Exceed Your Potential

By Stephen T. Messenger

September 7, 2021

Thomas Edison as a child overheard a conversation between his teacher and a school inspector. The teacher said it wasn’t worthwhile to keep Edison in school because he was “addled” and had trouble thinking clearly. In this one hurtful sentence, the teacher unfairly defined Edison’s potential according to his own perceptions.

The world likes to define your potential. It often measures your performance by observing a few snapshots in time and imposes judgements onto what you can accomplish in the future. Much like this teacher, the world has no idea what your true potential is and honestly, neither do you.

Potential is much different than performance. Potential is the capacity to achieve unrealized ability. Performance rises and falls on an almost daily, or even hourly, basis—think about playing a game of chess where you’re winning one minute and in checkmate the next. Potential is more constant over time and, for a leader who seeks constant improvement, can only rise.

Your potential is defined by three areas.

1. Your Outer Circle. These are the people with whom you loosely interact. They don’t see your full capabilities but only observe you on the peripheral at work, school, or through social media. From brief glimpses of your performance, they judge your potential early and mentally cap you at a certain level. They are not the most accurate assessors.

2. Your Inner Circle. This group knows you well. You are intimately involved in each other’s work, family, or social life. They see you at your best and worst. While they are a more accurate assessment of your potential because they observe you more, they are still biased based on their personal lenses of experience and history. This assessment is better, but not necessarily accurate.

3. Your Personal Voice. The most dangerous place judged potential comes from is yourself. I say dangerous because we’re all human, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of considering ourselves way less than we’re worth. Sometimes hearing negative feedback from the outer and inner circles can cause our own view of potential to drop.     

In Edison’s case, his teacher (inner circle) defined his potential to both the inspector (outer circle) and himself (personal voice). This event could have crippled one of the greatest minds of that time.  

The world should not define your potential. No one, not even yourself, knows how much you can achieve in the future if you fully commit to your goals. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” 

We were at our daughter’s volleyball tournament where a common theme was for teams to have an inspirational quote on the back of their jerseys. I read with mild interest some of the motivational sayings defining each team’s mantra when my wife elbowed me to look at one.


The world is going to attempt to define our potential through comments, evaluation reports, and comparisons to others. Our job as leaders is twofold:

1. Prove them wrong and exceed that potential, no matter how high or low they judge it

2. Help others realize their unlimited potential

One first step is to ditch those in your life who are seeking to limit you. Refuse to listen to these voices who say you are not intelligent enough, strong enough, or capable enough to achieve your goals. They are wrong, and you need to eliminate these voices from your head.   

The second step is to be the voice that encourages and motivates others to achieve their maximum standard. Leaders help draw out unrealized potential in others and encourage them to do more.

Thomas Edison’s mom did both. After hearing about the teacher’s comments, she brought young Tom back to school and in his own words:

“…angrily told the teacher that he didn’t know what he was talking about, that I had more brains than he himself, and a lot more talk like that. In fact, she was the most enthusiastic champion a boy ever had, and I determined right then that I would be worthy of her and show her that her confidence was not misplaced.”

Edison’s mother fundamentally changed his life’s trajectory that day. Leaders first exceed their own potential and next help others realize their limitless future. Sounds like the definition of a great mom!


The Wizard of Electricity. T.P’s Weekly. Volume 10. November 29, 1907 p. 695. https://books.google.com/books?id=7phFAQAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

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