'Human potential'

At first whiff, the concept wreaks of woo-woo; the kind of warm and cosy notions that seems to flow from the mouths of self-help gurus, astrologists and chakra cleansers the world over. They’re the intellectual equivalent of comfort food: they feel great, aren’t a problem every once in a while, but you wouldn’t want to make a habit of consuming it. With that said, if we pause our bullshit detector for just a moment and exercise an open mind, there’s something there to be gleaned. If one can manage to overcome the allergic reaction the term ‘human potential,’ is rather capable of affecting, he or she will hopefully come to appreciate both its metaphysical significance and practical import.

Human potential: more than healing crystals and chakra cleansing.

Human potential: more than healing crystals and chakra cleansing.

Quite simply, human potential is the term used to refer to our capacity to do and be things. It’s a concept that, once you’re made aware of, you can never again ignore. For our world is a manifestation of it. Irrefutable proof of its existence surrounds us everywhere we look. The technology that pervades our lives (the means by which you’re reading this, for instance), the assortment of institutions that underpin our lives, or any other individual or collective human accomplishment you can think of, is testament to our unique - and to the best of our knowledge, unprecedented - abilities. From the most unimpressive of activities, such as tying our shoes, to the most mind-boggling, such as the counter-intuitive insights into the quantum nature of reality, our achievements reflect the range of what we have so far proven to be possible; the scope of human potential. The giants of history; the Aristotle’s, Da Vinci’s, Mozart’s, Einstein’s and Jobs’s are the most renowned exemplars of this potential. They embody our kind’s capacity for greatness; they demonstrate what’s possible. In doing so, they stretch the fabric of our imagination and the field of our ambition.

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The basic logic of human potential is simple: we are capable of things; far more capable, and of far more things, than we realise. Every other day, we catch surprising glimpses of our potential. We respond to a situation with uncharacteristic calm and composure. We solve a complex problem with ease and elegance. We glean a seemingly profound and deep insight. Or equally satisfying, in the shower we sing a song with perfect pitch. In such moments, we’re filled with joyous satisfaction and pride. We feel talented, unique, special. However, such moments are painfully ephemeral. No sooner than the smile has faded from our lips do we return to the perceived mediocrity of our existence. We return to life as we ordinarily perceive it, where we work comfortably within our bubble of competence.

We can interpret these experiences - the oscillations of our embodied potential - in a couple of ways. We can either infer from such experiences that we are able beyond our usual beliefs; that the limits of our potential are limitations we have ourselves erroneously constructed; that they are more the product of narratives that have penned themselves, and less the constraints of our condition or any inviolable law of physics. Or, alternatively, we could conclude that every once in a while, we’re capable of transcending our inherent limitations, but that our return to baseline is inevitable. The former view is that our abilities are indeterminate; that they depend on the extent to which we work to cultivate them. Conversely, the latter perspective implies that our potential, and therefore our future, is predetermined. Without getting bogged down in the metaphysics of things, the implications of both perspectives is clear. Those who take the view that our potential is malleable are going to be far more inclined to exercise their independent agency to mould it for the better. Those who are convinced that their abilities are set in stone (or DNA), on the other hand, are unlikely to do anything that would contribute to their betterment (a perfectly logical position, mind you, for if their assumption is correct, all efforts towards improvement are futile).

While there’s few people who, upon reading the above, would find themselves intellectually or philosophically aligned with the deterministic perspective (at least in this context), much of our behaviour seems to follow it. Rarely do we act as if we believed in ourselves, as if our potential was a vast and unexplored field of possibilities. Instead, we seem to move within the space of the known, the comfortable, the certain. We do what we know or have been told we are capable of, rather than exploring for ourselves. However, those who believe they are capable of more than they know, ultimately come to be more capable than they could believe.  

