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Potential for what? And by whose measure?

The word “potential” has always left me cold because it measure’s individual capacity against outside expectations. It’s not fair.

I used to work with a woman who was hired as an assignment editor just a few years after college. She was smart, quick, personable, savvy and she really “got” news. What a winner she was, and senior management quickly tagged her for the fast track so she could achieve her true “potential.”

Our bosses plotted out a trajectory for her, giving her a written list of goals and objectives that would lift her through the ranks – fast.

They assumed their drive was her drive, their goals were her goals, their values were her values. Since they would have been honored to have been rewarded with such opportunity, they thought she would be over the moon about it. Nobody thought to ask her if that was what she wanted.

But, one night we went to dinner and she confessed her truth.

“I want to work my forty hours, then go home,” she said. “I want a family. I want a life. I have no ambition and I don’t think I should have to apologize for that.”

Is professional ambition a requirement for fulfillment? How much ambition is required? Does professional ambition count more than personal ambition?

She did a great job, but limiting her ambitions to that job in the lower management ranks would have seemed absurd to others who thought she should have wanted more. They would have assumed she lacked motivation or confidence. None of them would have taken a step back to see that she was choosing a path that gave her the balance and fulfillment that she wanted. That her fulfillment didn’t have to be achieved by their definition of her potential.

Her mentors wanted to rotate her through every department at the newspaper for three months at a time. What a great opportunity – one that just about any of us would have clamored for – but the idea made her sick. She felt she’d been put in a position where she couldn’t say no, so she said yes and convinced herself she would come to enjoy and appreciate the opportunity.

You could see a physical change in her during the first rotation. She wore the stress on her face. She wasn’t enjoying any of it, but didn’t know what to do.

I told her to speak up and ask to go back to the job she’d been hired to do. While that would kill her chance at moving up again, she didn’t think she wanted to move up again.

Rather than be honest about her own goals and dreams, she left the company and took a less demanding position across town. A year later, she got married, then quit when she became pregnant with her first child. I caught up with her on Facebook a year ago and she seemed concerned that I might not understand the choices she’d made with her life.

“Sorry,” she wrote. “I didn’t make much of myself professionally.”

Since I’d seemed more career driven, she thought I wouldn’t be able to see the value in her life as a stay-at-home mom. I didn’t judge her choices – I admired them. Her Facebook profile showed me a happy woman with a beautiful family. She knew what she wanted and honored her own values, rather than muting her own dreams to fit into someone else’s definition of what was best for her. How many people honor their true center?

She is happy.  She doesn’t have the prestige title or the fat paycheck or the power that comes with a senior position, but that doesn’t matter at all. She has everything she needs and wants. Isn’t that success?

Should she be measured against potential others defined for her, or the fulfillment she found within herself?

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