12 Questions to Help Us Realize Our Potential

The Ordinary World

The first part of the World Health Organization’s definition of mental health is a state of well-being in which every individual can achieve his or her potential.

I refused the call of exploring potential  because the idea that we’re not living up to our potential, or constantly questioning whether we are, is the opposite of  self-acceptance, which is essential to well-being…and, ironically,  realizing our potential.

But about six months ago, I crossed the threshold of exploring potential by changing the context of realize from achieve or fulfill to recognize or understand.

One of my allies was I Hate Happiness community member Sam. While helping her edit a book about her transformational journey, I revisited the outline of my mentor Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey.” And instead of re-tracing the tests of my own “Hero’s Journey” by re-reading tons of world mythology I found an ally in RAW Spirituality, which posted this explainer video.

The Hero’s Journey – 12 Stages

I still struggled with three words relating to potential: individual, his, and her. It bothered me that the gendered pronouns left some people out, but my greatest ordeal was with the word individual. This seemed to contradict the essence of the hero’s journey.

“Where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay  ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the  center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall  be with all the world.”– Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

I allowed the idea of individual potential to die and be reborn as our potential.

Return with the Elixir

The reward was the idea that realizing our potential may not lie in pondering what remains to be achieved but in reflecting on what it took to come as far as we have.

Explore the “12 Questions” Well-Being Habit

Option 1: Conversation

Since potential is not an individual journey, I first tried these 12 questions in conversation: taking turns asking questions and allowing both parties to answer.

Option 2: Writing Prompts

The reward from this conversation was the insight  that the questions could also be used as journal prompts. I tested this  by using that first conversation as my transformational insight and quickly answered the 12 questions in about 12 minutes.

Begin by calling to mind any transformative skill or insight from your life.

(An example from early life might be learning to tie your shoes.)

The Ordinary World

1. What was your life like before your transformation?

(I often tripped over my shoelaces and it was hard for me to walk or run.)

Call to Adventure

2. Name an experience or opportunity that made you aware of a new skill or insight.

(I observed my older brother tie his shoes and walk without tripping as much.)

Refusal of the Call

3. What fears, insecurities, resistance, or circumstances prevented you from pursuing this at the time?

(I couldn’t remember the steps, so I gave up.)

Meeting with the Mentor

4. Name an inspirational figure (perhaps a teacher, colleague, friend, author, or public figure) who helped you see the possibilities?

(My mom figured out how to show me how to tie shoes from “my” perspective.)

Crossing the First Threshold

5. How did you first test the waters?

(I tried to tie my shoes after nap time without asking for my teacher’s help.)

Tests, Allies and Enemies

6. Name some tests you faced. Who were your (internal or external) allies? Who were your (internal or external) enemies?

(I accidentally pulled the shoelace wrong and created a knot. An ally with patience helped me undo it and try again. An enemy was a fellow student who taunted me by telling me I’d never be a shoe-tyer…if that’s even a word.)

Approach to the Inner-Most Cave

7. Name a fear or doubt that arose as you got closer to attaining your skill or insight?

(Each time the bow came untied I feared I’d spend my whole life tripping over shoelaces.)

The Ordeal, Death & Rebirth

8. What did you ultimately have to let go of to become the person you are today?

(I finally let go of tying a single bow and relearned a double knot technique to decrease the chance of the shoelace untying.)

The Reward, Seizing the Sword

9. What was the reward for letting go?

(I could look out and notice new things in  the world around me instead of constantly watching my feet to make sure I wouldn’t trip.)

The Road Back

10. How did you integrate the reward into your new life?

(I started walking and running more.)


11. How did integrating that reward transform you?

(I internalized the confidence of being an expert shoe-tyer as proof that I could learn other daunting skills.)

Return with the Elixir

12. How has your personal transformation changed the lives of others?

(I showed others how to tie their shoes by incorporating what had made sense to me.)

The Journey is a Circle

The Hero’s Journey is cyclical, not linear. What is your ordinary life now? Have you experienced a call to adventure that you’ve  been refusing lately? What are your fears? Who are your allies? What are the potential rewards?

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.