, you have made something of yourself. Don’t compare yourself to what everyone else is doing. I know the world is highly competitive now, but I am not a competitive person. As I am approaching retirement from 27 years in teaching(9 part time, 18 full time), I have had a career that has worked well with being a mother. I and my husband have raised two daughters who are terrific adults. Be yourself, not what others want you to be. Sometimes your goals change as your life changes. If there’s something you want to pursue, pursue it! Try new things! No one can live your life for you.

    • Am

      Thank you for this! I’m currently mostly a mom (do some part time work from home, when I can) and I stress about finding something full-time when my kids are older. But then other days, I think, “just find something that works around your kids’ schedules”. It’s okay. *I* can choose what I deem important in life, who cares if I ever end up as a CEO. (I was a “gifted child” and feel like I’m not living up to my potential rearing children.) I’m tired of the competition too.

      I think sometimes there’s too much of an emphasis on being “successful” career-wise and being a big shot, instead of just trying to be a kind person who knows how to show & accept love. And like you said, having enough to live on is perfectly fine!