Full potential

I read something yesterday. It was an article in the Huffington Post, forwarded to me by a coworker. The title? Sheryl Sandberg: ‘There’s No Such Thing As Work-Life Balance.’

For those of you who don’t know (and I didn’t until yesterday), Sheryl Sandberg is the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook — and she used to be an executive at Google. The article cites several passages from a recent interview with this smart, popular COO, one that is getting high praise from working moms everywhere for many reasons, including the following passage:

Sandberg noted that for years she’s left work at 5:30 PM so she could be home for dinner with her children, but has only recently started saying so publicly. Her hope, she said, is that discussing it openly will encourage others to feel comfortable doing the same.

I read this and thought Bravo, Sandberg! It’s not rocket science, but it’s encouraging to see parents setting visible parameters around their work in order to focus on their family. Otherwise, I read the rest of the article without much thought.

Until I got to a particular sentence.

I couldn’t figure out yesterday what compelled me to re-read it — and then re-read it again. And it wasn’t until I was reflecting more today that I realized why the simple string of words (used mostly as a transition point) caused me to pause. The sentence reads:

Helping women to reach their full potential requires the world to become more accepting of powerful and successful women, Sandberg argued, adding that women face a tradeoff between success and likability that men do not.

Full potential. It echoed in my head for a moment and I read the sentence again. “Helping women to reach their full potential requires the world to become more accepting of powerful and successful women…”

What defines “full potential” in this scenario? And what defines being powerful and successful? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being overly critical. I do think Sandberg is speaking more to creating family-friendly work places (and I applaud her for that), rather than making some philosophical statement about a woman’s worth. But it does point to a bigger idea that I’ve pondered lately.

At what point, do we differentiate full potential and life purpose?

It may seem like semantics, but the subtle nuance is this: when I think about my potential, I’m thinking of what I can do — whereas purpose lies in what I should do.

So for me, success has very little to do with how well I balance work ambitions with family responsibilities. Instead, it’s about being exactly who I was made to be. So for some women, maybe that’s working full-time, part-time or not at all. Maybe that’s having no children or 10 children. Maybe that’s running a Fortune 500 company or pursuing an artistic hobby. But if our priorities lie in finding and living our purpose — rather than meeting some worldly expectation of “potential” — then perhaps balance is closer than we think.

“If you are who you were meant to be, you will set the world ablaze.” – St. Teresa of Avila


  1. Victoria Calvin

    I totally agree…if I defined “reaching my full potential” via my career success, then I am not there! I have so much more to offer than my role as a career woman. I am currently training for another career and attend graduate school full time. I’ve become very interested in the work-life balance issues of graduate student-parents (juggling work, school and family). So much so, I research and write out this topic extensively.

    I am finding my past experiences in the corporate world are similar to that of my academic experience…establishing a realistic balance between work and family can be hard. However, very early on in my professional career, I got into the habit of “shutting down” at the end of the day – calls went to voicemail, the Blackberry was turned off, emails went unopened until the next day, and I left the office right at 5:00. I refuse to be a slave to my job. I have other things to do…like hang out with my husband and play with my baby girl. I’ve employed the same system in my new career as an academic.

  2. If we concentrated on merely on fulfilling our potential, rather than our purpose, the strong man would dominate, the shapely woman would seduce the strong man in exchange for his protection, the swift would steal, and the weak — the weak would be exploited and die utterly forgotten.

    The artist, the poet, the blogger and philosopher? Who would have time to reflect?

    Our purpose is greater. Somehow the Spirit has urged us on. Somehow in all the Darwinian horror show that is humanity’s burning desire to compete and pass our genes on, compassion creeps in.

  3. I totally agree. I remember seeing Sheryl Sandberg’s TED conference speech and feeling somewhat inadequate. I’ve never had the ambition to run for office or be the leader of a Fortune 500 company. And its not because I’m a woman. I’ve just always been drawn to music, art, and teaching. I don’t have kids yet, but I firmly believe that balance is so important and essential in life. Right now, I am a musician, a student, marathon runner, and a teacher. And I have never been happier.

    • Lauren

      Lisa, love your comment — happiness is a totally separate topic! And one where fulfilling purpose definitely trumps reaching a potential! :)

  4. I’ve definitely disappointed others in terms of my seeming lack of achieving what *they* felt was my potential. Especially those who were my childhoos teachers, and those strong women of my mother’s generation (so, now in their 60s and 70s) who saw in me a girl who was going to grow up to be in law and politics and be a world-changer. But that wasn’t what I ever felt called to do. I knew from a very young age that I was called to be a mother — or a nun. And I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to to and be both. And now, I am a mother; and I live out in the world, under Life Vows to a contemplative Order (within the charism of the Episcopal Church). I am, as ever, discerning God’s will for me. And, as ever, am aware of the disappointment from others in my life that I am not doing more than **just** being a mother and a contemplative. For me, I *am* succeeding: I am fulfilling my potential to the best of my ability. But I suppose, it doesn’t appear to be a measurable success. Ah, well. :-)

  5. sara

    I also saw Sandberg’s TED speech on youtube and it definitely got me thinking. Currently I am a stay at home mom but I do have desires to re-enter the workforce one day as for me, I like to be a contributor and I’ve found success in corporate America. But like Lisa, I don’t necessarily want to be a CMO or CEO, but I do feel sometimes, like “half” a woman b/c I chose to stay home with my kids while they are little. I know I could do more but where I am now is where I need to be….

    Great post!!

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