Warning: You Cannot Plug in Your Potential
“Let’s face it, this fellow cannot write.”
– Bob Manning about a young Tracey Kidder
“The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats.”
– Thoreau, conclusion, Walden
1. The potential for defeat abounds.
Tracey Kidder was twenty-seven years old when he walked into the hallowed Boston offices of The Atlantic Monthly, one of the United States’ most respected and longest running magazines, and asked for a freelance assignment. He found encouragement from an editor, Richard Todd, thirty-two.
Kidder started submitting several freelance pieces to Todd. Some of them were workable enough that Todd could help Kidder shape them into something publishable. Many were not.
Atlantic’s chief editor, the notorious and tenacious Bob Manning, once scrawled on one of Kidder’s pieces a note:
“Let’s face it, this fellow cannot write.”
But Kidder did write. He had to write. And eventually he learned how to write like a captivating author.
Had Kidder ever heard or listened to the publisher’s voice, Dr. Paul Farmer’s story of wanting to cure the world would never have been told in Mountains Beyond Mountains, readers would never have experienced the inspiring story of fifth-grade teacher Ms. Zajac in Among School Children, or had their minds cracked wide open to a whole new computer wave that not every one could see coming in 1981 as Kidder (and Todd) saw in The Soul of a New Machine.
And Kidder might never have won the Pulitzer.
Tracey Kidder, that kid who couldn’t write, is known now as a master of creative nonfiction and literary journalism.
Kidder had three things working for him that can work for any of us.
ONE: He found the kind of writing he loved to do – literary journalism – and he became devoted to mastering it even when his pieces were not accepted (and even though he feared the public seeing his really bad writing that Todd got to see).
TWO: He let his audacity override his doubt. Seth Godin would say that Kidder let his hubris fly. Judging from Richard Todd’s accounts, Todd would probably agree.
THREE: Kidder found a mentor, Richard Todd, whom he didn’t bow down to but whom he respected enough to keep his editorial direction. For over 20 years.
That is, Kidder learned his stuff. For over 20 years, he learned how to get his ego out of the way of the story he needed to tell.
And along the way, he wrote really crappy stuff.
2. Your writing potential is dynamic.
Every writer has dormant potential to be realized. Potential is not static, and pre-programmed. It’s not an, “Either you have writing potential or you don’t” proposition.
Your potential is like dynamic water.
When harnessed, your potential rises and rushes forward in full power.
And it serves entities far greater than your little self.
You have a book running through you. If you can find the methods, habits, and support to harness it, you can step out of the Amateur Bubble and step into the Apprentice-Artist Arena and ultimately flourish in the Artist-Maestro Stadium.
Anyone can do this.
3. Your potential is an acorn.
Being and becoming an Artist means you learn like an Artist.
You learn to think, work, and find support like an Artist.
To become an Artist, you don’t plug in the Mac Air and expect the Artist to come alive and be realized.
You don’t plug in your potential.
Within each of us, beyond nurture or nature, is an acorn of sorts, so goes one of Plato’s stories. It’s our calling, our own wisdom-duty, to find the attitudes, actions, and learning to let that acorn flourish.
If we don’t? We risk alienating ourselves and resenting or living vicariously through our children and others who pursue their own potential. And we perpetuate the message to ourselves, our loved ones, and others that some of us just don’t have the right to pursue their own potential.
4. Pursuing our potential brings us the deepest joy imaginable.
We complex creatures are happiest and most deeply gratified when we pursue bringing forth that potential.
And we’re happiest when we nurture that potential not just for ourselves but also for loved ones and for othes whose lives will be the richer for your having done so.
(Warning: Quick philosophy lesson) Aristotle and his Greek compadres called the force of potential a daimon. Daimon loosely translates to “genius.” When we’re in flow with fulfilling that potential, we are in eudaimonia. The closest English translation for eudaimonia is “happiness.” When Jefferson drafted the United States’ Declaration of Independence, he consulted Aristotle’s Ethics and wove in the phrase, “the pursuit of happiness.”
It is our right to pursue our potential. Declare yours.
But that doesn’t mean we’re entitled to applause or a big book deal.
The pursuit of that highest good within you is called Arete. Artists pursue Arete.
5. Don’t find your passion. Find your devotion.
Passion is fickle and high-voltage followed by erratic crashes. Devotion is deep and abiding. At the root of devotion is your vow.
If you’re a writer, be devoted to the page – its challenges, limitations, and possibilities.
Find support, too. Tracey Kidder had Richard Todd.
Pursuing excellence heightens your love and heightens your happiness.
If you love how writing and expressing yourself makes you feel, then imagine that loving feeling amplified by 100 when your work lodges in the hearts and minds of your audiences. That’s the feeling of your deep water rising.
Pursuing your potential is an Art. And you can learn it.