If a belief in one’s ability to grow and develop, to improve and progress, is as valuable as here presented, why is it a meme so few of us have bought into? In other words, why do we underestimate ourselves so? The most plausible hypothesis is that the circumstances of our evolution have heavily favoured risk-aversion. Those who accepted and worked within the constraints of the reality they inherited were suited to survival, while those who set out on their hero’s journey were eaten by bears. In this light, it makes sense that our belief systems are the way they are. We evolved to survive, not to thrive. But we live in different times, and different times call for different measures, beliefs, and ideas.

Life, once upon a time.

Life, once upon a time.

Thanks to the hard-won progress of our ancestors, we find ourselves amidst an environment that’s compatible with, and even supports, the belief in the power and plasticity of our potential. The stakes of the game have been flipped. Efforts directed at realising our potential no longer entail the degree of existential risk that faced our forebears. Miraculously, it’s become safe to dream. While there’s still a ways to go before this holds true for the entire population, most of the world has satisfied the base of Maslow’s Hierarchy*. By virtue of your reading this you are yourself a member of the privileged class. That you have the time and ability to read is itself a triumph of civilisation. In another time, or another place, you would be forced to spend your day searching for food or clean water. Instead, you’re reading about such highfalutin nonsense as self-actualisation, probably with your feet up somewhere in your cosy, temperature-controlled digs. Now apologies if this doesn’t accurately capture your situation, or respect your struggles. None of this is to suggest that life is easy. Not at all. The trials we face as a people may have become slightly more glamorous, but they are no less real. First world problems are problems nonetheless. However, the point is, we now have far more control over our circumstances than ever before. We have space to move, learn, and think. Reality is thus becoming something we create for ourselves, rather than a straight jacket we are forced to wear.

If you’re skeptical-minded, as I hope you are, the preceding paragraphs have left you unconvinced. To you, it still smells of the kind of motivational rhetoric you’d expect to hear espoused at a Tony Robbins seminar. If that’s so, I applaud you for your criticality, but let me show you why you’re mistaken. To persuade you of the logic, let’s explore the dynamics that have coalesced to make the present moment so uniquely conducive to human flourishing.

To help us paint the picture, consider all of your most proud accomplishments. Interpersonal relationships aside, chances are they all entail doing things that were once unimaginable. Now regardless of how modest you perceive your achievements to be, if you walk back in time, you’ll eventually reach a point where they would’ve been impossible. In fact, what you take for granted today would have once upon a time had you burnt at the stake. Things you can very easily conjure with your eyes closed - global instant communication, fifteen minute meal delivery, determining the circumference of the earth - would have been considered sorcery. This point may seem trite, but it nevertheless provides the context necessary to appreciating our newfound abilities.

If we think about our capabilities, as individuals and as a species, it becomes apparent that what sets us apart is less physiological than it is cultural. Physically, aside from some superior dexterity, we’re remarkably unimpressive. We’re far from the strongest, fittest, or fastest, and yet look where we are. From the dangers of primitive life we managed to escape, having since fought our way to the top of the food-chain. Unquestionably, our rise to planetary dominance has been incredulous. And just how we did it reveals the reason why optimism and ambition is well-justified, even in the face of our many challenges.

As we’ve already established, much of our evolutionary success can be attributed to the strange, walnut-looking organ that floats between our ears. The unique cognition and consciousness that our brain supports has equipped us with two distinct, yet highly synergistic powers: intelligence and creativity. Intelligence (which we will later define) has enabled us to see around the corner, allowing us to anticipate problems and identify threats, on the best of days, well before they kill us. And complementarily, creativity has allowed us to translate this clairvoyance into survival solutions. Together, they have slingshotted us into the world as we know it. Indeed, it’s not at all hyperbole to say that the origins of civilisation can be traced back to these two traits.

The fundamental impact of these complementary qualities is that they led us to develop tools and technologies. Whether it’s language, weapons, fire, plows, or writing, tools and tech have made the human experiment what it is today. Before them, we were apes. With them, we became gods. For some perspective, imagine what life must have been like before language. Ruled by impulse and emotion, constrained in our ability to communicate, and unable to control the trajectory of our lives as we lived at the unforgiving mercy of the elements. Things were less complicated, no doubt, but to romanticise such an existence would be naive. Life was tough, and highly restrictive. You got what you were given. End of story.

