Wrecking Your Potential (Dedicated to College Students) - Christine Kane

Yesterday, I was a guest speaker in a college class called “The Psychology of Music.”

My great friend and fellow songwriter David LaMotte was also a part of the lecture to the twenty or so students at Warren Wilson College here in Asheville, NC. The two of us spoke about our lives as musicians, performers, songwriters, business owners, bloggers, and artists. We spoke about humor, insecurity, authenticity, mistakes, passion, risk, joy, and the unfolding of dreams. We tried our best to dismantle the myths of the media’s version of an artist’s career.I love sharing this stuff because I’ve lived it, and I feel like I know what Carl Jung was saying when he said, “I do not believe. I know.” I know what can happen when one person steps onto a new path with faith, even if it’s only a little faith. And it isn’t just about being an artist. This is about having a great life, no matter what you choose to do.

When I look into the faces of some college students, it’s like looking at me at that age. I was panicked. I was stressed. I had no self-confidence. I was bulimic. I wanted to be rescued. And I wanted more than anything for my parents to like me. Adults were constantly telling me that I had lots of potential. “You have so much potential!” they would say. But they never told me what the hell that meant.

I perform on college campuses fairly regularly, and I have conversations with lots of students. I listen to them talk about the stress, the fear, and the worst thing of all: the burden of all of that potential. Apparently, the adults are still using this word to keep the pressure on.

If you ask me, the adults might as well say, “You’re not okay now. You’ll be okay someday. We hope. We’ll keep our fingers crossed that you’ll come through for us.”

I say to follow this rule of thumb — if the adult who is proselytizing to you about your future is not living a life that makes you say, “WOW! I’d love to have that life! Look how happy she is! Look how alive she is!” then question any rule, any advice, any wisdom the adult offers you. Especially question the idea of potential.

Same holds true here. If what I write about seems like a whole bunch of froo-froo schlock, and you’re interested only in making money, fitting in, and living in a starter mansion in the suburbs on Privet Drive, then perhaps this website is more suitable for you.

(Besides, you can always return here when you’re 48 and you’ve got high blood pressure from all the stress and all the meals at Olive Garden, and your wife has left you to become a potter, and your children merely tolerate you because you’re always yammering on about potential.)

Potential is a Muggle Word

When people tell you that you have potential, they most likely see life and enthusiasm and passion in you. Muggles don’t remember when they had life, enthusiasm, and passion. They sold it and used the money to buy into the myths of conformity and limitation and security. So they see in you what they once had, and they recite the same lines the adult muggles told them. They can’t revel in who you are now. Because who you are now is not making money, which is what a muggle values. Muggles value security above all else. They think you should value it too. They want you to use your potential to find a secure path, and then that way they don’t have to spend any energy being worried about you.

Some muggles really do want you to shine, but since they never actually set about shining themselves, they don’t know what it takes to shine. They don’t know that your light may have to look like it has gone out for a long time in order for it to shine brightly with a bigger strength. That is unnerving to your average muggle. A muggle also believes deeply in mistakes, and he doesn’t want you to make him uncomfortable by making any.

The truth is that everyone has potential. Even the geek with all the acne who sits next to you in your Business Law class. And he probably has more potential than you do because he learned early on that it made no sense to worry about whether or not other people liked him.

I have potential right now. In fact, I have potential to write the next big hit song. I could make millions from that one song. But you know what? If I sit down and write, and anything like that is going on in my head, I won’t write. I’ll be too busy thinking about all of that potential. So, when I sit down to write I remember who I am and that I want to reach people and touch people and inspire people. Then I play. I become engaged in the amazing activity of playing the guitar and singing. And that, oddly enough, is enough.

An Abridged Story of my Own Wrecked Potential

I had potential. That’s what everyone said. And for me it meant I had the personality to go into a “good job” in PR. I had also thought I could be a broadcast journalist, which, of course, made everyone say, “Ahhh. Yes. You could do that.” Then there’d be more talk of all that potential. Those were what I now call “the Catholic cocktail conversations.” At any social event with anyone’s parents and their friends, I was like Pavlov, and I knew precisely what bells to ring in order to get the adults to salivate instantly.

