April 24, 2017 by Gregory Josephs
The Pitfalls of Perceived Potential
Remember all those awards they used to give out at the end of the school year when you were in Middle and High School? You can picture what I’m talking about, right? They were so fancy; a full-color inkjet border on thick, marbled paper; your name scrawled in calligraphy; a foil leaf star or medal pressed onto the corner. If you’re my age or younger, you probably got one for every activity you participated in, and while some of them were great, others were. . . a stretch.
I once got an award for Most Outspoken from my High School newspaper. Really? I was the web editor!
I didn’t even write very much that year. It was a cheeky way of celebrating how apparently opinionated and annoying I was. Everyone thought it was pretty funny, myself included, but talk about a waste of ink. . .
In any case, I always loved seeing people win awards like Most Improved or Team Player of the Year. These were more solid and quantifiable. They seemed to celebrate real achievement.
And yet, at the time there was this prevailing belief (totally wrong by the way) that these were in fact the throwaway awards—the feel-good certificates you gave the kids that were lesser, who maybe didn’t have the potential. . .
Because for whatever reason, when you’re a kid, it’s all about potential. The really big awards were things like Most Likely to Succeed, Most Likely to be President, or other potential-based classifications. The Next Maya Angelou, The Next Lady Gaga, The Next Warren Buffet.
In a lot ways, these were the most dangerous. Declaring that someone has potential usually comes with a silent expectation for that person to live up to it.
Then comes the really cruel twist:
Not far into adulthood, people stop judging us by our potential and begin to judge us by our accomplishments. While judgement of others in general is bad (who are we to judge?) this is actually the better way, except that. . .
When other people set our bars so high, and we fail to clear them, we risk disappointing not only those setting our expectations, but also ourselves. How is that fair? Maybe you were a promising musician who fell out of love with music. Perhaps you were a star athlete that burned out after one year of swimming in college. You could be the valedictorian that decided to be a stay-at-home parent.
There is nothing wrong with any of these scenarios, especially if it means you’re doing something that makes you happier.
Maybe the musician decided to teach history, the athlete competes in a few triathlons a year, and the stay-at-home parent gets way more satisfaction out of Chutes and Ladders than climbing the Corporate Ladder. And yet, listen hard enough and you’ll hear whispers of squandered potential, even if they’re only coming from the voices in our heads.
Here’s the thing: I reject those whispers wholeheartedly, and you should too. There are two things going on here:
I’m a Millennial. Sure, I’m at the shallow end of that generation—the oldest Millennials were born in 1982 (the first to come of age in the new millennium) and I came into the world in ’84—but I’m still a member of the club, and I think a lot of the perception problems with this generation come from unrealistic expectations of potential. We all got those awards when we were in school. We were told we could do anything we set our minds to. There was no limit to what we could achieve!
These are inspiring ideas imparted to us by parents and teachers that loved and cared about us. But they’re unrealistic. The cost of higher education is through the roof. In many parts of the country housing is ridiculously expensive. The Great Recession made the job market a lot tougher, and many of my peers were forced to cobble together multiple part time jobs to make a living. It’s no wonder so many Millennials still live at home after college and even into their thirties.
Is it a case of squandered potential, or poor conditions for growth? Try planting a vegetable garden in a drought. The seeds are full of potential, but if there’s no rain. . .
I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to do our best despite adverse conditions. We should always strive to do better and be better, but it’s alright to acknowledge that sometimes circumstance gets in the way.
I touched on this already, but desire plays a huge role in achieving our perceived potential. You might be the most brilliant writer in the world, but if your heart isn’t in writing, you’ve got no business doing it. You could be an amazing runner, but if you prefer playing tennis to hitting the pavement, it’s okay that you don’t run the Boston Marathon every year.
It’s your life. Do what makes you happy! Regardless of what other people believe your potential is, you’re the only one who can really decide what you’re capable of. Set your own expectations, work toward your self-defined goals, and for goodness’ sake talk about it!
Change the conversation. When it comes to what you can achieve, the only expectations you’re really accountable to are the ones you set for yourself.
So if unrealized potential has got you down, figure out what your potential really is and start working at it in a way that makes you happy. Then maybe a few days, months, or even a year from now, you can qualify for your own Most Improved award. That’s the one I’ve currently got my heart set on.
Now your thoughts. Are you a victim of unrealized perceived potential? Do you place unrealistic expectations on yourself based on the perceptions of others? Let me know in the comments below.