4 Steps to Maximizing Your Potential


As psychotherapists, we have a combined total of over 65 years of experience helping people maximize their potential. The good news is most of our patients have succeeded far beyond their wildest dreams. The bad news is they’ve never succeeded without having to fight—hard.

Be realistic: if fulfilling your potential were easy, more people would be doing it!

The reason it’s difficult is that there’s a force inside of every human being working to undermine you every step of the way. The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, called it the Death Instinct. But he didn’t believe there was a way to fight or defeat it.

Fortunately, he was wrong.

There are four habits that are indispensable in defeating Part X. You can develop them as systematically as you would the muscles in your body. Over time, these abilities enable you to live the kind of life you were meant to live.


One of fastest ways Part X can undermine you is to get you to give into your impulses: overeating, constantly checking your electronic device whenever it pings, overreacting to someone when they diss you, etc. Each lapse, in itself, seems insignificant. But that’s what’s so insidious about Part X: by getting you to give in to one “harmless” urge after another, it destroys your future.

Everything you want to accomplish in the future requires you to delay gratification in the present. If you want to write a book, you have to resist looking at cute cat videos. If you want your children to learn to interact with other people, you have to insist on a no-device rule at family meals. If you want a job promotion, you have to put in extra time on your current projects instead of going out with your friends. Self-indulgence exhausts the energy you need in order to get what you want out of life.

What stops us from controlling our urges is that deep down—on a level we’re not aware of—being deprived of what we want seems intolerable. (If you don’t believe this, look at a young child being deprived of what they want—a sugary drink, a toy, another ride on your back. The intense grief and anxiety they feel lives deep inside of all of us, and Part X takes advantage of it.)

What we’ve found is that you can not only tolerate deprivation—you can find something on the other side of it: a fullness inside you that you’ve never experienced before. The more you experience that inner abundance, the less you depend on instant gratification, and the more self-disciplined you become.

2. MEETING LIFE'S DEMANDS (even when you're overwhelmed)

We all have times when we’re exhausted or overwhelmed and we retreat from the demands of life. You’re coming to the end of a long work day and there’s a difficult phone call you need to make but you put it off until tomorrow. You allow your kids to stay up an hour past their bedtime because you’re too tired to corral them into bed. You wake up in the morning and you just can’t face the day, so you hit the snooze button.

Part X convinces us we don’t have a choice at these moments. It tells you your gas tank is empty. But it’s not. You have a hidden source of energy inside that can replenish and renew you right at the moment you’re exhausted. That energy allows you to do what seems impossible: re-engage with the world and meet the demands that, moments earlier, seemed overwhelming. Over time, this allows you to perceive life as it truly is: limitless.


When you want something with all your heart—to get into the college of your choice, have a book accepted by a publisher, start a new business—it’s natural to feel disappointed when you face a setback. But Part X is masterful at converting this normal disappointment into an all-pervading darkness that smothers hope. It convinces you to quit.

When you give in to this sense of demoralization, you destroy your ability to create the kind of future you want. Your answer to new ideas becomes, “Why bother?” What we’ve found is that it is possible to create hope out of despair. When you learn to bounce back, you gain something more empowering than success: the confidence that no matter how many times you get knocked down, you’re resilient enough to get back up again and keep moving forward.


No one likes to be wronged. Someone less qualified gets promoted over you, your partner talks to you in a dismissive or insulting tone, you get a ticket while the guy in the next lane runs a red light, etc.

The problem is, Part X gets us to hold on to these injuries—repeating them over and over again in our minds. “That wasn’t fair, how dare s/he, this shouldn’t have happened,” etc. In essence, Part X turns us into victims—the world becomes our enemy.

The victim attitude destroys potential. If you’re convinced the world is against you, you stop taking the emotional and creative risks that are essential to living a full life. Eventually, you lose relationships and opportunities, retreating to a timid (and aggrieved) life.

We’ve found that there’s a way to let go of injuries and recover from them as soon as they occur. In the words of the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, you discover “the true joy in life … being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”


These four abilities are crucial if you want to live the kind of life you know you could. But they don’t happen magically. You need what you could think of as a fifth step: specific tools that allow you to develop these abilities. Regular use of The Tools is what has enabled literally thousands of our patients—from all walks of life—to live fulfilling lives. 


This article was written by Barry Michels and originally appeared on Quora in answer to the question: "What are some habits that people can pick up quickly to help them maximize their potential in life?"