With the development of language, things got spicier. Ideas became lucid and reliably communicable, rendering group co-ordination practicable. Our potential was beginning to reveal itself. Now that we were capable of communicating complex concepts and co-ordinating ever larger groups, agriculture began to seem like a good idea. Why the hell not. While for many, farm life meant long days hunched over in the fields, for those fortunate enough to avoid the drudgery, they were able to focus their time on other things. For instance, making more tools. New tools then led to new things to do, and new things to do led to more new tools, and on and on it went. The innovation flywheel - the force that to this day continues to move things forward - began to accelerate.

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After a few thousand years of finding its feet, civilisation stumbled upon its next revolutionary invention: writing. With the invention of writing, our kind was gifted a means of immortalising our minds. By marking symbols imbued with shared meaning, we transcended the previous constraints of space and time. Thoughts, what were once a most fleeting phenomena, became eternal and reliably reproducible. Through the written word, one could peer into the inner worlds of others, and express, free from the constraints of ordinary conversation, one’s own private sanctum. Beyond the obvious practical benefits of a reliable means of transmitting information, the most significant impact of writing was the transformation in human consciousness that it brought about. Before writing, the sphere of individual consciousness was confined to the group to which that individual belonged. That group was of course a member of a wider group - the town or city. But without a means of transcendent communication, there was little scope for the development of culture. Until the written word, culture was bound together by a single string. Only a fraction of the knowledge accumulated by a single generation was passed onto the next. Intellectual and cultural progress was therefore slow and hard-fought. But after the development of writing, a rich cultural tapestry began to emerge, and with it, the formation of a new brand of civilisational consciousness. With the ability to encode knowledge in written language, our kind developed a truly intergenerational, collective mind. Curious minds were no longer at the mercy of their arbitrary circumstances. If one was left wanting by the intellects around them, one could now commune with the intellectual giants of both present and past, through books. Invariably, knowledge began to compound at an accelerating clip.

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Writing was a big deal. However, it was also an expensive one. Without a cheap form of writing material and the ability to produce en masse, the revolutionary potential of the written word was severely constrained. Confined to clay tablets, and later, animal skins, and lacking any kind of formal alphabet, writing was at first a highly restricted tool. Expensive and cumbersome as it was to begin with, writing was, out of the box, a half-baked technology, limited in terms of both scope and functionality. Limitations aside, early forms of writing still managed to unlock immense societal progress, equipping the great ancient civilisations with the tools that would allow them to further propel the human project forward. However, it wasn’t until the mid-15th century that the full force of writing would be felt. Around 1440, a crafty German goldsmith, by the name of Johannes Gutenberg, invented the modern printing press.

With its invention, no longer did all writing need to be laboriously copied by hand. All of a sudden, it could be efficiently automated. Gutenberg’s press thus democratised writing, thereby catalysing an explosion of intellectual activity. Literacy rates skyrockets, ideas spread, knowledge swelled. And critically, due to the sheer volume of material that began to circulate, the Church became incapable of controlling the flow of ideas. Accordingly, long-held dogmas were called into question, as the human mind began to break free from the shackles imposed by religious authority. Reason - characterised by critical, independent thought - became virtue.

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The dynamics that led to and followed the invention of the printing press ultimately coalesced to affect another revolution: the Scientific Revolution. Enabled by the democratisation of knowledge and grounded in the notion of rational skepticism, humanism, and the idea of objective truth - the so-called enlightenment values - the scientific enterprise began to find its legs.

Over the course of a few hundred years, the prevailing western worldview was transformed. Through critical inquiry and experiment, we removed ourselves from the centre of the cosmic picture. We revolve around the sun, not the other way round, Copernicus taught us. Once we had accepted this radical (and most heretical) notion, everything else was up for grabs. If we could, through reason, comprehend our place in the universe, what couldn’t we comprehend? With his sweeping synthesis, Principia, Newton single-handedly solidified the Scientific Revolution. Upending thousands of years of divine dogmas, the scientific worldview became the implicit model for understanding nature; deities and devils, heaven and hell, gave way to motion and gravity in Newtonian space and time.