Right out of school, I got a job in PR at Ogilvy & Mather in Washington DC. And not only did I completely suck at it (just ask my poor boss, who hired me only because he knew my mother), but I was unhappy too. I worked on a CDC program called “America Responds to AIDS” where the creative staff had to try to promote a health awareness campaign without using the word condom, and other insane limitations only a government agency could contrive. I adored the people with whom I worked, even my poor boss. But I had zero idea of why I was there. I felt no connection to the work itself, nor to PR, nor to any aspect of this lifestyle. How’s that for potential?

Enter disillusionment.

The plan had been that I’d work at Ogilvy for a year, and then I’d go off to Medill School of Journalism (at Northwestern University) where I would spend $24,000 a year becoming a broadcast journalist and continue fulfilling my potential, much to the delight of the adults in my life. (They, too, had become Pavlovian, and knew how to make each other salivate at the perceived successes of their children.)

At some point along the way, it dawned on me not only that I hated PR, but that I hated the news. (Uh-oh!) My favorite newspaper writers were humorists, like Dave Barry, who made me laugh and forget the news.

There was one person in my life with whom I could discuss this new and disturbing realization. He was an account exec at Ogilvy — an old soul named Charlie Jones. Charlie changed my life by letting me be exactly who I was. At one lunch, sitting in Dupont Circle I admitted to him that I hated PR and I hated the news. And his response was something like, “Carpe Diem, my friend.” He advised me to leave PR and not write news. I wrote every night in my journal about this. And one day in the summer, I got the courage to call the administrative offices of Medill School of Journalism and withdraw my enrollment. (Charlie was the only one who congratulated me.)

That’s when the proverbial fan revved up, and various and sundry chunks of organic matter began to hit it. According to the muggles, I was pissing all of my potential down the drain. (If you were to ask me now, I’d say that that’s when I actually started living it.) I left Ogilvy and became a waitress in Georgetown. I stepped into the unknown. At first, it was only based on what I knew I didn’t want to do. Eventually it would turn into learning about what I did want to do. All I knew was that I no longer wanted to be dying inside. The muggles were very upset with all of the decisions I made in the next year, which ultimately moved me to a whole other city where I continued waitressing and began writing songs and performing at open mic nights. On the outside, I looked like a complete loser to all of my old friends. On the inside, I was coming alive. I was meeting people who did not see my potential. They saw me as I was –without banking on the future me.

These days, I couldn’t possibly be more different from who I was I college. All I can say is that I’m glad I started listening to the voices in me that said, “I don’t even like the news. I don’t even like PR.” It was all just jobs. Your life is more than just a job. And now, even if there’s an occasional “bad” day, when I’m crazy with the fear that I’ll never write another song, or that I’m tired of the insecurity of living life as an artist — I am happier now than I ever dreamed I’d be. And I’m still growing and making mistakes and learning to love insecurity. As my mentor said to me once, “Be grateful that you’re not bored.” I’m definitely not bored.

(If you want to hear a semi-autobiographical song on this, here’s a link to iTunes and my song Right Outta Nowhere.)

Take Yourself Seriously Enough to Wreck Your Own Potential

I sometimes want to shake college students by the shoulders and shout at them, “Don’t sell your soul! You really can have a good life and do it on your own terms!” But then, I’d be just like a muggle (albeit the anti-muggle) telling someone how to do it on my terms. And every person has to do this work on her own.

The best way to wreck your potential is to just decide. Decide what kind of life you want. Decide to live it. Decide what you want to do and who you want to be. I did that without even knowing it. When I read through my old journals now, I marvel at how much has come out of simply writing down my dreams — doubts and all — and wondering if I had what it would take.

I recommend that you write about this. Get a journal. Use it often. The more pressure and stress you feel, the more to write about! Here are some really basic questions to answer so that you, too, can get about the business of wrecking your own potential —

What in your wildest dreams would your life look like in five years? Ten years?

