Realizing Your Potential: A Lesson from History

I love reading books from different fields. One that I read recently is Abundance by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. It’s a book about how technology can help us enter an age of abundance.

In the book, there is an interesting story about aluminum. It surprised me: aluminum was once more precious than gold! As stated in the book:

Napoleon III himself threw a banquet for the king of Siam where the honored guests were given aluminum utensils, while the others had to make do with gold.

How could that be? How could aluminum be so valuable back then while it’s so cheap now?

As it turns out, the reason is that aluminum was very difficult to extract. Aluminum exists in nature only in the form of bauxite, so you need to extract it first. Unfortunately, that was hard to do, which is why aluminum was rare and precious. It was ironic because aluminum is actually one of the most abundant elements in the Earth’s crust.

A breakthrough happened in the 19th century when scientists discovered an efficient process to extract aluminum. Since then, there is an abundance of aluminum like we have today. The world has become a better place because of it.

I like this story because it’s a good metaphor for human potential. Your potential is just like aluminum.

Here are three things we can learn from the story:

1. Know that there is a great potential in you.

Just as there is a great deposit of aluminum in the Earth’s crust, there is a great potential in you. You might not see or feel it, but it’s there, waiting to be extracted. The problem isn’t that you lack potential; it’s whether you extract it or not.

2. Find where your potential is.

To extract aluminum, you must first find where it resides. Similarly, to realize your potential, you must first find where your potential is.

If you haven’t done so, taking a multiple intelligence test is a good start. It can give you some hints about your potential.

The next step is to experiment with different things. Why? Because you might need to try something first before you can see your potential in it. This blog, for instance, began as an experiment of mine. After seeing that I had a potential in blogging, I then decided to keep working on it.

3. Realize your potential.

After figuring out where your potential is, the next step is to realize it. You need to extract your potential.

Needless to say, this is the hardest part of the three. This will take years.

You can start by creating a side project and then iterating on it. After that, you can take increasingly difficult challenges. These are easier said than done, of course, but that’s how you realize your potential.


Whether you feel it or not, there is a great potential in you. Find what it is, and pay the price to realize it. You will have the satisfaction of reaching your full potential.


  1. Hey Donald, some great thoughts there on potential. What I would add there is, before you can figure out where your potential is you need to figure out “what it is, and what you can do with it, how you can use it.” in the case of alluminum people already knew what it can be used for, so there was no need to figure out the “what.” but for most people, they need to figure that out. Aptitude tests such as the gallup strengthsfinder test will help you nail down what your strengths are, so you can develop it.

  2. I don’t know why but I really dislike the term “potential” for a great reason. Even during childhood we hear that term used as a polite way of saying, “Oh honey you could be doing so much more and so much better, you’re certainly smart enough, you’re just not doing it either out of laziness or stupidity?” It’s all inferred by how people use the word… there really ought to be a better word for what you’re trying to put across here, motivation maybe, or the desire for growth as a person – potential is just a really sucky word all around.

    • I see. I didn’t realize that the term “potential” could have a negative connotation. Thanks for letting me know.

    • Abdul Hannan Ali
      Abdul Hannan Ali

      Motivation is a more wrong word. You can be motivated a lot but if you aren’t doing anything then that motivation is just a waste of time.

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