Newton.

Newton.

The scientific worldview transformed not only our conception of nature, but our ability to unlock the power inherent in it. Armed with the requisite scientific and technical knowledge, in 1766, James Watt invented the steam engine, and with it, ushered in the Industrial Age. The significance of the steam engine was that it gave us a means of efficiently converting heat (steam) into usable energy (engine). With energy, we can do things. With more, we can do more. In a nutshell, that’s what the Industrial Revolution was all about: doing more with more. With newfound powers (quite literally), human activity became supercharged. Equipped with an abundance of cheap energy, industry… well… industrialised.

Watts’ steam engine.

Watts’ steam engine.

To be sure, the Industrial Revolution is not everyone’s cup of tea. Many view it as the moment we went wrong; the beginning of our descent into a dark state of mechanisation and materialism; the moment we lost our humanity. Such a perspective, though perhaps more than a little mistaken (or perhaps not at all… we’ll see), is very much understandable. The process of industrialisation is far from pretty. This fact has been well conveyed by the arts; perhaps most vividly by Charles Dickens, who, through his writing, paints a grim picture of a dehumanising 19th century England. But one needs not journey to the past in order understand what Dickens so lucidly expressed. Travel to almost any developing nation today and one can see some version of it in the flesh. However, regardless of how one feels about the ultimate impact of the Industrial Revolution, one thing is for sure: it really was a revolution.

Although it’s been a mixed blessing of sorts, the Industrial Revolution represents a profound development in human affairs. By learning to efficiently harness the energy latent in our natural environment, we radically altered the scope of what is humanly possible. Having realised the physical power to match the unbridled nature of human ambition and creativity, the sphere of what’s achievable exploded into a fractal landscape of wider possibilities.

The industrial (energy) revolution.

The industrial (energy) revolution.

In purely economic terms, the Industrial Revolution was, without competition, the most significant event in human history. For basically all of time beforehand, economic growth was, for all intents and purposes, next to non-existent. By the turn of the 19th century, that all changed. With the power of Watt’s great invention, the wheels of the modern economic engine began to turn. Now amidst our current climate, where the emphasis on economic growth is often cast as a destructive pathology - a claim certainly not without basis - it’s almost inconceivable that any good could have possibly come from it. But in fact, economic growth has, by almost all objective measures, been a most unusually positive historical force. Contrary to current sentiment, no single factor has brought more people out of poverty, conferred more freedoms, saved more lives, or added more years to lifespans, than plain old economic growth. Although it’s unfortunately unromantic, as well as unremarkable in its convention, it is the best way we know how to reliably move things forward. The most common criticism levelled against the notion of economic growth is that, for all the growth we’ve experienced, we are hardly the happier for it. But even if this assertion were true, which is far from clear, it would seem that this reveals more about the nature of the human condition itself than it does the evils of capitalism. That said, economic growth is far from a panacea. It is by no means a magic pill. But despite its apparent flaws, and crass exterior, it works.

Economic progress, while not a silver bullet, really is progress.

Economic progress, while not a silver bullet, really is progress.

Among the consequences of the scientific and industrial revolutions was the rapid acceleration of technological development. Enabled by a burgeoning scientific community, powered by the shiny new industrial economic machinery, humanity’s technological capabilities began to grow exponentially. Cars, telephones, aeroplanes, even spaceships! appeared in what - in evolutionary terms - amounts to the blink of an eye. However, notwithstanding the significance of these most ingenious inventions, they all pale in comparison to humanity’s technological pièce de résistance: the computer. The culmination of a number of scientific and technical breakthroughs, the invention of the computer was another watershed moment for our kind. By cracking the code of computation, we unlocked what appears to be one of the great powers of the cosmos.

