Wasted Potential

What am I scared of?  That’s an interesting question.

Yes, I know what the question means!  I heard Suzy, here, on my left, say “spiders” already.  I just need to think a moment.  Lemme take a sip of my beer.

Okay, got it.  The thing that scares me most in the world?  Wasted potential.

What do you mean, “What do you mean”?  Do I need to explain it?

Ah.  Guess that I do.  I’ve got a good story here.

So this happened a couple years ago, back when I was still in my undergrad.  Now, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned, it’s to not do your working or studying in your room!  Get distracted in minutes, guarantee you.  Instead, I always like to try and find a coffee shop, someplace with people around so that I can’t just start surfing the web or blaring music.  Makes me keep on reading my textbooks.

So I go into this coffee shop, get my coffee, and I’m looking around.  Place is packed.  I eventually spot the only seat left, and it’s at a table where there’s already another employee, probably on his break or something, just lounging.  I head over, ask if he minds if I sit, no, please, go ahead, thank you, all of that little small talk, great.  I take a seat.

I’m pulling out my books and papers, dumping them onto the table as I’m digging through the crap in my backpack, and the other guy starts looking over at me and my work.  Now, before I go any further, lemme describe this guy.  It’s kinda important.

The guy sitting across from me was definitely in middle age, if not pushing the boundaries of it.  Thinning gray hair, wrinkles around his eyes and on his hands, little bit of a paunch behind that green apron all the employees have to wear, you know.  Typical middle-aged guy, maybe a little run down by life.  Possibly even run over once or twice by life.  But hey, I’m not one to judge.

The guy asks me what I’m studying, I tell him genetics, he makes the appropriate oohs and aahs.  You know.  Everyone gives me that sort of thing, like it’s any tougher to be an expert in genetics than it is to be an expert in medieval literature or something.  But then this guy starts asking questions.  And let me tell ya, he was actually asking good ones!  I’m doing my best to explain the answers, pulling up pictures and diagrams from my books, but this guy got it.

Let me just go back and emphasize this point.  This guy got it.  And this was his first time, too.  Not, “oh, I took this in college but am just now remembering the details of it,” nothing like that.  He knew crap about genetics, but was able to understand everything I said, and make it all fit together logically.  In his head!  After five minutes I was skeptical, after ten minutes I was incredulous, and after fifteen minutes I was amazed.  I was sitting across from a guy that probably had an IQ in the MENSA range.

But then, I start asking him about his life.  “What’s your story?” – you know the drill.  And man, this guy had a story.  But I’ll warn you right now, it’s not a good one.  Oh no, definitely not.

Hold on, I need another beer.

Aah, that’s better.  Keeps the throat wet, you know?

Where was I?  Oh yeah, this guy’s story.  And he had quite a story.  Went off to college, and got a girl pregnant in his freshman year.  Yeah, not even six months in and he’d already knocked up this girl.  Not even a long-term girlfriend, some girl at a party.  He dropped out, tried to help support her, but things sort of fell apart, and they never even got married.  So he doesn’t have alimony, but he’s barely a part of this kid’s life, either.  Sends him money, sees him every couple of months or so.

So now that he’s out of college, well, this guy had to head into the workforce.  And he worked a lot of low pay, hourly jobs.  He eventually managed to pick up an associate’s degree, taking classes at night, and landed himself a decent financial position, but then the recession hit, and back on the street he went.  Back to the hourly wage jobs.  And now, he’s closing in on fifty, and still doing the same thing.  No retirement, no plan for the future.

Now, if you’re not feeling pretty low for this guy, well, I don’t know what’s wrong with ya.  I can tell you, I was feeling it.  So then, before he got up to leave, I had to ask him that one question.

This is the question that, like an iceberg, has a lot more below the surface.  You all probably hear it every single day, in some form.  And you probably all shrug it off with a word or two, a quick little answer that just barely touches the iceberg’s tip.  But it goes a lot deeper than that.  This is the sort of question that can run a whole night’s discussion, just on it’s own.  You all know it.

You don’t know it?  Well, here it is.

“Are you happy?” I asked him.

And oh, ladies and gentlemen, this was the killer blow, the knockout punch.  Because if you’ve been following along, you know that this guy has wasted a hell of a lot of potential.  I knew, from fifteen minutes of talking with him, that he was brilliant.  Not even just smart.  Freaking brilliant.  And he had gone and tossed it all away, squandered a life on meaningless work that really didn’t live up to what he could have done.

But when I asked him that question, I saw him open his mouth.  Saw him start to give that reflex answer, of course, oh yeah, can’t complain, not perfect but a decent life, all of that.  But then he stopped, and I saw that sorrow in his face.  Saw him stop, risking his true self to a stranger.

“No,” he said.

And that one word, right there?  That sent a chill all the way down my spine.  That was, bar nothing, one of the scariest conversations I can remember.  And that, that, is why I’m always questioning my life.  Always taking a step back, peering over my own shoulder to see how I’m doing.  Because I don’t want to destroy my life like that.  I don’t want to find out, down the road, that I have what I fear most:

Wasted potential.

I need another drink.

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