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.

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Revenge is better with a side of bacon. . . 

Here’s the thing: I reject those whispers wholeheartedly, and you should too.  There are two things going on here:

Circumstance

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.

Desire

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.

Gregory

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K.L. Allendoerfer - April 24, 2017

I’m old, so I missed the whole participation trophy fad. I won a “most improved” trophy in a bowling league when I was 12, though, and it meant something to me. I even still have it: a tarnished gold lady with a ponytail hurling a bowling ball to nowhere. I don’t bowl much anymore, and I haven’t even improved beyond that initial surge when I was a preteen. But I enjoy it when I do go. It is just a fun way to spend an evening and I’m happy not to have to be too competitive with it.

Otherwise I’ve gotten very few awards or trophies over the years. It kinda sucked, actually, sitting in the audience and watching the same few people win all the awards, which is what used to happen before the explosion of participation trophies in the 80s and 90s. People like to hate on participation trophies (that’s not what I see you doing here, but it has become a bit of a cliche to blame the practice for all kinds of bogus social ills) but I really wouldn’t want to go back to that.

Reply
    Gregory Josephs - April 24, 2017

    True about the participation trophies cliché. It’s a really easy scapegoat. I suppose I’m coming at this from the perspective of a lot of my peers that are disappointed in what they haven’t yet achieved, and I see unrealistic expectations about potential as part of the problem.

    But that is for each individual to grapple with him/herself.

    And a last thought on trophies. . . I think it’s great you still have that most improved award! You earned it! I don’t have many of my awards from when I was a kid, but the ones I’m most proud of are the improvement awards and the quantifiable things that are based on hard work. 😊

    Thanks for your perspective!

    Reply
K.L. Allendoerfer - April 24, 2017

Oh, I definitely hear you about the “unrealized potential” issue. It comes up again and again at different points in life. I think it underlies many a “midlife crisis” too.

The concepts in that vein that bother me much more than participation trophies are the ideas that all limits are bad, and that the only obstacles to success are internal. I remember hearing ad nauseum that “The Sky’s the Limit” and you should “Shoot for the Moon” because even if you don’t get there you will land among the stars. (I especially hate that second one because it displays a remarkable and willful ignorance about the positions of the moon and stars relative to the earth–but I digress). And that “you” are the only thing standing in your way between yourself and success. That strikes me as real a victim-blaming cop-out, especially in bad economic times. People mean well when they say these things, but I’m with you on the important role of circumstance.

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Stef - April 24, 2017

I can really relate to this. I was a ‘smart kid’ in high school….I graduated third in a class of almost 400. The expectation was I would go to an elite school and be a doctor, lawyer….something smart kids would want to be. When I decided upon a state University and elementary education, I received a lot of criticism. One of the reasons I chose my college and career is because I grew up in a poor family and knew the financial burden of school was on me, and me alone. I don’t regret the choice, but I feel like I still have to claw my way into the intellectual circles as a 4th grade teacher. Great blog post!!

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    Gregory Josephs - April 24, 2017

    Stef, I’m so glad you chose the path you did. We might not be in-laws otherwise! In any case. . .

    Continue setting your own expectations for yourself, discovering and directing your potential, and being happy. You shouldn’t need to claw your way into any circles, because you can hold your own. 😊 Thanks as always for reading!

    Reply
Get in My Head - April 24, 2017

I only accepted what my full potential can be recently. I was told most of my life the things I’ve wanted to do with my life were pipe dreams and I needed to get a real degree or a real job and leave the hobbies for free time.
Looking back on it now, I understand the adults in my life only wanted me to be able to take care of myself.. but it led to a road of failed expectations which didn’t help my self esteem any.
My classmates from high school didn’t have the highest expectations for me either. I got voted most likely to spend most of my days in an ER… I was quite the klutz and a bit of a class clown, breaking and spraining a few bones and ligaments trying to survive high school. My classmates did a lot of things for me…joking they didn’t want me to ‘hurt’ myself.
I felt really dumb a lot, and had a lot of blond jokes thrown at me. Once growing up my sister and I were supposed to be helping someone with their lawn care business, he put my sister to work moving rocks, then slipped me $20 and said, “Now you just stand there and look pretty and don’t touch a darn thing.”
That comment was just one of many similar comments I received growing up. I become an adult expecting to be taken care of. It was a rude awakening when I realized that’s now how real life works.
All of that rambling to say.. I was the victim of unrealized perceived potential! It took nearly ten years after high school, and going to several colleges, getting married and having a couple of kids to finally realize… I CAN do what I want.. I CAN choose what I want to do and be happy, and the expectations of others don’t mean a thing.
I’m currently following my pipe dreams.. I’m writing, and I paint for commissions. I’m not a millionaire by any means, but it helps keep me happy, and that’s what’s important right?
Great post! Sorry for the babble, but you made me think about several things…. Now I’m going to go ponder life and maybe write a poem.. lol

Reply
    Gregory Josephs - April 24, 2017

    I love the babble, and I hope you DO go write that poem!

    It sounds like you learned this lesson from a different perspective. While it’s awful to hold someone to unattainable expectations, it might be worse yet to underestimate them. I hope people don’t still underestimate you, and if they do, blow them away with your talent!

    Regardless, glad you’ve realized you’ve got at least some control over your destiny. Some people never have this epiphany. Thanks for reading, and for being awesome!

    Reply
itsmyhusbandandme - April 27, 2017

The only prize I ever got at school was for turning up i.e. good attendance. Thankfully I’m still showing up!
JP

Reply
    Gregory Josephs - April 27, 2017

    Yes! Surprisingly I didn’t ever get one of those. I don’t recall missing much school. Anyways, thanks for reading. I’ll look forward to more of your stuff!

    Reply
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