What do you love to do? And if you can’t do it yet, are you willing to learn how to do it?

What do you love period? Do you spend any of your time doing this?

What are your strengths?

What are your weaknesses?

What does the world think you should be?

What are you telling yourself to settle for? Why are you telling yourself to settle for it?

What is your worst fear?

Who do you admire? And why?

On occasion, I am invited to college campuses to give a lecture I call, “Getting a Job is Boring. Get a Life Instead.” Typically, I do a performance on the evening of the lecture. One college administrator was talking to me after my show one night and he said to me, “Well, you can’t tell these kids that. They get outta here and have to start paying off college loans and they’ve got all these pressures.” He was a muggle disguised as a managing director of a theatre.

None of this is about not getting a job. This is all about living a full life. Most people decide not to do this. According to the theatre director’s philosophy, your life goes like this: You get out of high school, spend all your money on an education which will leave you stressed, clueless and broke, and then you get to head out into a world of pressure and misery in order to pay off that money. Then, add a little more pressure and have kids! No wonder half of the people in our country are taking anti-depressants when there are people like this running around at our institutions of higher learning and perpetuating a world view of what I call “lame-osity.”
—-

If that’s what potential is, then I offer you the chance to join me, and countless others and decide to wreck yours now.

24 COMMENTS ADD A COMMENT
  • Heather

    Another great one I needed to hear today. Glad to know it was not just my private college prep school that harped on our potential. It’s a lot to live up to and 10 years later I can feel like quite the failure if I measure myself against that huge yardstick of our amazing potential. I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with myself, but it’s still scary to go out sometimes wondering if I’m going to run into someone still holding on to one of those yard sticks…

  • iletitgo

    Christine-
    I found your blog a few weeks ago and instantly added it to my favorites. I’ve wanted to make comments–everything you say reaches right to my heart. I started my own blog today, one post so far and lots to learn (thanks for the one with the 18 mistakes most bloggers make their first year).
    This post has meant the most to me so far. No one will know just yet, but the purpose of my blog is to help me work through, in essence, wrecking my potential, as you state it. I left the religion I grew up with, realizing that the thought patterns it tried to perpetuate weren’t satisfying for me. I was tired of delaying happiness for the future–can’t I be happy in my life right now? Besides that life-changing decision, I’ve recently graduated with a Master’s. I have been interviewing at places, but know if my heart it will be a slow painful death if I work in those positions. This blog has been so encouraging to me. I am truly walking in the unknown, and definitely have moments of fear, but I feel more alive too. My goal is to keep letting go of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual clutter. My mantra is “I let it go.”
    Thanks for a great blog. I’ll have to keep reading through your archives.

  • christine

    Hey Alvin… I use this line in one of my songs…it’s an old Zen expression, and it’s always worked for me… “Leap and the net will appear!” I find that when you choose one direction, and then commit to it, no matter what it is… that’s when the great stuff happens!

  • Alvin

    Hmm…inspiring & thought provoking. It’s a very relevant post for me because I feel like I’ve been at the crossroads for a very long time. Will meditate on your points, Christine.

  • christine

    Hey there Chris! (sorry for the delay. I was on vacation.) Thanks for stopping by. I think there are lots of posts here that will (hopefully) inspire you in this area. I was JUST having a conversation with someone about the “what do you do?” cocktail party question. It’s amazing to me how that question has virtually disappeared in my life since I really committed to Who I Am. I attracted other people who could give a crap what a person does, and I live in a town of artists and hippies. No one asks me that question anymore except when I’m sitting on a plane. And now, I’m a professional and I’ve made money doing this, so I don’t get scared to say it. (which, believe me, makes it easier.) My sense of it is that once YOU decide to commit and once YOU decide that you’re doing the right thing, then that question will go away. Try it!

  • Chris

    Hi Christine,

    Your blog really struck a chord with me (uh-oh PUN).

    I’m doing a dual degree in Business and Creative Industries (major in advertising) at University at the moment and I’m also a guitarist/song writer.

