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Expectations, Potential, Pesky Colleagues, and Perception

Is it wise to maximize your potential?

Hello friends and welcome back to Life Reimagined, a free weekly elixir designed to make you feel good and live better.

The holidays are sneaking up on us so it’s time to start resting, reflecting, and enjoying the many contours of this odd time of the year.

Next week, look out for my final post of the year: The Best of 2023. I’ll share all of the best stuff I discovered this year before taking a couple of weeks off.

📰 I. No One Owes You Anything

In the wake of a divorce during which he lost custody of his 9-year-old daughter, the American writer, investor, and politician Harry Browne wrote a newspaper column that was published on Christmas of 1966.

Browne’s column is his Christmas gift to his daughter. Instead of a traditional holiday present, he shares advice that he hopes will endure beyond the holiday season.

The core message of the article (which you can find below) is that your life will be better if you accept that no one owes you anything.

I have mixed feelings about the article. On the positive side, I think Browne’s core message is useful advice for many people. If you can find a way to navigate the world without expecting much from other people, you can avoid common frustrations and take more ownership of your life.

I also like the idea of giving a timeless holiday present, something that has the potential to endure much longer than most of the gifts that we give.

However, as I read the letter and nodded along with some of the advice, I couldn’t help but think: this is a weird piece of advice to give to a young girl who is adjusting to a newly broken family and the absence of her father.

While believing that no one owes you anything may be helpful, I’m not sure if that advice should come from a parent to a young child. In some ways, the implication is that your parent does not feel that they owe you anything.

Overall, my noodling on Browne’s advice and the context behind it led me to two conclusions:

  1. It’s useful for me to believe that no one owes me anything.

  2. As it relates to other people, I prefer to believe that I owe them something.

Whether it’s with family, friends, or strangers, I find it helpful to believe that I owe them kindness, respect, integrity, generosity, and other foundational values that I use as a guide for how I operate in the world.

Believing that I owe these things, even when other people may not give me them in return, allows me to be more of the person I would like to be than if I simply acted on my selfish impulses.

As with all life advice, there are rarely right answers. I’ll leave you with Browne’s letter in the event you want to form your own conclusions.

“A Gift for My Daughter” - December 25, 1966

It’s Christmas and I have the usual problem of deciding what to give you. I know you might enjoy many things — books, games, clothes.

But I’m very selfish. I want to give you something that will stay with you for more than a few months or years. I want to give you a gift that might remind you of me every Christmas.

If I could give you just one thing, I’d want it to be a simple truth that took me many years to learn. If you learn it now, it may enrich your life in hundreds of ways. And it may prevent you from facing many problems that have hurt people who have never learned it.

The truth is simply this:

No one owes you anything.


How could such a simple statement be important? It may not seem so, but understanding it can bless your entire life.

No one owes you anything.

It means that no one else is living for you, my child. Because no one is you. Each person is living for himself; his own happiness is all he can ever personally feel.

When you realize that no one owes you happiness or anything else, you’ll be freed from expecting what isn’t likely to be.

It means no one has to love you. If someone loves you, it’s because there’s something special about you that gives him happiness. Find out what that something special is and try to make it stronger in you, so that you’ll be loved even more.

When people do things for you, it’s because they want to — because you, in some way, give them something meaningful that makes them want to please you, not because anyone owes you anything.

No one has to like you. If your friends want to be with you, it’s not out of duty. Find out what makes others happy so they’ll want to be near you.

No one has to respect you. Some people may even be unkind to you. But once you realize that people don’t have to be good to you, and may not be good to you, you’ll learn to avoid those who would harm you. For you don’t owe them anything either.

Living your Life

No one owes you anything.

You owe it to yourself to be the best person possible. Because if you are, others will want to be with you, want to provide you with the things you want in exchange for what you’re giving to them.

Some people will choose not to be with you for reasons that have nothing to do with you. When that happens, look elsewhere for the relationships you want. Don’t make someone else’s problem your problem.

Once you learn that you must earn the love and respect of others, you’ll never expect the impossible and you won’t be disappointed. Others don’t have to share their property with you, nor their feelings or thoughts.

