A Lesson on Potential
tom walsh


The job with Gustav Ehrlich turned out to be rather simple—Walker had to follow directions and do what he was told.  He became fascinated with the work very quickly, as he mixed the flour and the sugar and the salt, as he learned the different types of bread and the different ingredients that went into them.  Why did this bread take eggs, while this other took no eggs, but needed milk?  Why did they include yeast in the recipe for this bread, but not in another?  More than anything, he loved smelling and tasting the results of their work.  The taste of hot fresh bread was one of the nicest sensations he had experienced, and it never lost its beauty.  Getting up as early as they needed to was no problem for Walker, for he loved to see the sunrise each morning through the window of the bakery.

He was also amazed at how the flour stuck to his arms—the first few times he worked with it, he wasn’t quite sure that his arms hadn’t become completely white for good, that he hadn’t changed himself by working with the flour.  When he worked with it for a long time, it got in the air and floated all about him, and he loved to look at himself in the mirror at those times to see how the flour had gently settled on his hair and face and shoulders.  It always brought a smile to him when he saw his reflection then.

The most wonderful thing about the bakery, though, had to be the oven.  It was immense, and it took an entire hour to heat up in the morning.  That was one of Walker’s most important jobs, filling the bottom level of the oven with wood and getting a healthy fire going as soon as he woke up.

He loved to watch the fire catch, usually very slowly, creeping along a piece of wood until it covered it fully, then turning the wood to black as the wood spent its energy.  The heat was beautiful, too, especially early in the morning when there was a chill in the air.

Ehrlich noticed Walker’s fascination with the flames.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he asked Walker one morning.  He picked up a piece of wood.  “Fire isn’t quite clear to me, but I think I have a pretty good idea of how it works.  You see this piece of wood?”  He handed it to Walker, who examined it closely.  “It’s nothing.  It’s dead, for all practical purposes.  But it’s full of potential, just like you and me.

“You see, the flame is nothing more than a catalyst that allows the wood to expand to its potential, that allows it to release its energy in the form of heat.  When the wood is lying on the ground, it expends no energy, but it is full of potential.  That potential is converted either by animals and insects that eat of the wood, and thus turn the potential into energy that drives their bodies, or by flame, something that allows the energy actually to be energy, as opposed to potential.  Anything that burns is the same way—full of potential, yet until the flame is applied, it can be nothing helpful, nothing worthwhile.  Potential does nothing to help anyone—it’s the fulfillment of that potential that becomes helpful to the whole world.

“You and I are very similar—every person on this planet is full of potential, yet unfortunately, few people ever reach their full potential.  Do you know why?”

“Because they have no fire?”

Ehrlich smiled.  “Precisely.  Most people sit around, doing the same things over and over, waiting for some sort of catalyst to come along and turn them into fulfillment of their potential.  They don’t understand that the catalyst rarely just comes to them—they must go out in search of it, and they must actively try to find it.

“And many people, as soon as they find that catalyst, they try very hard to put out the flame, because they’re afraid of what’s going to happen when the flame engulfs them completely.  They have the opportunity to reach fulfillment of their potential, yet they shy away from allowing that potential to break free.  They want complete control over the fulfillment of their potential, not realizing that it’s only in the letting go of the control that they can ever find the fulfillment.

“Still others, sadly, spend their entire lives running from the flame, never letting it touch them, for their fear is so strong that they cannot live fully.  They spend their lives in darkness, fearing the illumination of the flame that would allow them to see through the darkness that they choose for themselves.”

Walker stared at the wood in his hands.  His eyes ran over every curve, every split, every grain, every aspect of the thing.  It did, indeed, seem dead in his hands, but he knew what would happen if he were to put it into the fire—it would catch along with the other pieces, and add its heat to the heat of the rest of the wood, adding to the energy that filled the oven and turned the mixtures of flour and water and egg and salt and whatever else was in there into something edible, something that was a necessary part of the community.

“But when the energy is gone,” Walker asked, “what then?  The wood is gone.”

“Then we find more wood,” Ehrlich replied.  “But that, my friend, is the most beautiful part—we humans are like wood in that we have potential that may or may not be reached, but we have the extraordinary ability to replenish our energy.  On the purely physical level, we can eat, and we can sleep, and our bodies can continue on, with just as much energy as before, perhaps with even more.

“Our spirits, though, are renewed every time we feel satisfaction with an accomplishment, every time we hear the words ‘thank you,’ every time we see the positive results caused by something that we’ve done.  Our spirits are a wonderful gift, yet we spend very little time trying to make our spirits grow, trying to develop them, trying to help them reach their potential.  People will spend years learning information or processes or knowledge, but very few learn about the higher part of ourselves.”

Walker was thoughtful.  “This spirit,” he asked, “do I have one?”

“Of course you do, Walker.  And yours is strong—as strong as a child’s, I would say.  Somehow, you haven’t allowed it to weaken, as most of us adults have.  I work very hard to keep my spirit healthy, to keep it as healthy as a child’s spirit.  It takes a lot of work, though—I have to think all the time about ideas that I wish to accept or reject, about actions I wish to take or not take, about people I wish to spend time with or avoid—there are so many ways that we can hurt our spirits, and for some reason, it seems that most people search out the ways that most harm them.  Usually, it seems to come down to fear.”

“Fear must be very strong, if people can make themselves unhappy because of it.”

“Well, the relationship between people and fear is much trickier than that.  It may be simply a difference in words, but people don’t make themselves unhappy because of fear—fear enters them and causes them to make themselves unhappy.  But you’re right, my friend—fear is probably the strongest element on this planet, for it controls a great number of people.”

“Can you tell me more about fear?” Walker asked.

Ehrlich smiled.  “You’ll learn more about fear than you want to.  Right now, we have bread to make.”

Walker smiled.  He couldn’t imagine learning more about anything than he wanted to—every little bit of information that he learned opened up an entirely new realm of knowledge of which he knew nothing.  He loved it.

When Walker first steps onto the road, he has no thoughts, no history, no memories, and no clothes.  As he travels and meets people and learns from them, he comes to know more about life, living, and becoming the person he's meant to be.  Walker is a parable of a man who has no past and no future, but who learns to make the most of each precious present moment as it comes.


The potential of the average person is like a huge ocean unsailed, a new
continent unexplored, a world of possibilities waiting to be
released and channeled toward some great good.

Brian Tracy


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