Full of “Potential” = Full of You Know What…

Posted on February 6, 2010. Filed under: startups | Tags: , , |

So today I am 28 years old.  When I was 24 I used to look at other Associates at venture capital firms who were 27 and 28 years old and think to myself “well, I’m four years ahead of these guys.”  When I was 26 and founding my first company I used to look at 30 year old founders and think “well, I’m 4 years ahead of these guys.”  Now that I’m 28, I look around at my peers and I’m pretty much right smack in the middle, not really “ahead” of anyone.  And what’s worse is, 2 years from now, I’m going to look around and start to say “well, I’m 2 years behind these guys.”  It’s already happening.  I spend time with a guy like Chris Hughes (26 I think) and leave thinking “well, I’m 2 years WAY behind that guy.”

For the first 18 years of life, and really through college, I think most young people are valued by their peers/teachers/family, etc… based on “potential”.  Especially is the case with my generation (and I have heard many baby boomers…hi Joel …complain about this fact) we are constantly told that we “can do whatever we want,” and that we are “special, and going to do amazing things in life.”  We are told that we have the potential to outperform the norm, to differentiate ourselves, and escape the statistics of mediocrity.  Depending on a specific student’s maturation and interests in college, part of the pack begins to focus on turning that “potential” into “actual,” and the majority of us begin to struggle with this conversion in our first year of work after school.

In a world where everything is ahead of you, it is very easy to believe that you will achieve your dreams, but as years begin to pass and we are inevitably not as close to those dreams as we thought we would be, we begin to wonder why all that “potential” has not properly converted into “actual”.  As an analyst in an investment bank, the masses of high potential youngsters are able to attribute the disconnect to external forces holding them back.  “These ass holes have me putting together mindless powerpoint presentations.  I’m not using my talent here.  They’re the ones who are not letting me realize my potential, but I am still special.”

For most, the frustration of these external mitigants drives us to flee the confines of entry level positions for an environment where we will have the latitude to finally spread our wings and achieve our imminent greatness.  So we jump from entry level at XX, to slightly above entry level at YY, and yet still we are not where we thought we would be when we were 18 and had ambitions of taking over the world.  Conveniently, there is still a structure in place on which to place the blame.  But with more responsibility in this new environment the story of “I’m not achieving my full potential because of something other than me” begins to dilute.  Even though we may be doing really well in this new chapter of real life, we’re still not “breaking out” like the outliers who we read about in the newspapers, etc.  “25 year old Harvard Grad returns 1000% on his own hedge fund and simultaneously saves 10,000 baby seals through an innovation in oceanic chemical treatment.” We think to ourselves, “I’m 25, I went to Harvard, how many baby seals have I saved?  Zero.  If only the Partner at my firm didn’t stifle my desire to experiment with oceanic chemical treatments, I would be the one in the WSJ.”

For me, one of the first things I realized when I took the plunge into entrepreneurship, was that all of the sudden, there was no external structure to account for a disparity between my “potential” and the “actual.”  Now, if I’m not Chris Hughes at 26, I’m simply not Chris Hughes.  I still may achieve an “actual” that I feel is on the same level as his accomplishments (unlikely J), but the reality is it might take me 10 more years than it took him.  And in those 10 years, he is going to achieve more amazing things, and at the end of our lives when we look at our respective “actuals,” Chris Hughes will have objectively outperformed me.  Why? Because he is simply more advanced.

So I look at 28, and I think to myself, “everything I accomplish from this day forward will be slightly less impressive than had I done it at 27.”  This is not to say I am upset about turning 28.  My pace is my pace, and everyday I put 100% of my effort into realizing my “potential,” but I am conscious of the fact that every year that passes signifies a declining window in which I can make it happen.  Realizing our dreams is a true race against time.

