Mr Pickpocket is stealing your potential

David Engwich
August 23, 2019

There are three thieves sneaking around your neural pathways stealing your potential. Let’s unmask them and reclaim what they have stolen. The second of them is MR PICKPOCKET.


In part one of this series, I suggested that many of us have moments where we wonder if we are living our lives to the fullest potential. The thing we fear is getting to the end of life, regretting that our potential remains locked up and unlived.

I suggested that there are three villains roaming the back-streets of our mind, stealing our potential. We have already unmasked the first: THE TRICKSTER. In the next episode I expose THE BIG CON.

Today we unmask thief number two.



Back in 1987, I was washing windows for a living. A brochure arrived in my letterbox announcing a public meeting to discuss a road-widening through my neighbourhood. Usually the junk mail got tossed straight in the bin. But for some reason, my wife read this one, and insisted I go to the meeting.

I walked out of that meeting a founding member of a community group set up to fight the road widening. Little did I know at the time, but my life was on a new trajectory. Within three years I had quit cleaning windows and was travelling the world as a guru on traffic and city design. Within four years I had invented the Walking School Bus that became a global phenomena.

Ken Robinson calls these pivot points in our lives ‘trigger moments’. If my wife had thrown out that brochure, I may have missed this opportunity to discover a talent I didn’t have the foggiest idea that I possessed. Over my life I have had many of these trigger moments, some more significant than others.

But here’s the thing. We all have them. Some miss every single one of them. Others, who we think lived charmed lives, exploit every one of them to the max.

Why do some people miss these opportunities?


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Firstly, they don’t come with a flashing neon sign which screams, ‘I am here to help you discover potential you didn’t even know you had!!’ About two years into the battle against the road-widening, a resident suggested I should find a way of making a living out of what I had learned during two years of full time campaigning and research. I laughed and dismissed it as a fantasy idea. Even at this stage I didn’t realise what lay ahead of me.

Secondly, if I had had a rigid ten-year plan for my life, I would never have thrown myself into the fight. Over-planning causes us to miss these trigger moments.

In workshops, I often get participants to play the one-word game. Participants form groups of four to six people and stand in a circle. Someone starts things off with a random word, and the person next to them adds another word that connects to it. They continue around the circle building sentences, which eventually turn into a story. No pre-planning or plotting is allowed.

I usually let the groups do this for a few minutes before I stop them and explain why some of them may be feeling flustered and paralysed each time it’s their turn. If a participant is second-guessing where the story is heading, and the person before them says a word that doesn’t fit with their preconception, their brain seizes up and says, ‘What a stupid thing to say! That’s not where I thought the story was going!’ I restart the groups, asking them to empty their minds of preconceived notions. Within minutes, I hear laughter as the participants learn to ‘let go’.

When the time is up, I ask the groups to share a synopsis of the story they created. I ask them how long they think it might have taken them to come up with it if I’d put them in a rational frame of mind and asked them to work as a committee to write a story. Some guess a week; others say, ‘Never!’

An interesting part of this experiment is when someone adds a word that comes from left field – such as ‘cactus’ – and sends the story off in a totally unexpected direction. In fact, this is often the cause of the laughter. It’s a trigger moment in the story.

Over-planning anything – art or your life – reduces the chances of random events sending your adventure off into surprising new territory. This requires a life-stance that is open to the rich possibilities inherent in everyday events – whether they are traumatic, such as losing a job or your sight, or seemingly un-noteworthy, such as another oversized report landing on your desk.

Being responsive to trigger moments also requires a deep trust in your own creativity. When we were children, we didn’t need to know in advance how a game would pan out. We constantly and spontaneously adjusted how it was played, on a moment-by-moment basis. When new children joined in – such as Josh with his special needs – we could instantly invent a brand-new way to play the game. We never worried or fretted about whether we had the capacity to do this.

We trusted our instincts.

Yet, when we grew into adulthood, all this changed. We began placing more faith in the forward-planning and rational-thinking part of our brain and less in our creative capacities. Like a muscle that is under-utilised, this part of our brain became atrophied. Now we are the ones who, during the one-word game, are petrified and paralysed.

It’s time to plug back into the creativity you were born with and stop MR PICKPOCKET dead in his tracks. Start working the muscle again, and get ready for some trigger moments.

In the last of this series I unmask thief number three – THE BIG CON.

If you missed the first of the series, you can read it here.

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Become the hero in your own story

Tap into the ‘creativity factory’ inside your head, transforming the mundane of everyday living into an extraordinary life.

Buy the book