Your phone rings. The bright letters on the screen make you reluctant to answer, but after a moment of hesitation you decide to pick up. Silly you, always trying so hard to be a good friend. The words ¨hey man, how are you¨ have barely left your mouth, when your friend starts a five minute long dialogue about his current state of being. Overwhelmed by the cascade of words that pours into your ear, you hardly pay attention to what he says: something about an internship, his latest grades, a girl he met on Tinder, kick box classes, the healthy food he has been eating and a master abroad.
Somehow you manage to make it through ten more minutes of unidirectional conversation. Feeling exhausted, you hang up the phone and wonder since when people need so many words to express how they are doing. You cannot help but feeling sorry for your friend. He seems so committed to reaching his full potential in every aspect of life that he never succeeds to live up to the ambitious standards he poses for himself. Consequently, he lives a life of chronic anxiety. Honestly, the fact that you can easily relate to your friend is what scares you the most. You too try to develop yourself as much as possible and you too feel like you are always one step behind.
The story above aims to exemplify the basis on which we evaluate our own state of being. Of course, every human is unique and this basis differs from person to person. Nonetheless, we cannot deny the role culture plays in shaping this basis. Arguably, the idea of ‘maximizing our talents’ forms a central part of modern culture and determines our perception of how we are doing: someone who feels like he is reaching his full potential thinks he is doing great, whereas someone who does not manage to do so feels like he is lacking behind.
So, how did the idea of ‘reaching our full potential’ become so prominent? First, we can point at the post-WWII increases in personal freedom and economic wealth. As a result of these developments, many people have acquired the autonomy to choose the way in which they want to live their lives. That is, for the first time in history large parts of the population are able to choose their type of education, their profession and much more. Confronted with this widening array of choices, people also start to feel responsible for making the most out of the options they have.
The rise of mass media strengthened the popular belief in self improvement. Mass media tend to focus on exceptional individuals, ranging from the exceptionally beautiful to the exceptionally funny. Furthermore, mass media give marketing professionals a useful tool for advertising. Advertisements too generally focus on the exceptional and often revolve around the simple message ‘buy this and you will be just as cool as these people.’
Finally, smartphones and social media play a central role in imprinting the idea of reaching our full potential in our brains. First, smartphones give us continuous access to mass media. Consequently, mass media are becoming more important in shaping our cultural environment. Second, social media add a whole new dimension to this phenomenon. Whereas mass media only inform us about extraordinary achievements of distant people, social media keep us informed about the achievements of ‘ordinary people’ in our close environment.
When theorizing about cultural evolution scientists often use the term meme. The so called meme is the unit of cultural heredity. Memes consist of cultural elements like, for instance, dance moves, catch phrases, words, songs, hairstyles and so forth. It is essential to know that the reproduction of these memes does not depend on the reproduction of the human individuals that carry them around. That is, memes proliferate not because they are especially helpful for human survival nor because they make us happier, but simply because they taste, look, feel or sound good.
This opens up the possibility for the existence of so called infectious memes: memes that proliferate by exploiting some genetically built-in characteristic of their human host. To illustrate this, Daniel Dennett – an important theorist in this field – argues that the chocolate cake can be seen as an infectious meme. Because of our built-in preference for food that contains a lot of sugar and fat, eating a chocolate cake feels amazing. However, the chocolate cake´s high doses of sugar and fat are harmful for the health of the human individual.
In an analogous fashion the idea of ‘reaching our full potential’ can be seen as exploiting our genetically built-in desire to be a respected member of society. We believe that reaching our full potential is the way to go. But, when taken to the extreme, this belief can be detrimental for normal psychological functioning.
Being extremely fit, getting high grades, eating super healthy and speaking five languages fluently: striving for perfection is fighting a lost battle. In a world of finite time and resources, reaching your full potential is an impossibility. In trying to do so, you are like a juggler that is doing an act with too many balls. Any time you prevent one of your balls – your ambitious projects – from falling down, you anxiously realize that two others are about to hit the floor.
Don’t feel bad about letting some balls drop, it is the natural thing to do. There is no fundamental reason to believe that you have to be excellent in every aspect of life. That belief is only based on an idea that managed to settle itself in your brain through modern culture.