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33 Responses to “Full of “Potential” = Full of You Know What…”

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hmmm…people seem to be interpreting this post as negative or dismayed…I meant it more as a call to action to “start turning your potential into actual…it’s in your hands”…didn’t mean to disenchant anyone 🙂

Changed the title from “shit” to “you know what”…that should soften things up…

Damn dude. You must have gotten your ego clubbed in the head recently or something.

Little Story: I went to Catholic school my whole life. My sophomore English teacher was this awesome redheaded old lady named Ms Callahan. Her job, as she saw it, was as much about making us into men and shaping our character as it was teaching us to read and write. She taught us her own tweaked version of Kolhberg’s 6 stages of moral development, the details of which I’ve forgotten, except for one: Honor. Being honor-driven is about seeking recognition from society and your peers. The problem with honor is that it depends on the whims and perceptions of others, which are inherently fickle and are based on impressions not necessarily correlated to anything substantive. It’s not what you’re talking about exactly, but it’s related…

As I see it, the problem with your line of reasoning is that (at least as the post reads) is the that the measure you’re using to judge yourself and your life––the goal post, as it were––is other people’s visible “accomplishments.” Fuck that.

But first, a diatribe: The system for people like us who go to these fancy schools and are fast tracked to enter the elite/ruling class of society encourages precisely this kind of thinking. In school, you get grades, you please the teacher/professor/TA/etc. We’re trained like little monkeys to jump through the hoops and get into Ivy League School X and then get hotshot internship Y and then move along to prestigious job Z (cough *ibanking*). Each accomplishment is a badge of honor that you use to measure yourself against others and thus determine your worth. David Brooks wrote a great article about this phenomenon called “The Organization Kid.” Read it: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200104/brooks

The problem with the whole fucking system is that it leads even smart fucking people like yourself to look around, compare yourself and say “Shit, this whole race is fucking hopeless. I’m fucked.” Which, by the way, it is, and if you judge yourself on that measure, you are.

But the thing is, at the end of the day, it’s not about fucking Chris Hughes or fucking Mark Zuckerberg or whatever other genius you want to compare yourself to. There will always be someone smarter/stronger/better faster. The game is rigged, my man. Don’t play it!

The real question is: Who are you? Did you pursue your dreams? Do you love being alive? Are you the person, the goddamn human being you want to be? Is this the fucking life you want to live? Or is it a fucking game you’re playing to impress people and live up to what you think the world expects from you?

Now, I’m just a dude trying to make it like everyone else, but in my opinion, these are the questions you should be asking, reflecting upon and wrestling with. It’s hard game, but at least it’s one you can win.


First off…easy on the f-bombs please…my mother reads this blog 🙂

2nd, you’re missing the point of my post. 1) I am very proud of what I have accomplished to date. Nobody has clubbed my ego, I am simply humble enough to recognize that others have achieved more in the same amount of time. 2) The fact that Chris Hughes/Mark Zuckerberg exist does not disenchant me, it inspires me. 3) The only game I’m playing/competing in is with myself…the benchmarks I mention of other people simply help calibrate my expectations. 4) if you’ve been reading my blog, it should be clear that I am pursuing the life I want to live. thanks for sharing your perspective

Goodie. I’m glad I misread your intent.

The post touched a bit of a sore spot that I have regarding the aforementioned game/rat-race and elite culture. Hence the, umm, strongly worded response.

I think this is a fantastic post. I feel this way with every day that I waste. We only have ourselves to blame at the end of the day. We are in a race against time, and using others as a barometer pushes us to be better than them.

There is nothing wrong with waking up and saying “I am two years behind that guy”. I do that now. I am 18, yet I am still four years behind Farrah Gray, who made his first million at 14. it just makes me push harder every day. Not the healthiest way to live, but it forces success in the right people.

I mean, sure, maybe this attitude will get you your first million a bit quicker. But at certain point, money doesn’t buy happiness. And besides, you’ll always be below someone else on a different list, like say the Forbes 500 list. I mean, I’m an entrepreneur and I want to make lots of $$$ too, but this just doesn’t seem like a game anyone can win.

