What Keep us from Living Upto Our Potential and How to Overcome It?

What Stops Us from Living Upto Our Potential and How to Overcome the same by Mukesh Gupta

Maximilien Van Aertryck and Axel Danielson are documentary filmmakers based in Gothenburg, Sweden, who have worked together since 2013. They created a short film where they recruited 67 people who have never jumped into a swimming pool from a height of 10m (by paying them an equivalent of 30 USD) and filmed these participants while they decided to jump or not and their actual jump.

Maximilien, on his website says,

People who have never been up there before have to choose whether to jump or climb down. The situation itself highlights a dilemma: to weigh the instinctive fear of taking the step out against the humiliation of having to climb down.

TEN METER TOWER is an entertaining study of the human in a vulnerable position.

Before we move on and I share my perspective about the experiment and the dilemma, lets first watch the video.

What is Happening here

In my opinion, the experiment not only captures the emotions of the participants really well, it also informs us of human behaviour, when confronted with a difficult choice.

This difficult choice could be about quitting a bad job, could be about starting a new venture, could be about getting out of a bad relationship or even about having a difficult conversation with someone we care about. Each one of these situations, puts us in a very similar position as the dilemma faced by the participants in the study.

And we typically react the same way that the participants react. Some of us chicken out and some of us are able to push through the fear and uncertainty and face the fear. It is easier when see someone do it just before we attempt.

This fear of unknown or ambiguity is the single biggest reason why most people never realise their true potential and many dreams are never fulfilled. There are myriad reasons why this fear is so crippling, not just psychologically but physically as well.

One way to explain this fear is something that Jonathan Haidt proposed. He argues that the human mind can be likened to the combination of a rider and an elephant that he rides. The rider is the part of the brain that is rational system. This is the part that can plan and decide based on evidence and data. The elephant is the part of the brain that is emotional. This system is geared towards survival and if there is a remote chance that this system senses any danger, it can and will override all other system and control our reactions.

Now, it was the elephant that was controlling the people in the experiment above. Their rider knows that they are not in mortal danger by jumping off into the pool from 10m height. They have seen many people do it and come out unharmed. However, their elephant is too strong and afraid. That is the reason why, one person even feels his knees go weak. This is a clear sign that the elephant is in control.

What can we do about it:

The question then is the following:

Why are some people able to go ahead and take the plunge, while others back off? And what can we do so that this fear doesn’t cripple us in the future?

The reason why some people are able to go ahead and take the plunge is because their elephants trust their riders a lot. This happens because in the past the rider has got the elephant to take micro-risks and the elephant remembers that it was not mortal and that it was ok. At times, it even felt good after having done what the rider asked it to do. So, when it comes to taking this risk or facing this challenge (or for that matter any similar challenge, where there is no mortal danger), the elephant is able to trust the rider (albeit after a bit of coaxing – this is exactly what happens when you tell yourself, common, you can do it or something similar) and hence takes the plunge with the rider.

This is also the reason why, even after having seen a friend of your’s take the plunge and come back up unscathed, there are some of us who will still not take the plunge. This is because, our elephant doesn’t trust our riders enough, yet.

Just like in any relationship, we can do work to build this trust. In order to do so, we need to take tiny steps, that the elephant is uncomfortable but not crippled and show that it is ok. Then as trust builds, continue to increase the amount of risk and ambiguity so that the elephant starts to trust the rider and his senses.

What this means is that in order for us to succeed in overcoming our fear of failure, we need to fail small. If we want to overcome our fear of public speaking, we need to do small public appearances. IF we want to be creative and original, we need to start slow and show our creativity and originality. If we want to be able to have the uncomfortable conversations,  we need to start small and start having conversations that are not necessarily pleasant and work on. If we want to write a book, we start by publishing on a blog. If we are worried about singing on stage, we start singing in front of our families and friends and train ourselves.


As someone wise has said,

The only way to overcome fear is to go through it.

We are living in a world where creativity and originality will become more and more important. We need to be able to build our capacity to be original.

As James Victore says in his Dangerous Ideas

Failure is Your Best Option

If we are to fulfil our full potential and live a life that we are capable of living, we need to get comfortable with the idea of failure.

What is critical here is that we go through the loop –

  • Try something new.
    • It worked
    • It failed
  • Reflect on what happened
  • Learn from the reflection
  • Repeat

This is what I call the TR/LR loop which is critical in learning anything.

As long as we are able to get our elephants to trust our rider, we will be able to move forward and take some of these risks and have a better chance of fulfilling our potential.

PS: This film, titled Ten Meter Tower’ appeared at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It is part of a series produced by independent filmmakers who have received support from the nonprofit Sundance Institute.

PS: Here is a short video that in which Dan Heath explains the Elephant and the rider metaphor really well.

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