Overcoming the ‘Burden of Potential’ with Laura Gassner Otting

Overcoming the ‘Burden of Potential’ with Laura Gassner Otting

The fear and chaos of the pandemic appeared to be waning, and Laura Gassner Otting was feeling good. She had spent the previous year reinventing her business, her oldest child was getting college acceptance letters in the mail, her marriage was healthy and she was doing the 75 Hard Challenge. 

As part of the challenge, she had to take a picture of herself every day. And that’s when she saw it. A little spot on her abs. Within a week, her entire body was covered with scaly welts that hurt and itched. She gained 18 pounds in two weeks and stopped sleeping.

It took two months and 32 blood tests before it was confirmed: Otting had a rare autoimmune disease that affects just a few hundred people in the U.S. It had no specific treatment and no specific cure. 

Everything she had worked so hard to build—an illustrious career that included a stint in the Clinton White House, a wildly successful executive search pedigree, a Washington Post  best-selling book and the sale of a company she built from the ground up—was under threat.

Thanks to an off-label medication, several rounds of chemo and a healthy stroke of luck, Otting is now in remission, but the road to this moment, in which her next book, Wonderhell, is about to come out, has been both difficult and enlightening. 

And that’s just part of what Otting discussed during a recent episode of On Your Terms with Erin King. Here’s more from Otting and King’s exciting, illuminating and downright entertaining conversation:

Wonderhell: The problem of becoming

The title of Otting’s upcoming book, Wonderhell, refers to a very specific moment in time. Her best-selling book Limitless had just been published, and it was a surprise hit. She found herself on the best-seller list, right behind Michelle Obama. 

In a short time, she found herself everywhere, including on Good Morning America and at an event where she was the opening act for activist Malala Yousafzai. At the moment she conceived of the idea, she was on a plane, and she couldn’t sleep.

“So I open my laptop and I write this long screed on Facebook about how I don’t even know where I am anymore,” she said. “And all I know is that I’m between the blur that was the past and the blur that would be the future. And the space I’m in right now is wonderhell.”

It’s wonderful, but it’s a kind of hell. You’ve achieved something great, and your psyche walks in and asks, “What’s next?” She had found the perfect word to describe the burden of potential.

Success is not a final destination

What Otting describes is the problem of success in general. We think it will get easier when we do the next big thing, but it never does.

“That’s because it turns out that success is not a final destination at all,” she said. “It’s a portal, and through that portal, you get to see your potential. The work you do opens more doors than you ever thought possible.” 

The next question is, of course, whether you’re going to go for it. And if you don’t go for it, will you regret it?

No matter the answer, Otting said, you’re unsettled. But among the mixed emotions, you will find something else: an invitation. 

“The world tells you… that the discomfort you have is a limitation telling you that you should slow down,” she said. “But the truth is it’s actually your invitation to speed up. It shows you that you’re on the right path, and it shows you what you’re made of.”

How to experience success more vibrantly

Exciting as wonderhell is, it also takes away from your ability to enjoy your successes. You want to feel something particular when you know success is coming—the way Otting anticipated she would feel before she sold her company—and then you don’t feel it. So how can you experience success more vibrantly?

The key, Otting said, is about reexamining your definition of success. The definition of success you absorbed in your teenage years—when someone told you to pick a path and when your decision-making frontal lobe was not fully developed—may not be truly yours. The checklist with the corner office and designated parking spot may not be about you.

“It’s really about thinking about where you really find joy,” Otting said. “What do you love to do? And does what you love to do actually look like your inbox, your to-do list, your calendar?”

Find what you love, Otting said, and build a career around it. That’s how you can truly experience your successes.

Confidence comes from competence

As an executive search professional, Otting saw a lot of people who had limited themselves. They didn’t believe in their own potential and lacked the confidence to change where they stood. Otting, now a long-distance runner, can relate with not having the confidence to believe you can do something great.

“I didn’t run my first mile until I was 39 years old,” she said. “I was about to turn 40. And everything just hurt.”

It wasn’t long before she found herself running a marathon. How did she develop the confidence to attempt 26.2 miles?

“Confidence comes from competence,” she said. “And competence comes from putting one foot in front of the other over and over and over.” 

Past trauma: Not life-defining, but clarifying

Otting’s experience with pityriasis rubra pilaris, the rare autoimmune disease that struck her in early 2021 was, in a word, traumatic. She felt hopeless and even pictured a world that didn’t have her in it. When it started looking like she could get some normalcy back, she had to ask herself whether she was going back to the life she really wanted.

It’s a question that many people are asking themselves as the pandemic appears to wane and life returns to something more recognizable.

“For so many people, the answer is a resounding ‘Hell, no,’” she said. “And you don’t just go out and change everything about your life; you change a little bit here and a little bit here and a little bit here. And as you start making those changes into habits and those habits into your persona, then the next thing doesn’t seem as scary.”

With time, your goals become clearer and easier to set, she said. “You keep proving to yourself that, with competence, you can do bigger things and that you have the confidence to go after them.”

Hear the whole conversation between Laura and Erin in the podcast episode. Wonderhell is set to be released in summer 2022.

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Alex Lindley is a freelance writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he lives with his wife, son, dog and cat. He loves working with words, whether that happens in print journalism, SEO, poetry manuscripts or pretty much anywhere else. Find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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