Realizing our Full Potential

Updated: Feb 14, 2019



Wendell Berry has a dear friend, Wes Jackson. One day they were walking in Wes’s experimental land plots at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.


We stopped by one plot that had been planted in various densities of population. Wes pointed to a Maximillian sunflower growing alone, apart from the others, and said, “There is a plant that has ‘realized its full potential as an individual.’” And clearly it had: It had grown very tall; it had put out many long branches heavily laden with blossoms – and the branches had broken off, for they had grown too long and too heavy. The plant had indeed realized its full potential as an individual, but it had failed as a Maximillian sunflower. We could say that its full potential as an individual was this failure. It had failed because it had lived outside of an important part of its definition, which consists of both its individuality and its community. A part of its properly realizable potential lay in its community, not in itself (Home Economics, pg. 115).

Yes individuality. And community. One enormous problem in our society is that hyper-individualism is becoming normalized. It has taken hold with no regard for the assumed externalities. Or even the cost to the individuals themselves. Bill McKibben questions whether our hyper-individualism is really delivering on its promises:

A sampling of Forbes magazine’s “richest Americans” has happiness scores identical with those of the Pennsylvania Amish and only a whisker above those of the Swedes, not to mention Masai tribesmen. The “life satisfaction” of pavement dwellers- that is homeless people — in Calcutta was among the lowest recorded, but it almost doubled when they moved into a slum, at which point they were basically as satisfied with their lives as a sample of college students drawn from forty-seven nations (Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, pg. 42).

What if we actually discover our truer selves more fully in community with others? What if our life satisfaction goes up when we give of ourselves in relationship with others? As Bruce Cockburn sings, “It only lives when you give it away.


So why don’t we live into that more? (It’s not that we are all hyper-individualists! ) I would venture two reasons:


1) We are often moving too fast to connect with each other.

Yes, our technologies have myriad benefits. And they speed us up and give us the illusion that we really can fit more and more into every day. And often in our workplaces, we have so many demands that there is no time to slow down. This is true in so many fields of work. And yet is our pace sustainable?


Think of someone who is the best listener that you know. Who comes to mind? Chances are they are someone who has cultivated an ability to slow down and be present, to be engaged with what you are saying. They create a hospitable spaciousness for you to relax, and you allow yourself to be seen, and to offer your true self. We feel the nourishment of that connection that strengthens us and actually adds resources to the total we thought was finite.


2) We do NOT want to be seen.

We long to be seen, and yet at the same time we don’t want to be seen. It’s too vulnerable, too risky. Our bodies hold the memory of times that we’ve been vulnerable before and been hurt.


When we think about our workplaces, where we have tremendous pressure and often not enough resources, these two impediments to connection with others can seem insurmountable.


I believe anything worth doing, is worth starting small. And really that’s the only way to begin. It’s just like our immune system that needs all the interactive experience of childhood to bolster itself and become resilient.


We need safe spaces, microcosms to experience connection, to build a new way of being together. We need new experiences where we viscerally feel supported, connected, mirrored. Spaces where we can risk in small ways, make offers, and discover ourselves supported; where we can accept others offers and support them as well. We’ve got to rebuild our relational architecture of connection in order to become resilient together in the face of the intensity of our work and life.


And yes, workshops that utilize applied improv, are one fantastic and proven way to do this. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Recently I learned of oncology nurses at Johns Hopkins Hospital who are creating a culture of resiliency with improv. One of the nurses put it this way:

This is a second career for me. I’ve been a nurse for two years, and I’ve come to see that I was becoming a protocol, a machine, and the door was closing on my humanity. I didn’t know if I could continue to do this work. The arts, improvisation, and performing are the best way to reconnect us with our humanity, and I feel like a human being again.

Yes, indeed. This is why I do this work. I am working to catalyze this reconnection.


Without reconnecting to our humanity we are just forcing, pushing through, burning out.

Just like Maximillian sunflowers, our humanity is not just our solo self, but is tied up in relationship with others. And when we know this experientially, when we feel support viscerally, when we taste the joy palpably - it changes everything.


We realize our full potential, not alone, but together.


p.s. here’s a bonus. This is a video (just under 10 mins) about these oncology nurses. who worked with the consulting firm, Performance of a Lifetime, They faced their fears



©2020 David Westerlund