    I’m lucky that my parents are only semi-muggle in that they want me to reach my ‘potential’ but at the same time have always encouraged me to choose my own path in life and that whatever I ‘decide’ is fine as long as I’m happy.

    Before moving on just like to sayI think you were really brave to bite the bullet and and really live your own life like you did – really do respect that.

    I also don’t like the question ‘what do you do’ – my parents are supporting me through Uni and I don’t have a job aside from writing music (which i love) and I always have a strange feeling of guilt when I’m asked what i do for a job and i reply ‘oh nothing really help out with the family business wherever i can, and write music’. Generally followed by “oh… ok…” and a thought bubble “what a lazy so and so”.

    You really have some great advice for life in what you’ve written and it’s definitely given me a nudge of inspiration to really live mine.

    I had more to say but it’s slipped my mind…

    Keep on keeping on!

    Chris

  • christine

    LuAnn, Funny you should bring that up. I was just saying to someone the other day that my life is so different now that no one at parties ever says, “What do you do?” In fact, I caught myself asking someone that in the middle of our conversation at a party and I kind of slapped myself. You’re right. It’s just an awful question!

    Brian, thanks for sharing your blog. and kudos on taking the big leap to happiness!

    Erica, I think that show at your high school was in my first year of playing out. I was still wearing all black and I was just terrified…I remember being really terrified at that high school. And it’s wild to hear how deeply it touched you. Thanks for sharing all that. And wow – it looks like you’ve really chosen to live a great life. Please come up and say hi after a show some time so I can meet you. What a great story!

    Fay, Thanks for the quote. When I get extra whiney some days, I’ll catch myself saying, “I just want SECURITY!!!” And luckily, there are people who will always remind me, “There’s no such THING!!” See you in the produce section next time you’re in town???

  • fay campbell

    just read your “blog”…….it’s amazing! and so true…..it kind of reminded me of the statement below:

    “Security? There’s no such thing…..there’s opportunity…there’s joy….there’s love.
    There are all kinds of wonderful things to do, to see, and to experience. If you are
    alive, you are the very epitome of insecurity. Unborn, you’re secure. Dead, you’re
    secure. In between is life. Don’t tiptoe through life looking for security; you are
    only trying to make it safely to death.” Author Unknown

  • Erica

    Fabulous!

    I first heard Christine when I was 16 years old; I was a junior at Clyde A Erwin High School in Western North Carolina. I remember sitting in the auditorium and thinking to myself, “Now who is this cool chick? Look, she’s wearing all black. She doesn’t seem to care.” (I, of course, was wearing some uncomfortable outfit and had perfectly sculpted hair that wasted several hours of my life that morning). I especially remember the lyric about your arm hanging over a raft, so you autograph the sea. For a brief moment I wasn’t an uncomfortable high school student. It was sheer bliss.

    Fast forward two years – I left high school (God definitely exists), plowed through four years of college at Chapel Hill, did well, graduated, got married, moved. Okay good. Now what? Well, I got a job that made muggles very happy. I worked as a technical writer for three years, and I even got my Masters in tech writing. I would make more muggle-pleasing money that way.

    The only problem was that I was miserable. I HATED my job. I hated software documentation. I hated cubicles. I hated crappy coffee. I hated the concept of a two-week vacation. I longed to do what I’d wanted to do all along but was too scared to try – go back to school and get a PhD in Southern Literature. I wanted to teach. I wanted to be a professor. (“You mean you go to school for ALL of those years and only make X amount of dollars???” Well, yes, but darn it, I would be happy).

    As kind fate would have it, my husband and my parents aren’t muggles. They are supportive, loving people, and so I did it. I’m starting my fourth year in the PhD program here in the swamp (Baton Rouge), and this spring I was officially declared ABD (all but dissertation). There’s light at the end of the tunnel!

    And I’m so happy. I have to pinch myself every time I start a new project, read a new book, write about a new book, or teach a class. And when I drive home on semester breaks (no two-week frustration for me), I listen to Christine. She inspires me.

  • Brian Marston

    Right on.