Furthermore, define success. Is it measured in money? Or is it internally directed? And what value is money if not the internal state it can help you acheive (via the circuitous path of changing your external circumstances).

I like it. Very clear self awareness. Thanks for writing! I don’t think it’s negative at all.

When you compare yourself to others I would avoid using age as the measuring stick. If you’re worried about your timeline, you will worry your time away.

Let others worry about comparing themselves to you and then they’ll be the one writing our your list of accomplishments, so you won’t even have to do it anymore. 🙂


Jordan – This really hit a nerve for me. I’ve also been extremely competitive my whole life and was brought up in an educational environment that encouraged constant comparison with your colleagues as a measure of success. I grew up in England where every single grade you got on a paper or math problem set was read out loud by the teacher to the entire class. Everyone knew their exact pecking order down to the percentile.

Honestly, I think that being influenced to compare myself to others like this from such a young age was by far the most damaging thing to ever happen to me. It inflated my ego to huge sizes, made me act immaturely when playing sports, made me act very selfishly, and made me a terrible terrible older sibling to my younger brother who I also competed with ruthlessly even though he always just looking up to me. I get emotional just thinking about it. The scar tissue from my childhood still haunts me deeply but thank god I finally saw the light and have been drastically changing my values and and the way I derive my happiness over the last couple years.

This really needs its own post, but in short, I am happy today. I am living my dream today. My happiness is dependent on me only, not the external world.

Man there is so much more I want to say because this touches on such a deep nerve for me. But I just have to stop here and get back to work :). However, I think my first (and only so far) blog post speaks more exactly to what I’m trying to say.


Do you optimize your life for money, success, fame? Or for deep and enduring happiness and enlightenment.

Sounds Like you have come a long way Carter. I think you can use this competitive streak to your advantge or detriment, sounds like you started at detriment but moved on…I optimize to achieve maximum positve impact on the world

Difficult to see how this sentence (in the last paragraph):

“So I look at 28, and I think to myself, ‘everything I accomplish from this day forward will be slightly less impressive than had I done it at 27.'”

is a call to action. I have to agree with Matt’s initial reaction to the post.

There is a message embedded in this post that is striking a sensitive chord with a lot o people. I am Having trouble distilling out what it is. Can you please articulate what element or message you take issue with? Will help me to respond thoughtfully

For me, it’s age as a defining metric for innovation and potential. The last two sentences of the post. To me, it sounds as if you are opting in on Leone’s bias

The other message is also metrics based: defining success relative to what our “peers” are doing rather than any internally-based measure, i.e. am I happy in my work, am I helping others, am I contributing to society in a positive way, etc.

I see the gist of what you are trying to say, “Get out there and perform to your utmost” but the language points in another direction.

But if your internal metric is “how much am I helping people” why can’t you judge your effacy relative to other people who have helped many?

It’s still a losing game, because no matter what, you’re still not mother theresa. In this competitive framework you’re setting out, the emphasis is always on “What/Who I’m Not” rather than what/who you are. It assumes that your destiny is to be at the top, which is just realistic. For your mental health, I think it’s just better to be grateful for doing something cool and meaningful rather than worrying about who you’re not keeping up with.

I really like the point about the transition point in our lives between focus on potential to focus on actualization. And I feel this occurring for me now, at age 27, after 4+ years in the work force in entry level-ish positions (defined, perhaps, as roles that are more reactive than proactive).

I think it’s good, to a point, to have defined goals, and it’s helpful to look to others, again to a point, in the goal formulation process. I also understand, I think, the point that other peoples’ achievements are points of reference not competition, as what matters is only your personal conversion rate of potential to actual.

That being said, I take issue with a) the very concept that, if you wanted to, you could theoretically objectively compare your efficacy to others’; b) the notion that achievements become less impressive with age.

