#88: Your lowest potential
A brief endorsement
Today’s endorsement: Live your lowest potential
I’ve mostly felt too scattered to listen to podcasts lately, but somehow I keep finding time for Poog. Poog is technically a comedic podcast about “wellness,” but it actually covers whatever the hosts Jacqueline Novak and Kate Berlant are thinking in a given week, from open-casket funerals to trying too hard at restaurants. I’m jealous of Jacqueline and Kate’s ability to make their neuroticism funny, a skill I’m convinced could transform my personality, but mostly I’m just happy they exist. It’s not unusual that I want to write something down that one of them says, but in a recent episode, I finally did.
It was something Jacqueline heard in a lecture that morning, by a mystic named Caroline Myss, who Jacqueline is obsessed with. I’d never heard of her, but Jacqueline later texted me a clip of the lecture in question, from Myss’s audiobook Entering the Castle: “People want to know, ‘What’s my highest potential?’ when they can’t function at their lowest,” Myss says of the people who attend her workshops. “Why do they always want, ‘Gimme gimme everything! Give me big huge!’ when they can’t function at their lowest? How greedy is that?”
On the podcast, Jacqueline translates this to Kate: “They like, can’t get out of bed, they can’t command their spirit to forgive their friend,” yet they’re fixated on reaching their highest potential. Jacqueline explains that, in her own life, she typically aims for the “the biggest, most-upstream essential thing” and works backwards from there, but wonders if instead she ought to try living her lowest potential well. “Like, literally get my shit together around, you know, my laundry,” she says. “I’m always dismissing the small, and then I find myself absolutely crushed by mess.”
I Googled Myss and don’t think I’m her intended audience (the subtitle of her audiobook is “Exploring Your Mystical Experience of God” 👀), but I love the sentiment. If you’ve been reading my newsletter lately you’ve probably gathered that I’ve become fixated on turning away from big dreams in pursuit of the best, most alive version of my simplest self, which I guess is a way of saying I’m aiming low. It’s not that I don’t value big dreams, or think they can’t precede little ones, I just think it’s easy to over-invest in their possibilities, and easy to under-estimate the promise of more humble goals. Of course all this depends on the sort of person you are; surely the inverse is true for many.
For me aiming low means getting into a rhythm with my apartment, maintaining relationships with my friends, my family, my neighbors, going outside, trying new things, hitting my deadlines. Even my more spiritual aims are fairly mundane: being honest about complicated feelings, living the questions, staying present, generally not panicking when I experience a typical course of human emotion (my Everest). Obviously investing in these pursuits won’t lead me to new, vibrating planes of existence or high-visibility success. None of them are overtly ambitious or particularly “shareable.” But they change everything.
I think modern discourse struggles to emphasize these things because they don’t translate digitally. I thought of this yesterday when I watched two friends laugh easily together on the train, and again when I saw a woman sitting outside a cafe this morning, writing in a little notebook. Admittedly these are classically romantic vignettes, but I get it. All three of them emitted a kind of small-scale self-possession; nothing bigger than a flash of human connection or presence, qualities that are hard to codify or commodify online, and so have come to seem forgettable, or like a given, or even saccharine. I’m not sure what types of things Myss or Jacqueline actually deem “high potential” versus low, but that’s where my mind goes: to big, shareable achievements versus small, quotidien ones. I guess plenty of people try to transform those things into public triumphs, but by then the real achievement has passed and the actual effect is PR.
Social media cheapens most things, and I’ll never run out of new ways to say it. Something I appreciate about this newsletter is how consistently it reminds me that being perceived well is an ill-conceived goal. Whenever I focus more on the outcome of the work than my experience producing it, both suffer. Maybe that’s why I’ve turned so inward about the process—scaling back my ambitions, seeking out more grounded, accessible goals. Sometimes it feels like the only thing that matters.
Lately, for example, I’ve been starved for writing inspiration. The notes I typically rely on for ideas are a mess, either too fractured or too unspecific to make for interesting work. My head’s some place else, and that’s fine. Instead of panicking that everyone will abandon me and my writing career will end because my stuff’s been kind of boring lately, I’ve been focusing on dealing with the dry spell: tending to my lowest potential (accepting my own fallibility; writing in spite of it) versus putting out my best work. The thing about spells is they end.
I was recently reading about additive cognitive bias, which is the human inclination to address issues by adding new solutions, ideas, and goals into the mix, versus subtracting them, and simplifying. Of course sometimes that’s the right approach, but just as often I think we need to turn the funnel upside down. Scale back. Tend to our smallest failures before we address the big ones. Or in my case, write the stupid essay, however dull or derivative, before questioning my ability to write long-term. Day to day it may not feel like much, but in the long-run, I think it counts for a lot.
My favorite article I read this week was “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart,” one of the most illuminating essays I’ve read about friendship, by Jennifer Senior for The Atlantic (thank you to the reader who recommended it!). Last week’s 15 things included a lot of good articles actually, and also two easy recipes, my new favorite blanket, and various updates on my unrelenting interest in kitchen accessories. Plus, the comment sections of the last three are full of recommendations for the best blankets, doormats, and newsletters.
Hope you have a nice week!