It has been said that we create God in our image, rather than the other way round. Well, how true this is is a matter of religious conviction, but it’s certainly the case with computers. Taking what was once deemed a uniquely human capacity - computation (in the broadest sense) - we managed to embody this profound ability in wholly inanimate matter. Feats that once seemed products of the ineffable Mind, were reduced to the binary alphabet of 1’s and 0’s. It was an achievement that was at once both humbling and very much the opposite. Almost overnight, humanity had been equipped with a tool that extended its intellectual reach to infinity.

The ENIAC - the very first (legit) computer.

The ENIAC - the very first (legit) computer.

On its own, the computer was transformative, amplifying our cognitive capabilities beyond our wildest fantasies. When coupled with the internet, however, it became a different beast altogether. By the time the internet showed up, computers had become “personal” and widely accessible. Once combined, these two fundamental technologies gave rise to what has since come to be referred to as the “Digital Revolution”. Again, the word “revolution” is well justified. By virtue of the immense computational power it unlocked, and the ever-expanding ocean of information it both gave rise to and made accessible, the marrying of the computer and the internet has forever changed the very nature of human society. Together, they gave birth to a global superintelligence, to which we are all connected. And the revolution has only just begun…

“Like a bicycle for the mind”

“Like a bicycle for the mind”

With each revolution - agricultural, scientific, industrial, digital - our kind became more capable. The transition from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence allowed us to settle in one spot. And while the early agricultural lifestyle was hardly glamorous, and far from an upgrade for all involved, it allowed for the reallocation of humanity’s most precious resource: time. Those who managed to avoid the labours of agriculture found themselves with time up their sleeves. Thankfully, many of them put it to good work. People began to specialise; in tool-making, clothes-fitting, shoe-cobbling, house-building, you name it. With the domestication of food, civilisation awoke.

The sedentary lifestyle that agriculture enabled was the precursor to all that followed. Because of it, we discovered writing, which, as we saw, greatly augmented our intellectual abilities, affecting an epistemological revolution that ultimately culminated in the Scientific Revolution. With science as the default framework for viewing the world around us, we discovered new ways of interacting with it. Most critically, we learnt to leverage the energy around us to overcome the physical constraints of the human condition. What transpired was the Industrial Revolution. With abundant energy to fuel our ambition, and piggybanks full of cash to finance them, we began to shape reality on a scale previously unimaginable. Finally, propelled by the same forces, we stumbled upon the phenomenon of digital computation, which brings us to today.

The reason for further condensing this already claustrophobic account of human history, is that it makes salient how the pieces fit together, and how we, as modern Sapiens, exist on top of a vast and extraordinarily powerful cultural infrastructure. With the addition of each piece of infrastructure, from agriculture to computation, the scope of human potential expanded. We can think of this cultural infrastructure, the foundations of human potential, as the ladder on which civilisation stands. Moreover, we can classify each piece of infrastructure according to three broad layers: food, energy, and technology. We’ll refer to these fundamental layers of civilisation as the “Prosperity Stack”.

At the foundation of the Stack is food. Without the ability to control food production, there can be no civilisational progress; at least none of the sort we have come to recognise. Domestication of food is therefore the first step towards civilisational maturity. The next layer on the Stack, the next rung on the ladder, is energy. Energy is the lifeblood of civilisations. It is, literally, power. The more advanced a civilisation’s ability to harness energy, the more powerful that civilisation, and its members, will be. But of course, in order to wield significant power, any civilisation must first have the technology to do so. Once a civilisation has developed the technology to harness considerable sums of energy, new and more powerful forms of technology are then unlocked. In turn, new and even more powerful means of exploiting energy reserves are developed, which in turn… you get the point. And so on and on it goes, one feeding the other.

The three layers of the Prosperity Stack therefore reflects any given civilisations level of development. Admittedly, where each layer is positioned within the Stack is somewhat arbitrary, for they are all utterly dependent upon one another. For instance, although the agricultural revolution preceded both the energy and technological revolutions, it would have never occurred if humanity had not developed at least some primitive technology i.e. the hand plow. However, notwithstanding, the order of food, energy, technology nevertheless seems appropriate.