Let’s take Chris Hughes. I have no doubt that he’s an immensely talented and admirable individual. But weren’t his “objective” accomplishments heavily influenced by the sheer chance of his having gone to college with Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz? Our output is a function of many things, some of which are under our control and others of which are not. To use output as a proxy for “efficacy” seems to imply that luck and happenstance (birth circumstances, relationships, serendipitous incidents) should rightfully factor into an honest assessment of our impactfulness as human beings.

Second, I strongly believe that fixation on age is one of the most counterproductive human tendencies. Every person (and aspects of a given person) develops along a unique timeline. Things happen at a given point because we’re ready for and open to them happening and perhaps because of some external stimulus. I think this notion of “declining marginal impressiveness” or whatever disregards that fact; if I accomplish something at age 22 or 28 or 40 so be it…it happened then and could probably only happen then due to the unique set of circumstances that enabled it.

To sum up, I think it’s wise to have goals because a sense of who are and who you want to be is healthy (else you are entirely rudderless and at the mercy of the moment). And looking to others helps right size expectations for ourselves. And it’s good to strive because sense of progress/achievement/productivity brings fulfillment. But we’re each unique with singular life conditions (trying to optimize those factors for maximum meaning and fulfillment) and this precludes meaningful comparative assessment, even if it were desirable. That’s at least how I think about it right now.

Happy birthday, Jordan – hope you have a good one man! 2010 should be a pretty exciting year as you build up JumpStart, I’m looking forward to it.

Interesting post too – I’ll be turning 25 later this year and I used to feel the same way whenever I’d read about others who are already making millions around the same age, but now I hardly ever find myself thinking about it. Instead I try to focus on the future and just think long-term.

One of my most favorite books is “The New New Thing”, by Michael Lewis, which profiles Jim Clark. Amazing life story… he went through 2 failed marriages, a failed career path, and manic depression, then at 38yrs of age he founded SGI and two more multibillion-dollar companies after that (Netscape and Healtheon).

Another example – Mark Cuban made his first billion at 41yrs old when Broadcast.com was acquired in 1999. I love his post on “the sport of business” – http://bit.ly/c7IJq1, it just highlights the life-long dedication and intensity required to hit the high notes in our field and quickly capitalize on opportunities bc time is always working against us.

Ultimately though, I think life is one big poker game. It doesn’t matter how many pots you win or how quickly you win them, all that matters is how many chips you end up with in the end.

So, I don’t think at all about money when looking at other’s achievements…I think about what they’ve built and the impact of it…also, one thing that is becoming clear is that plmy post aha evoked a concept of competition with others which is not at the heart of my perspective. I use success stories as a benchmark for what is possible, not as a bar that I am trying to beat

Agree, and Chris Hughes has done amazing work over the past few years, my point is that you never know what’s going to happen in the future in the long-run, regardless of age. I mentioned money only because it’s the most objective measure we have to measure the magnitude of our impact from what we build, sort of like a score-card more so than an end in itself.

I love your blog. Please write more.

Good post Coop, it strikes close to home (I’ve always had a difficult with “where am I compared to X” thoughts.)

Happy birthday!

First, Jordan I love your blog because you are so damn honest and willing to go out on a limb. That is commendable. Second, this is a wonderful discourse. I find it interesting that so many of us have had the common experience you describe (comparing ourselves with others).

I myself am not in the business world. But I, like many of you, was taught from a very young age that to lead a meaningful life I had to succeed at the highest levels in a competitive world. If I did not achieve conventional success, I perceived, I would be judged a failure. It is possible to live somewhat comfortably within this belief system during our schooling years. In school, the benchmarks for academic, athletic, and social success are quite clear. But I think that outside of that incredibly sheltered and formalistic environment, the belief system falls flat. We can attempt to devise some new metric within which to compete (I suggest “impact” might be one such metric), but the metric will never be as simple and agreed-upon as the early benchmarks. And, more fundamentally, it will just be another social construction based on relative success and competition. The extent to which competition has been worked into our belief system is highlighted by the expression I’ve seen that “I compete against myself.” Who is “I” and who is “myself?” And why compete against yourself?

