A famous art professor died and went to heaven. At the pearly gates, the professor asked St. Peter, “Sir, I spent most of my life on Earth studying great art, but I have a question that has puzzled me for 30 years: Who was the greatest painter in history?”
St. Peter pointed to a nearby cloud. “See that woman right over there? She’s the one.”
The professor frowned. “But I knew that woman on Earth! She ran the cafeteria at the university where I taught! How could she have been the greatest painter in history?”
St. Peter shook his head sadly. “She could have been, if she ever picked up a brush and tried to paint.”
I suspect that woman had been good at her job, but did she reach her real potential? Did she follow her passion? Was she content to let her dreams evaporate?
Those are tough questions to answer, especially when you consider that most of us find something we are reasonably good at where we can earn a living and leave it at that. But is that the legacy you want to leave?
What do you want to be when you grow up? Good news: There is rarely just one answer. I am of the opinion that we all have tremendous potential if only we allow ourselves the freedom to try. The problem starts when we box in our futures according to what we studied in school or family expectations or staying in a job that doesn’t challenge us to grow and flourish.
But you are ultimately responsible for your own success, in both your career and personal lives. What do you really hope to accomplish in your life? And do you have a plan for getting there?
It starts with figuring out your purpose in life. As lofty as that sounds, I assure you, it’s not rocket science. I’ve shared my story often: At a young age, I imagined myself owning a factory and being an entrepreneur. I had to fill in a lot of blanks along the way and learn some very difficult lessons, but in my heart I knew it was worth it.
Ask yourself some helpful questions. What excites you? What do you want to learn? What do you love to do? That last question is especially important, because as I like to say, find something you love to do and you'll never work a day in your life.
Then develop your personal mission statement. In 25 words or less, define what makes you uniquely qualified to achieve your dream. Say it out loud every day to build your confidence and commitment.
Think about what you have already accomplished and what steps you need to take both short- and long-term. Do you need to learn new skills, line up funding, work with a business partner?
Are you building a network of contacts that can help and advise you as necessary? You need to connect with people in many fields and professions.
Define what success will look like. Will you recognize it when you achieve it? Are you prepared to change your definition as circumstances change?
The cafeteria worker may not have been able to give up her job and benefits to paint full time, but she could have pursued art as a hobby. Starting small is a practical way to test whether you can achieve your dream.
An Irish missionary shared this inspirational message in a London church:
“Consider the walnut: If you compare a walnut with some of the beautiful and exciting things which grow on our planet, it does not seem to be a marvelous creation. It is common, rough, not particularly attractive, and certainly not valuable in any monetary sense. Besides, it is small. Its growth is limited by the hard shell which surrounds it. The shell from which it never escapes during its lifetime.
“Of course, that’s the wrong way to judge a walnut. Break one open and look inside. See how the walnut has grown to fill every nook and cranny available to it? It had no say in the size or the shape of the shell but, given those limitations, it achieved its full potential of growth.
“How lucky we will be if, like the walnut, we are found to blossom and bloom in every crevice of the life that is given to us. Take heart. If one nut can do it, so can we all!”
Mackay’s moral: The only person who can limit your potential is you.
Harvey Mackay is the author of the New York Times best-seller “Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive.” He can be reached through his website, www.harveymackay.com, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing him at MackayMitchell Envelope Co., 2100 Elm St. SE, Minneapolis, MN 55414.