Potential is not some abstract your Mom and your 6th-grade teacher agreed that you had a lot of and needed to work up to — it’s physicists’ technical term for a kind of energy. Yup, the stuff that makes things happen for real and big time.
[Note: Feel free to skip to the bottom if you want the RIVER TAKE HOME LESSON FOR HUMAN BEINGS minus the geeky goodness that follows! I won’t mind!]
Potential is energy stored in a very specific kind of place — in a system where physical things interact with each other and their location is important:
System Example 1: the earth’s river-ocean system
System Example 2: your life.
Listen up: Potential energy is very useful. It completely powers every river. And it can power your life in just the same scenic-AND-always-gets-its-way way.
“But,” you might be saying, “isn’t potential a lot like intelligence in that”, as my grandfather would say, “together with 25¢, it will buy you a cup of coffee?” Of course now it’s more like “together with $2.50, it will buy you a latté,” so, yes, the point is even more vital: potential isn’t worth much unless you can put it to use.
And when you’re feeling stuck, transforming your potential —-> the actual work required to build the life you want SEEMS like a leap.
Well, it is.
Literally. Let’s look at Astonishing Thing #1:
How a river converts potential energy to getting-stuff-done:
It falls. Toward what attracts it.
The river simply feels the direction in which it’s pulled and flows there. This one rule — this one way-of-going-about-things — powers and steers everything a river does.
The river’s particular flavor of potential energy is gravity. That’s why river water will waste no time getting to whichever direction feels most like downhill. Now, the higher it is above sea level, the more potential the river water has. Which means that as it flows downhill — following the pull of the sea — the river’s potential energy decreases.
BUT wait a second! Isn’t energy always conserved? Ah, yes — you’ve heard how energy can be neither created nor destroyed. So how can a bit of potential energy just… go away? It can’t. BUT energy CAN change form.
As a steadily flowing river drops in elevation, its potential decreases, and that potential energy is converted to friction energy — in other words into energy that is dissipated against the stream bed and bank. This friction energy is called the “stream power” because its “shear stress” (I never tire of how these very technical terms get imported into our daily conversation with great meaning.) literally shears or shaves sediment from the stream bed and banks. The river shapes its channel in this way.
In summary, Astonishing Thing #2:
As potential decreases, stream power increases.
(Kind of interesting. When the river water meets the sea, it has no more potential. Does the human parallel seem a little depressing? I don’t know. If the sea is — as the great sages of all traditions agree whether they call it God, the Tao, enlightenment, the Beloved — complete oneness with love, then I guess we wouldn’t care if we had more potential. And of course there’s the ever-famous water cycle Soon those drops will be evaporated waaaaay up high and carried in clouds over to be dropped on the tip top of a mountain with the most potential EVER. And start the creative building again.)
More fully, Astonishing Thing #3:
As it follows what pulls it, the river converts its potential into its life’s work: building itself.
A river converts potential energy into its pretty, earthen stream channel: That’s why Luna Leopold ended his classic book A View of the River with the soaring, almost rhapsodizing, statement, “The river is the carpenter of its own edifice.” Of course he got rhapsodic — because it’s pretty crazy. The river is one giant self-making potential convertor. Just. Like. You.
And did you happen to notice Astonishing Thing #4:
The river’s cool creative stuff gets done through things that sometimes get a bad rap: Friction. Stress. Work.
Don’t even worry about it. They’re just words. Remember that in physics there’s no difference between work and play, and experiment with the TAKE HOME RIVER LESSON FOR HUMANS:
All you have to do is let yourself follow what attracts you, and your potential WILL be converted into an energy that immediately starts shaping your life.
Keep me posted!