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By Mark vonAppen

Be careful with the word potential.  It has a misleading connotation.  We often refer to potential as a positive thing, an imaginary upside that exists solely in our minds if only we could tap the unharnessed energy that lies inside each of us. The fact is, potential can be a dirty word if we don't help people to be all that they can be.

Potential is unused energy.  It means that is a possibility.  When we talk only of someone's potential it means they haven't really done anything.  The world is full of stories of unrecognized genius and unfulfilled potential.  "This person displays tremendous potential" means one thing, they haven't done anything yet. Potential energy is nothing until someone figures out how to use it, unleashing it for the betterment of all.  We never talk about potential with elite performers, we talk only of results and achievement. 


We have a word for those who don't reach their potential.  That word is underachiever.

You can't teach heart and you can't teach effort.  The will to prepare takes potential and molds it into promise.

Actualizing potential is the key to moving any organization forward.  As leaders and mentors at every level, we must strive to actualize the talents of all of those in our purview, and stop talking in terms of potential.  

Performance versus Potential

  • Performance seeks challenge, potential shies away from it
  • Performance is decision, potential is indecision
  • Performance is accountable, potential seeks to blame
  • Performance gets the job done, potential procrastinates

I would much rather have someone on my crew who might not be the most physically gifted, but demonstrates high effort and heart over someone who played professional sports and displays tremendous potential, but never reaches it.  Potential means nothing.  The biggest tragedy in the fire service is someone who has all the physical and mental tools to be an elite performer, but lacks the desire to be all that they are capable of being.  You can't teach heart and you can't teach effort.


The will to prepare for is far more important than the will to be great.  Many of us sit around and wait for it.  Excellence is found by those who are active participants and seek it, not by those who close their eyes and wish for it.  The rogue's edge comes from a strong work ethic.

You are the biggest handicap that you face.  You are the one who must decide how much sweat and study will go into determining who you are.  You must weigh how far you you want to go.  Don't go through your life never knowing who you are.  Standing on the sidelines as an observer is a big mistake.  Start the job and then finish the job. 

To be, or not to be? That is the question. More to the point; who do you want to be?

Do you want to be special?  Hard work ensures that promises are delivered upon when the moment of truth arises.  Those who excel are the ones who are willing to give more than others are willing to give.  They don't bank on potential.  They want to be special and they work at it.  They find out who they are before the conflict.  

Life's battles aren't always won by the biggest or the strongest, they are usually won by those who work the hardest.  Stop talking about potential, yours or anyone else's, and do something with it.  The will to prepare takes potential and molds it into promise.  Don't think about what you have accomplished.  Think about what you should have accomplished if only you'd accessed all that you are capable of.

Do your job.

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Comment by Mark vonAppen on May 21, 2014 at 1:27pm

The key is finding a way to get people to recognize their own potential and make them want it for themselves. It's a tricky proposition, especially in the workplace. When people are made aware of what they're capable of and then are given the tools to act upon it, the result can be an organization or company that is a beacon for how things should be done. 

Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

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