Clearly, everything we’ve so far discussed is the product of human ingenuity, determination, ambition, creativity, and the rest of our nature. Each great milestone along the road of history a testament to our capabilities as carbon-based creatures. Proof of our potential; human potential. As fuzzy as the concept sure sounds, our accomplishments demand we acknowledge it. Rather than dismissing the notion as squishy nonsense designed to warm our hearts, we should take it seriously, so that we may learn to make better use of it.

By now we should have a picture of food, energy and technology reflecting and amplifying human potential. Empowered by these three forces, we find ourselves with greater power, and fewer impediments, to express this potential than ever before. One may debate whether there was ever a better time to be alive, but there can be no arguing whether there was ever a time where more was possible. We are at the peak of our powers, that much is for certain. And so while we find ourselves confronted by the problems of progress, the flip-side of our nature, whether we are capable of solving them should be no question. We have, at our fingertips, the ability to transform the world around us. Should we learn to wield this power towards positive ends, we will surely prove more than capable of rising to the challenges of our time. For what threatens us, as a species, is not our lack of ability, competence, or intelligence, but that we only scratch the surface of what ability, competence or intelligence we do have. We are not limited by our capacity for greatness - evolution has been kind to us - but by our will to discover our greatness. Because we so often fail to look, we too often fail to find.

We have defined the concept of human potential, simply, as our capacity to do and be things. We have also now traced some of the major manifestations of this potential, and the means by which these manifestations have expanded its reach. Hopefully, by this point, the notion of human potential has begun to seem like a genuinely meaningful, down-to-earth concept, and less a baseless contrivance of the self-help genre. Amidst the face of our civilisational challenges, the idea that we are capable beyond the measure of all prior generations should fill us with hope, optimism, and a sense of good fortune. As Drake put it, “what a time this is, to be alive for this shit”. But while a good time it sure is, we should be careful not to get too self-congratulating. For while we have been gifted immense potential, should we get complacent, we risk squandering it entirely. Over the course of millennia, generation after generation has managed to carry the ball of progress from one to the next. With each generation, we have accordingly grown - metaphorically speaking - fitter, faster, stronger; more able. But though we are the most capable team in human history, the game has grown proportionately difficult. One slip and we risk dropping the ball forever.

So far we’ve looked at the tangible proof of our potential and analysed the historical developments that have empowered it. But what is the “fundamental” source of this potential? That is, of course, one giant mystery, on par with our very existence itself. Sure, there is a trivial sense in which all that we have accomplished can be reduced to the vagaries of evolution, the fumblings of the “Blind Watchmaker”. We can, without violating the established dogma, chalk our position up to random chance, however much that may strain credulity. Just as a horse is remarkably adept at being a horse, so too are we remarkably adept at being human. If a horse was capable of self-reflection (which, for all we know it might), it may well ponder similar self-centric questions. It may ask (in a British accent, I like to imagine), “how are we horses capable of such elegance, such calm and composure, such power?” Although such a reflective horse might struggle to reconcile the apparent wonder of its own condition with the sobering notion of evolutionary dumb luck, it may, perhaps, have no problem attributing such explanation to the plight of every other Earthly creature, ourselves included. “Oh, humans? Yes, their form of primitive consciousness combined with their dexterity led them to develop technology; swept along by the current of evolution they found themselves occupying a most vulgar, ostentatious niche. Yes, nothing special about them at all. A most disagreeable species.”

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As humans (not horses) we find this comparison utterly absurd. Yeah, sure, horses are perfectly fine creatures, physically they’re even superior to us in many ways, but, let’s be honest, we are leagues apart from them. While such a claim to superiority has become intellectually unfashionable, brandished as a symptom of our collective narcissism, it is an entirely reasonable assertion. Although there is a sense in which we are strictly unremarkable, having evolved according to the same laws of physics as every other species, there is a deeper, more profound, yet plainly common-sense, respect in which we stand apart from all else. Intuitively, we feel this. Try though we might to convince ourselves that we are “just another species”, doing so requires taking an intellectual leap that seems hard to justify, in light of our blatant uniqueness. For even though we are subject to the same natural laws, we are the only ones (to our knowledge) capable of comprehending them. Against such cogent evidence of our specialness, it’s hard to be humble.