    Here’s the story of how I wrecked my potential:

    http://www.thecommonspace.org/2003/02/editor.php

  • LuAnn

    I really enjoy reading your blog. Educated wisdom is hard to find these days. I am surrounded by ‘Muggles’! When someone asks me what I do for a living, my answer is ‘hang out with my husband, run with my dogs, read, cook’….not, ‘i’m an insurance agent’! Be a person, not a title. Get a degree to increase your potential to be a better person. 🙂

  • christine

    Hey Matt,

    Here’s the deal… everything that your average blogger writes is totally free material for the viewer. Bloggers (when they’re good) provide lots of information and value to everyone for free. And the ads are what pay them to do it. So, it’s actually a cool system…especially cuz there’s some great stuff out there. Steve is very up front about his motivations and why he puts the ads on there, etc. But i get how it can be frustrating.

    Thanks for the note!

  • matt

    thanks for the story I couldn’t agree with YOU more…

    Steve Pavlina , on the other hand, I didn’t even make it past the ads. He has sold his soul and made Google ads more important than anything he has to say.. that is a perfect example of what I will always avoid in my life!

  • christine

    Jamie, Tim, and Jenna…

    Thanks for your thoughtful remarks. A few responses…

    Tim, when I saw Oprah speak in NC, she talked about a graduate student she was mentoring who was hating law school and wanted to drop out to become a chef, and the student said, “But my parents have spent like a hundred thousand dollars on me!” And Oprah said, “Well, how much is your life worth?” A pretty big question!

    Jamie, good luck on your “creative project!” (what is it?) Glad to be in the background!

    Jenna, if you love to write…PR might not be the answer! (Only you can know this though!) Waitress and write! And read “On Writing” by Stephen King or “If You Want to Write” by Brenda Ueland.

    As the old expression goes… Leap and the net will appear…

  • Jenna

    Just wanted to say thank for posting that – I read the whole thing and hopefully it’s given me a bit of perspective about life. I’m an Australian university student graduating this year and I strongly identify with the stressed student you write about. I worry so much about not getting a job, when instead I should be focusing on what I want out of LIFE instead. At the moment I’m trying to get into PR because I love to write – time will tell whether my experiences will be similiar to yours or not!

  • Tim MMF

    Very interesting perspective. I went through a period like that. I was gearing up to go to Optometry School where when I graduated I’d be making about $100k per year. But I decided to go with what I’m actually interested in and passionate about. I may only be looking at $60-80k when I graduate but at least I’ll be doing something I enjoy.

    Thanks for participating in the Carnival of Business! 🙂

  • Jamie

    As a fellow corporate PR drop-out and artist (my medium is the written word), I can only say Huzzah! to us and those awake (albeit scared silly) for taking the chance on ourselves. A friend loaned me your latest CD and I cried the first time I heard the first track. Now I listen over and over with a silly grin on my face, enjoying your humor, wit, wisdom, and rhythym. Thanks for your courage. I will listen to you as I put the finishing touches on my latest creative endeavor. Much love and light to you.

  • David (meer kitty2)

    Journal … write in your journal hmmmmm …

    That fees my addiction to Moleskine. Go to:

    http://www.moleskinerie.com/

    for lots of examples of creativity and a discussion of what seems to be lots of journal writers addiction.

  • christine

    Thanks Max! And thanks for sharing this with your readers…

  • Max Leibman

    Ha! I love this. Best thing I’ve read so far this May. Money line, for me [besides “potential is a muggle word”] has to be, “None of this is about not getting a job. (Though you could do worse than not getting a job.” I like your list of questions–spot-on. I’m a Pavlina fan, too; if ever there was someone who could talk about potential without descending into muggledom.

    A lot of people talk the “Know your unique strenghts, follow your dreams,” talk nowadays, but you capture how most of the language we tend to assume is in that camp is actually putting young people into boxes, trying to channel them into the last generations’ dreams (or what the last generation’s dreams became…)

    Anyhow, I’m rambling. Great post–thank you for sharing it.

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