Do we need to confine ourselves within constructed competitive frameworks? I would agree that there is something to the drive we feel and the desire to excel that is organic, beyond the competitiveness that we are taught. But I like to think about it in terms of mastery, not competition. The underlying message of the blog post, which Jordan describes as “start turning your potential into actual,” is consistent with mastery. It might seem like I am quibbling over semantics, but I think there is a deeper distinction.

what seems to work for me and my happiness is just that my dream is just working towards my dream. my dream is to be doing what i do (philosophy, playing jazz piano etc.) and not really to BE anything in particular.. so i don’t feel like i’m really running out of time at all.

the becoming is better than the being, imo..

a recipe for mediocrity or being ordinary? perhaps. but there’s something nice about being completely ordinary….

easy to say coming from one of the most extraordinary people i know…

Ya, Yang hit it on the head. That’s what I meant in my rambling response before. You can still achieve incredible things and change the world, but it’s best to derive happiness from being in that state every day. “My dream is to be doing what I do” Exactly.

“If only the Partner at my firm didn’t stifle my desire to experiment with oceanic chemical treatments, I would be the one in the WSJ.”

Great column J, I feel like part of the issue is the constant measurement against peers, it’s endless. Relative measurement certainly has it’s uses, particularly in management, but for an individual it’s important to be able to step away.

“Realizing our dreams is a true race against time.” That last sentence reminded of a runner. Any runners should get that – your blog post.

Happy belated birthday and keep it up!

PS. I’m more a tennis player than a runner!

Nice post – I can relate. You spend the first 25 years of your life exceeding expectations – outperforming those around you – so you set loftier goals and surround yourself with even more successful folks. Next thing you know you’re comparing your performance to the most successful people on the planet and wondering what you’re doing wrong. 🙂

The one thing I think you miss is the role of chance in all of this (see case studies in outliers/black swan). If Chris Hughes is the example, remember that he just happened to be Mark Zuckerberg’s roommate. I don’t know the specifics, but I’d wager that this arrangement was random and that it had a major influence on both of their success – as did many other factors out of their control. I’m not suggesting they wouldn’t have had success eventually, but to achieve that much by such a young age you need to be talented, driven AND lucky.

[…] My last post on this blog was 5 days ago (my 28th birthday).  My lull in activity since then stems from the discussion that ensued both on and off line surrounding the subject matter of that last pos… Many people were concerned that measuring my progress in life against the metric of age was a […]

Follow up Post to this discussion: http://bit.ly/cZbYCc

Brilliant post Jordan. You seem to say on your blog what I keep thinking to myself, over and over again. Keep on rockin’ on!

I’m 53. I have a Ph.D., am very happy to be president of the third company I have founded (well, the second I actually co-founded) and four good kids, three of whom are already out doing well on their own. Oh, and I was a world judo champion. I graduated college at 19 and finished my MBA at 21. So what does that have to do with anything? If I won the world championships at 16 instead of 26 would it matter?

As some brilliant person once said, you never read in the obituaries, Joe Blow died today. He was in 478th place.

So many days I am in my office working and crack through a technical problem, or look out at the ocean as I walk down to get a cup of coffee or just hug my youngest daughter and think, “I love my life”.

I didn’t even know who Chris Hughes was until I read your blog and now that I do, I still don’t care.

I work really hard but not because I’m in a competition. When my youngest daughter wrote her high school application essay she said, “One thing I really admire about my parents is how much they love their jobs. I hope when I grow up I can find something to do that I enjoy as much.”

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    I’m a NYC based investor and entrepreneur. I've started a few companies and a venture capital firm. You can email me at Jordan.Cooper@gmail.com (p.s. i don’t use spell check…deal with it)


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