We do not know why we are here, nor why we are so capable. And yet, by some miracle, we are both. We not only exist, but we exist as a truly unique species; a species that, one can’t help but think, has some special cosmic significance, of which we cannot even begin to comprehend. Admittedly, such a lofty thought may simply represent the hopeful delusion of one, particularly, hopeful and delusional human. If so, it is a most glorious delusion, and arguably, harmless enough. In any event, our humanity is a gift; our “potential” a strange, most fortunate, Darwinian delight.

Whatever the ultimate or fundamental source of our powers, our little minds will - most likely - never know. For some reason, we have not been granted the security clearance for this class of knowledge. We may console ourselves, however, by trusting it’s all for the better. At the very least, mystery is exciting. Cloaked in mystique, our cosmos fills our existence with curious wonder. Boredom, in this most fantastical world, is simply the lack of imagination.

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Since the source of our powers, our unique potential, is seemingly beyond our grasp, we must resign ourselves to more practical questions. How do we ensure we realise our potential? Similarly, how should we best respect the honour, as well as responsibility, of our most unlikely existence? In other words, how do we render ourselves more capable? Thanks to history, we no longer have to forage for food, and we now have the technological means to make big things happen. But clearly none of this matters if we, as individuals, are not in a position to take advantage of our unique and privileged circumstances. For while our cultural infrastructure serves and amplifies our potential, it is not the source of our potential, merely a vehicle for its expression. And although we can make little-to-no headway on the ultimate cause of our potential, beyond that it originated with a “Big Bang”, we can reason our way to a practical understanding of the proximate cause: our individual humanity. To be sure, I employ the term “humanity” here in the most literal, and least poetic sense, imaginable. Humanity, as in what makes us, us.

Each of us is endowed at birth with a distinct stock of genetic material. Throughout the mysterious process known as life, that material finds its expression amidst the messy chaos we call the world. From this dynamic biological interplay, you and “I” emerge. What makes you and I you and I is a unique set of embodied qualities; physical, psychological, intellectual, emotional, and, dare I say, spiritual. This is our humanity. And while there appears to be a healthy sprinkle of randomness involved, whether the best or worst of us is made manifest depends on how we turn the various dials of our humanity. So, too, does our potential. What renders us capable, or not so, as creatures, is the degree to which the qualities of our humanity are tuned to our favour. Trite as this point may seem, it entails some interesting implications. If we accept that the buck starts and stops with us, our humanity, then it follows that we should take the quality of our humanity rather seriously. Rather than looking around, groping for the “perfect job” or “perfect partner” to ease our discontent, we might learn to direct our gaze inward, fix ourselves first, and then let the chips fall where they may.

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The quality of our humanity, according to this definition, is really just another name for health. If we accept that each of our traits, each of our human qualities, exists on a spectrum, with sickness on one end and health on the other, then the notions of health and human potential are utterly inseparable. If we are concerned with realising our potential, we should therefore be concerned with our health. Since our potential is simply a reflection of our capacities as biological specimens, it stands to reason that any rational attempt at discovering the limits of that potential should centre around cultivating the qualities that underpin those capacities. By learning to master our interaction with the world around us, the perplexing mind-matter relationship, we enable the fullest expression of our intrinsic form; the actualisation of our potential. Once we’ve made ourselves solid, the world becomes an oyster of possibilities.

Unless we have our humanity in order, we are unable to relish in the progress our past has brought us. Instead of profiting from the triumphs of civilisation, if we have not put ourselves together, we will be drowned by its challenges. Thus our duty as individuals, if you believe in such a thing, is to adapt ourselves to our times, to save ourselves, so that we may bend time towards a better present, in order to save others. If civilisation is a vast and turbulent ocean scattered with island paradises, we must learn to swim, so that we may enjoy the warmth of the sun and extend a hand to those who remain lost at sea. This is the promise, and power, of our potential.

Nathan McNiece