If they do, it’s because you’ve earned these things. And you have every reason to be proud of the love you receive, your friends’ respect, the property you’ve earned. But don’t ever take them for granted. If you do, you could lose them. They’re not yours by right; you must always earn them.

My Experience

A great burden was lifted from my shoulders the day I realized that no one owes me anything. For so long as I’d thought there were things I was entitled to, I’d been wearing myself out — physically and emotionally — trying to collect them.

No one owes me moral conduct, respect, friendship, love, courtesy, or intelligence. And once I recognized that, all my relationships became far more satisfying. I’ve focused on being with people who want to do the things I want them to do.

That understanding has served me well with friends, business associates, lovers, sales prospects, and strangers. It constantly reminds me that I can get what I want only if I can enter the other person’s world. I must try to understand how he thinks, what he believes to be important, what he wants. Only then can I appeal to someone in ways that will bring me what I want.

And only then can I tell whether I really want to be involved with someone. And I can save the important relationships for those with whom I have the most in common.

It’s not easy to sum up in a few words what has taken me years to learn. But maybe if you re-read this gift each Christmas, the meaning will become a little clearer every year.

I hope so, for I want more than anything else for you to understand this simple truth that can set you free: no one owes you anything.

- I found Browne’s letter by putting this broken link in the Wayback Internet Archive: harrybrowne.org/articles/GiftDaughter.htm

📈 II. Do you need to live up to your potential?

I’ve been wondering if the well-intentioned idea of "living up to your potential," which sits in the hearts and minds of most smart and ambitious people, has done more harm than good.

On one hand, this idea motivates you to be and do more than you may have originally thought you could. It encourages you to become the best version of yourself, which is generally a good motivation.

But on the other hand, the idea encourages you to strive for some future state that does not exist. You were not born to maximize your potential, nor is there any real measurement for having done so. It's an abstract idea that can never really be achieved.

And if you continue to berate yourself internally to push harder so that you have maximized your potential and not squandered your life, you're going to be plagued by a low-grade anxiety that prevents you from ever living fully.

You'll never feel that you have done enough, and this will keep you trapped in the cycle of trading away more of today for a future you who will probably just keep moving the yardstick.

A lot of truly wonderful and accomplished people I know are stuck in this dilemma and really don't seem to appreciate that they're already a very solid and commendable version of themselves.

There's no problem with trying to improve or achieve more in different domains, but I often wonder if people would be more satisfied in day-to-day life if they simply let go of the notion that they exist to maximize their potential.

The utility of this process of letting go is contingent upon where you are in your life, but at least for some subset of people, I think it would enhance their experience of life without too much downside.

P.S. If you have thoughts on this topic, you can join the conversation on Twitter.

😒 III. Pesky Colleagues

Getting a break from work is one of the best parts of the holidays, especially if your job or someone you work with has been getting on your nerves.

But before that break and period of rest arrives, enjoy this silly Comedy Central skit that taps into one of the funny dynamics of working with other people.

🧠 IV. Something I’m Thinking About

In his new book, Same As Ever: A Guide to What Never Changes, writer Morgan Housel discusses why it’s often so difficult for us to appreciate progress.

“Good news is the deaths that didn’t take place, the diseases you didn’t get, the wars that never happened, the tragedies avoided, and the injustices prevented. That’s hard for people to contextualize or even imagine, let alone measure. But bad news is visible…It’s the terrorist attack, the war, the car accident, the pandemic, the stock market crash, and the political battle you can’t look away from.”

One reason bad news gets more attention than progress is because it’s more visible. You get more eyeballs if you report on the tragic death of 10 people than talking about the millions of people who didn’t die because of specific innovations over the last 50 years. One story is visible; the other is abstract.

Another reason that progress is difficult to feel is because it happens more slowly than destruction. While bad events can happen overnight, progress is often a slow, almost imperceptible march up a hill.

If something is getting 1% better every year, it will compound to enormous improvements over 50 years. But in any given year, it’s hard to feel that 1% improvement, and is easy to discount how wonderful things may be if things keep improving a little bit every year.

That's all for now. See you next Sunday.

— Cal

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