This famous quote is seen by many as encouragement and a warning. Before dwelling into the quote, understanding the word shelf-life is quite good. Shelf life is the expiry date in common language (there might be slight legal differences, which I avoid if any). Food items can be edible after the expiry date, but there is no guarantee of the quality. Shelf life of different items vary; it could vary from few days to a few years.
Every human person has a potential to contribute something to the world. Contribution may or may not be significant in the eyes of the other. Realizing one’s potential gives a sense of contentment and happiness in life. Again comparing with others’potential may not be the best thing to do here.
Now the question is whether potential has a shelf life or not? First of all, each person has many potentials and their shelf lives vary. But I still believe most of them (if not all) do have a shelf life.
I may have the potential to make big in some field of life (sports, arts, academics or anything else). But if I don’t attempt to because of my laziness or some family circumstances, that potential is wasted. In some cases, you may fight back in the future, but rarely. This doesn’t mean that we can’t make big in some other area. An extremely talented athlete wasting his potential due to drugs or even an injury. In one case, it was a voluntary choice and in the other involuntary (unavoidable). We are not judging them as good or bad, but that fruition of the potential didn’t happen. That experience with drugs or the injury may help them to unleash other potentials.
As a catholic believer, I believe God has a beautiful plan for my life. I have the freedom to choose or not. Following needn’t be equated to slavery; it could be a following in love helping me to live life in its fullness. That plan is liberative. To fulfill that plan, I have to unleash my potential. There is some unique contribution I am called to make (no one else can make it). When all of us take it as our responsibility to unleash our potentials (I agree society and family doesn’t co-operate always), world could have answers for many of the current problems.