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On Potential

A fellow I got clean with years back — he stayed, I strayed — at the old Ford Street Project, over on, I think, Ford Street, got back in touch with me recently. He prefers anonymity so I’m going to call him Wendell, accent on the -dell, for no reason except I’d like a friend so appelled. I’ve always admired the African-American tendency of iamb over trochee or anapest over antibacchius in their polysyllabic naming, indeed their aversion to single-syllable names at all, which I like to think is because there is no musical or poetic potential in a single syllable. As I write this a black man named Mike is walking by, as if to point out my racist ignorance, but if you think that facility with the rhythms of language is not a hallmark of African-American culture, I invite you to take a look at the music-sales figures of the last couple decades. 

I feel like I’ve given something away here, as he is indeed a gentleman of color, and, Mendocino County being what it is, a little casual research would turn up a very short list of successful African-American graduates of the program. Successful (long-term sobriety) graduates are as rare as hen’s teeth anyway, and factoring in the homogeneous nature of the county’s population, you can clearly see I’m not being racist. I feel like I am, because acknowledgment of “race” as a legitimate defining characteristic is passe, pointless, and about as valid scientifically as phrenology or biorhythms.

Anyway, Wen-dell has become a successful writer in, of all places, New York City, essentially the opposite of Mendocino – opposite coast, incredibly diverse, cultural mecca, etc etc. I suspect his desire to remain anonymous resides in his current persona of hip “black” urban author (quotes to indicate his African-American-specific subject matter), which might suffer if it got out that he hailed from somewhere with more trees than people. His work isn’t bad, for genre fiction. I’m not the right person to critique it as my standards as to what constitutes “good” fiction are extremely rigorous, and the only time I muck around in any “genres” are occasional forays into sci-fi/fantasy/speculative, and then in only richest of the cream. But whatever I might think about it, the fact is that not only did this man write some books, he got them published and made a name for himself. He conceived characters, a plot, dialogue, scenes, and a resolution, put them all together logically enough that a publisher said, “I can sell this”, and then he did it again. That fact amazes me, and makes me envious of his industry and dedication. When I knew him, I had no inkling he had any ambition to write; I knew he was smart and funny and capable, and apparently he chose a field in which to exploit his natural gifts, set a goal, and achieved it. He didn’t sit around agonizing over whether he was good enough to be in print or compare himself to authors he admired; he just did it. This is the difference between potential and achievement. It is the difference between having a notion that you may want to be something and actually being it. It’s a matter of confidence, perseverance, and single-minded pursuit of goals. 

Who among us has not heard, at some point, from a teacher or parent or coach or anyone whose job it is to recognize and develop potential, that we are not living up to ours? Few if any, I’d bet, and I’ll tell you why: it’s hard, and dealing with disappointment is unpleasant. We are bombarded constantly with admonitions and aphorisms about getting back up after failing; stories about people like Sir James Dyson, who only realized his dream of developing a game-changing vacuum cleaner after 5,127 failed prototypes. Digest that number. After about five tries I’d have logically concluded that perhaps dust-busting was not my metier and moved on to something else. Or Thomas Edison, who, in addition to the tons of useful gadgets he contrived, invented thousands more pointless and forgotten things, and  plugged 1,000 different filament materials into his light-bulb before happening on the tungsten-coated thread that ushered us into the Electrical Age. Again, I would have shortly admitted that the warm glow of candlelight was not so bad after all. 

Many of you are probably familiar with the film Rudy, about a dogged young man with no discernable intelligence or athletic ability who nevertheless decided he was going to play football for an academically rigorous Division I university. He succeeded, sort of, though mainly in the way of people realizing that he was not going to give up, and it would be easier to just put a jersey on him than continue to watch him butt his thick head against the wall. I don’t know if the real Rudy had the oafish charm of Sean Astin, who portrayed him in the movie (and the similarly bullheaded Sam Gamgee in the Ring trilogy), but if so I’m sure that had a lot to do with his “success”. 

While it is true that society needs these maniacs as a necessary complement to the preternaturally gifted types who move us incrementally forward technologically and culturally, it is clear to me that they are mentally deranged. Whatever necessary mechanism in the brain we have that tells us we’ve reached the limits of our capacity is missing, and I’m sure that for every vacuum-improver or light-bulb inventor there are ten pathologically persistent nutjobs out there beavering away in pursuit of teleportation or invisibility, blithely contemptuous of physical law and convinced that success is just around the corner until the day they’re found electrocuted in the garage. 

An analogy to human potential can be drawn from the world of electricity: voltage, in electrical formulae, is expressed as E (electromotive force), also known as the potential difference (in pressure at opposite ends of the circuit). Current, represented as I, generated by a power source (W), is pushed through the circuit by the electromotive force. So, taking, for instance, a person with a clear and undeniable surfeit of talent and intelligence, who, rather than tapping that well of possibility chooses to loll around the house smoking pot and eating junk food, the gap between what a person of his gifts could become (positively charged electrons) and what he is actually doing (negative charge) is the unrealized potential, missing the power source and current necessary to complete the circuit. The solution to this problem clearly presents itself: jumper cables, attached to a car battery, and applied to the feet, giving life to the analogy and motivation to the slacker. 

The relationship between elements in an electrical circuit is expressed in Ohm’s Law, in which knowledge of two values will find you an unknown third, to wit: V = I x R, or voltage equals current times resistance. Calling voltage the heights to which any person might possibly achieve, current the actual getting off of one’s ass and doing something, and resistance being the inexorable compulsion to sit around in your underwear watching Game of Thrones, eating Cheetos, and wiping your fingers on the cat, you will see that once again, Science has reared its logical head and shown us the way. Maximize current and eradicate resistance and you will have realized your potential. 

Do not, however, make the mistake of venerating or emulating The Wizard of Menlo Park or Rudy Rettiger. However beneficial to self or society their insanity has ultimately proved, those whose derangement has resulted in fame and fortune surely caused their loved ones no end of woe. Imagine being the wife or mother of Vincent Van Gogh or Weird Al Yankovic. Not a pretty picture. 

Set reasonable goals, achieve a life of balance, and if your life contains a reservoir of untapped potential, consider it like mineral rights to a patch of land. I’d better quit now before I find myself ass-deep in a mining analogy. 


  1. Marshall Newman April 18, 2019

    To be fair, Weird Al Yankovic has married, been a family man and from all indications led a normal life, without a hint of controversy. He also has managed to be successful in a tough genre – humor – in the very, VERY tough music business for more than 30 years. Sometimes outliers succeed in every way.

  2. Flynn April 23, 2019

    I am a big fan of Al and meant no disparagement, only imagined his loved ones losing it as he obsessively and goofily reworded every song that came on the radio. I do it myself and people are rarely amused.

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