Everywhere we look, we’re inundated with perfectionism.

From Olympic gold medals to how to write a better to-do list (really!), there’s no end to the human quest to be the best. We get graded in school, graded in our jobs and graded — judged, really — often by those who love us the most.

Sometimes, it feels like we’re playing catch-up to the person other people want us to be.

Maybe you’re heard this before: “But I just want the best for you. You have so much potential.”

When someone tells you that “you have potential” it’s unfortunately seen as a negative. But potential is nothing more than a dormant quality that can be transformed into something you can use to be successful. (Notice how I didn’t write, “to be the best.”)

Your wake up call

The phrase has become a crutch for failure rather than what it should be: a wake up call.

If enough people say “you have potential,” there are two things possibly at work:

  1. They want you to be something you’re not and wish you’d change to meet their expectations, or
  2. They genuinely see something in you that perhaps you haven’t seen yet.

In either case, the wake up call is to turn off your cruise control and engage again in your life. Rather than looking outward for the solution, though, it’s time to look at the last place many of us think of. No, it’s not the people who are encouraging us to change: It’s yourself.

Yoga and meditation are often described as tools to help you reach your highest potential. If you’ve taken my class before, you’ll likely hear me tell you to release judgment of yourself during the practice.

This judgment — by yourself and others — makes a lot of things in yoga (and life) more difficult than they need to be. Is doing yoga difficult for you? Then make it easier. Take a knee, a palm, a chair, a break. Take child’s pose.

You are in control of your potential. How do you want to arrive? And, more important, what does success look like to you?

The little voice that says no

I just got a new camera, after accidentally breaking mine two weeks (right after I shot this epic photo with my dog). My new camera is a Canon EOS Rebel T3i, otherwise known as The Most Professional Camera I Have Ever Owned.

I excitedly opened the box and inside found a whole bunch of stuff I had to do before I could even take one photo. You know, such as learn how to use it. People buy point-and-shoots for a reason. You don’t have to think — you just do.

At one point, when I was opening all the little plastic bags with things inside of them, I felt a familiar despair that likes to visit occasionally. She’s my inner “you can’t do it” voice.

(I think she’s just bitter because she used to come around a lot more before I started doing yoga.)

Holding this camera in my hand, I feel so much potential. The beauty of its photos will not lie as much in the machine as it will in my ability to understand and use it well. Right now, my understanding is slim, causing me to become discouraged before I even start.

Sound familiar?

Reclaim your potential

 A lot of us abandon hobbies, other people and ourselves because we don’t know how to turn our potential into reality.

Nine times out of 10, not being able to achieve perfection is our road block. As I began to take photos with my camera this week, I realized that I was expecting every photo to be perfect. This is silly because I’ve never studied photography and have owned the camera for less than a week.

Still, I was beating myself up because my photos were not what I had envisioned in my mind.

And then I listened to this 2011 commencement address by comedian Conan O’Brien, who said:

“It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound reinvention.” (you might want to tweet this)

He was speaking about how he was fired from his late night TV show, the job he worked 17 years to get, due to the unexpected comeback of Jay Leno.

When someone else wins — gets the job, takes the better photo, can do a yoga pose that we can’t quite yet — that doesn’t mean we’re not as good as them.

It means we have two choices: to complain or stick with the conviction that with “hard work and kindness” (thanks, Conan) you will be remade better than you could have imagined.

How do you do this?

  1. Be kinder to yourself when you perceive a fault or failure by acknowledging that you did the best you could at the time.
  2. Rethink your idea of perfection.
  3. The most important one of all:

Don’t give up too soon

After a few too-dark pictures that were supposed to be light, and too blurry pictures that were supposed to be sharp, I’m tempted to keep my camera in auto mode.  I’m resisting the urge because the real perfection happens on the most imperfect of paths.

I felt a similar discouragement when I started doing yoga. I thought there was no way I could look like those perfect yoga poses I saw in magazines. And you know what? Sometimes I still don’t, but success to me is not emulating a magazine. Success is a peaceful, happier me.

If you’re asking yourself why your life, relationship or goal isn’t unfolding the way you want, ask yourself: “Is fear of failure causing me to give up too soon?”

On Facebook this week, I saw this photo of Extended Side Angle Pose with the quote: “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” — Thomas Edison

Extended Side Angle, Thomas Edison quote

Extended Side Angle feels like giving up. It’s hard. It doesn’t feel natural, unless you practice and grow accustomed to it, and until you let go of your perceived ideal of the pose.

Sometimes you need to give up. For example, trying to change others (because you can’t) or your addiction to The Bachelorette because the season’s over (true story).

But you shouldn’t give up just because something is difficult, imperfect or not working out the way you thought it would.

You often never know when success will come or even how it will come. But it definitely won’t come at all if you give up.

I say this with the utmost sincerity: You have so much potential.

Now, go live it.

Living your potential

Try this variation of Utthita Parsvakonasana, Extended Side Angle Pose, to get out of your (perfectionist) mind and into your body.

  1. Follow these instructions to get into Warrior II pose, right leg forward and bent.
  2. From the waist, lean forward over your right knee and rest your right forearm gently on the thigh.
  3. Bring your left arm straight in front of you and tug your arm back into the shoulder socket. Raise the arm over your left ear, spiraling your bicep inward.
  4. Stay rooted in your feet and twist your upper body toward the sky.
  5.  If comfortable, gaze up underneath the armpit, careful not to rely heavily on your right arm for support. Rather, extend your side bodies long as you take six deep breaths.
  6. Repeat on the opposite side.

Does perfection keep you from living your potential? I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments.