I'm sitting in the passenger seat of my dad's sedan, leaning forward to see if my milkshake has been made yet. My Purdue polo is still damp from our round of golf that morning. My forearms and neck are a little too red. Across the drive-thru window, I see the ice cream scooped into a cup and shoved under the blender. Whole Oreos are pulverized into tiny scrumptious bits. Just seconds until the treat is mine.
"So you've set this goal for yourself," my dad says in reference to my dream of working at Shell. "And you have to get all As in 13 credit hours in 16 weeks this summer, all while working a full-time summer internship, just to have a shot at an interview?"
The Scoops worker hands us our ice cream. I take a giant sip of my Oreo shake.
"Exactly right," I reply.
My dad pauses for a minute. It's quiet in the car as we pull away from the window and make our way to the next destination.
"Do you think anyone's going to feel sorry for you if you don't get that job?"
"Well, probably not," I eventually say. "I'm fortunate to be in a major with great job prospects. I will eventually find something. It just might not be what I know I'm capable of."
Staring out the window, watching green mile marker after mile marker fly by on the way home, I mull over his question, with some old memories coming back.
Every day of my freshman year in high school during gym class, I walked by a twenty-foot-tall, maroon and gold athletics record board in the corner of the Brebeuf Jesuit high school gym. It listed the sport, event, name and time next to the record. The best of all who came before, and a few still there, was recorded on the board. The bar for excellence was set, and I looked in awe at those who achieved them.
I had accumulated my own record board: a mental corner where I set the bar for what I had achieved and what I believed I could achieve. And I knew, sitting there staring out the window, my neck was craned up at the bar on my record board; there was an unsettling gap I had to try and jump for.
I think we fail to look up to the people we could be. We're enamored with our neighbor and their new job and new car, but not with the potential achievement of ours that's a year's worth of dedication away.
These models of desire surround us: neighbors, coworkers, family and friends. By default, we see them and tend to inform our desires based on them. Their lives as reference points smack us in the face. But the person I could be as a reference point? It takes focus and energy to create an intentional model of that person. It is created not by default, but by disciplined design according to my values.
I want to look in awe at the person I know I could be1.
As Matthew McConaughey phrased well in his 2014 Oscar acceptance speech, I’m chasing the person I could be:
So you see every day, every week, every month, and every year of my life, my hero's always 10 years away. I'm never gonna be my hero. I'm not gonna attain that. I know I'm not, and that's just fine with me because that keeps me with somebody to keep on chasing.
The line item on the personal record board that summer? Getting the job I considered amazing. And I wouldn't be humiliated or a failure if I didn't get it. It was the difference for me between good and great, not destitute and manageable life.
It was the difference between acceptable in the view of others and acceptable in my own. I knew I was capable of it – what would it mean if I didn't achieve it?
I was reminded by my dad that it wouldn't mean much to those around me, but it would mean a lot to me. The gap between my potential and today is something I have to fight for.
If you set a goal and achieve 90% of it, reaching some level of success previously unseen, that's great. Friends and family will reassure you you've done a great job. The last 10% is hard to achieve. They're ok that you didn't.
But are you?
The drive to reach my goal couldn't come from someone else. It had to come from me. It had to come from the excitement of realizing that vision of my future where my expansion of belief leads to an expansion of capability and, ultimately, achievement.
The well of grit and persistence needed to fight for your big goal must be fed from a source of intrinsic, not extrinsic motivation to fill the gap.
I often think of Theodore Roosevelt’s appeal for daring over inaction:
Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.
I can’t control the outcomes I pursue, but I can fight on behalf of a process to reach them. How fulfilling would life be if I knew I rose to my potential and did my best?
As I continued the rest of the summer, I asked myself daily, "Who's gonna stop you?"
Now, I understand there are very real barriers to success that stem from your background, unforeseeable negative events, and more. That's real and I don't want to downplay the role luck plays in success. It's far more real than many feel comfortable admitting. It means we can't take credit for 100% of our success, which is a blow to the ego. And I'm hands down one of the luckiest people alive.
Who's preventing you from closing the gap between who you are and who you know you can be?
That summer, I would run through a list in my head, refuting each excuse one by one:
Time? Many have done more with less. I could reprioritize. Just an excuse.
Opportunity? Many have created opportunity through a shift in perspective. Just an excuse.
Peers? In my control to change. Just an excuse.
Each time I would go through this mental list, I kept arriving at the same final, irritating–yet valid–reason I wouldn't achieve my dream.
The reason was me.
So again I asked: "who's gonna stop you?"
You are, Grant. The answer is only ever you.
You're the one who decides to be stubborn, to choose comfort over growth, or to settle when you know you shouldn't.
And the gap between here and my potential? Between here and my best?
That's all me.
There's no one here to feel sorry for me for leaving it alone. For seeing the possibility and letting it idle in hibernation–a grizzly bear of potential tucked safely inside its cave.
I say, poke that bear.
Convert that idle potential into motion. Fight past the slog of the first step. Who’s gonna stop you?
The rest of the summer was a blur of long hours and late nights. By August, all my hard work paid off. I made the grades, had an interview, got the internship and, ultimately, the full-time job.
I still remember the call I received telling me I got the job. I was in my room at my college house2. Once they told me I couldn't stop smiling. As I walked the brick-lined sidewalk up Northwestern avenue and crossed into the Purdue Engineering mall toward class, I couldn't help but notice how the green of the tree leaves popped, how the clouds formed wisps across the blue sky, brushstrokes of a perfect painter. How the air had a refreshing crispness to it. All these things were magnified by an immense feeling of gratitude for reaching my goal. But most of all for closing, in part, the gap between where I was and the potential I saw for myself. Potential that no one else would have mourned the loss of, but which I chose to honor and pursue.
So when you see the gap between where you are and where you know you could be, look up with hope and expectation and ask yourself:
"Who's gonna stop you?"
Thank you to Caitlin Huston, Chris Angelis, Jude Klinger and Jeremy Nguyen for their feedback on drafts of this post.
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Leaders help us realize what we can be. Leaders raise the bar.
Affectionately, and due to live indoor encounters with flying, temporarily hiding vampires, called the Bat Cave.