May 4, 2023

Protect Your Potential

We all remember that essential childhood wisdom passed down to us from our forebears: “Don’t talk to strangers.” There’s actually a lot to be said about the irony and accuracy of that imperative, given that humans are necessarily social animals and that for centuries , we actually had to avoid strangers who might raid and pillage our settlements. Unfortunately, people today often forget that strangers are potentially dangerous and are too quick to follow them or be misled by them. There’s something in our instincts that drive us to reject the old and familiar in favor of the new and interesting. It’s really a weird, paradoxical and almost nonsensical behavior we all have –we cling to the comfortable and familiar for dear life, but at the same time, we’re so easily enamored and fascinated by new things. We’re not that different from monkeys or even racoons. All it takes to trap us is a shiny new object of perceived value. Sometimes we’ll even cut familiar things away faster than we can even understand new things we’re chasing.

It’s also how we so often end up with bad leaders in politics, industry, religion, or anywhere. I would even argue that we gravitate more to new people than new things sometimes. With this in mind then, we need to address how and why we gravitate to new people and whether or not that’s generally good for us. It’s pretty hard and laborious work to constantly try and sort out our own good from bad choices (much less others’ choices) and to assess leaders with seemingly good intentions from those with attractive words but no good intentions to back them up. This is why I always encourage everyone to put your leaders to task – make them (whoever they may be) accountable, make them represent you, and above all, hold them responsible. Kindly ignore my natural Gen X instinct to indiscriminately challenge all authority and take this as sincere and objective: challenge authority for good reasons.

"Nobody is a villain in their own story."
The world is a rough and unforgiving place. While there are some misleading leaders that are unapologetically out to use and take from us, most bad leaders don’t even start out that way. Most start out in life just like the rest of us, trying to be decent people, working to get by and be safe and happy, finding our way in the world, etc. But some of us with the right opportunities fall into the temptation of taking advantage of people to gain their own advantage in such a challenging world. Fulton Sheen one reminded us that we “must remember to love people and use things, rather than to love things and use people.” It’s so easy, when we’re all struggling for our own piece of the world, to forget that and commodify people as we’re taught to commodify things. Nonetheless, the quality of our character is our responsibility and ours alone. And, after all, “nobody is a villain in their own story.”

Because of this, when I teach classes on morality and ethics, I always teach that the trick in making good decisions is to discern what is good in every situation, every day, at every minute. It can be a lot of work (and usually is), but the truth of life is that change is inevitable, so we have to always watch for change and try to flow with it or get trampled by it. What’s good for us today, may not be tomorrow and what worked yesterday may not even work today at all. And always be cautious of those people that show up in our lives during times of trouble with promises that seem a little too good. People in distress are like blood in the water to people that feed off of self-glorification and opportunism.

We become cash cows for bad leaders for decades.

In the first few years of our adult lives, we’re particularly barraged and assaulted by people trying to take advantage of us, from financial and government institutions to religious leaders to family and friends. Politicians clamor for youthful votes to stay relevant and maintain their job security. Religious leaders pile on guilt and responsibilities knowing that people are more likely to leave religion as it becomes less of a family necessity. Financial institutions dangle credit cards and student loans in front of us to get their hooks in us while we don’t have a clue what we’re doing so we become cash cows for them for decades to come.

Young adults in particular hold a lot of power they don’t even realize – the power of nearly unlimited potential, years of potential ahead of them that is theirs to use as they see fit. If this is you, don’t let anyone take that from you. There will be a lot of people who want to use that potential for their own gain, their own comfort, pleasure, or vanity. Like God, we are tasked to look past surface appeal and challenged with seeing into the heart of those around us, to analyze their behaviors and judge their abilities based on their past, their present, and their own potential. It’s obviously a huge topic that I’m only scratching the surface of right now, but I (or rather, old dead guys who were way smarter than I’ll ever be) can leave you with two key pieces of advice above and beyond all else.

J.R.R. Tolkien, referencing one of his nobler yet less comely characters in The Lord of the Rings, wrote that “fair speech may hide a foul heart.” And the philosopher Karl Poppper said, perhaps more importantly, that "those who promise us paradise on earth never produce anything but hell."