You’re not working up to your potential!
Raise your hand if your teachers told you this when you were growing up. Wow! That many of you! That’s a LOT of unlived-up-to potential! Let us pause for a moment and imagine the earthly Paradise we would inhabit if all of you gathered up all that unused potential and just, you know, worked up to it!
The message that one was not working up to potential was supposed to be good news. It meant, “Your failures are not indicative of your true, inner nature. Inside, you’re really smart!” Though attractively wrapped in praise of our capacities, the judgment that we were not living up to our potential was a critique of our behavior. We were not using our God-given intelligence and talents to their fullest extent, and this was a moral failing, possibly a sin. It was simultaneously flattering and shameful to be told that you could do so much better, if only you weren’t so lazy, disruptive, daydreamy, talkative, perverse, or whatever your problem was.
Armed with IQ scores, teachers and parents felt confident that they knew the precise dimensions of our potential. The idea that a test could reveal an inborn, permanent, singular, measurable quality called “intelligence” originated in the early 20th century and reigned until nearly the end of it. That number, or the ones on our standardized tests, was believed to predict success in school, in careers, and in life. If the number was high, but your performance was low, the fault was not in your stars, but in yourself. IQ is a scientific concept attempting to do the work of mysticism, determining a child’s fate not by horoscope or numerology, but by scientific measurement of cognitive ability. Given this paradigm, a teacher looking at an underachieving student would believe that the test, rather than the student’s actual level of achievement, most accurately reflected reality.
Obviously, this model has some problems.
Our current picture of human intelligence is a far more nuanced and complex one than IQ testing gave us. But even if IQ is a valid measurement of something, it alone tells us very little about our potential for academic achievement, career success, or happiness. So much can get between a child and learning. A bright child can have learning or attentional disabilities; social, emotional, or family problems; or simply a lack of motivation or interest in the curriculum, all of which will sharply curtail her “potential.” When my son was diagnosed with ADHD, the educational psychologist estimated that he had been taking in only about 30% of instruction, and expressed astonishment that he’d learned as much as he had. Once he began treatment, he told me, with genuine surprise, “I can’t believe how much math we learn in school! I never noticed before!” A less enlightened teacher than his might have scolded him for not living up to his potential, smart boy that he is, but his intelligence told us very little about his capacity for academic success until he could pay attention.
Beyond the ability to simply be aware of instruction, students need a sense of self-efficacy, emotional regulation, and optimism, without which intelligence isn’t much use. Just as important is a quality we don’t have a word for in English: sitzfleisch, which means exactly what it sounds like–the ability to sit one’s posterior in a chair and keep it there until the work is finished. Our lack of a word for this tells you a little something about how undervalued this ability is (though obviously not by Germans), but I have known and taught many people for whom that one quality was the difference between success and failure.
Telling children or adolescents that they’re not working, or worse, living up to their potential, really does them a grave disservice. Not only does it lead them to believe that potential is a single, knowable quality that adults can magically see within them, but it also feeds a sense of complacency in underachievers. Sure, I could do the work if I wanted to. I have the potential to do anything I put my mind to! Smugness may mask the fear of failure. But the potential to do math problems or write essays fades with lack of practice, as does the exercise of the will. How long after graduation can anyone walk around believing that his unfulfilled potential is simply a matter of turning it on or off? And where else but in school do people try to peer into your mind to determine your potential to do things you show no sign of doing at present, and then judge you on that untapped ability? Can you imagine a performance review at work that says, “Susan has the potential to be an excellent sales representative, if only she would put her mind to it”? I remember being that person for a while in my twenties, expecting people to judge me on my potential, rather than what I actually accomplished. I was not the only one, and I eventually got over it, but some underachievers never move beyond the belief that someone will someday notice how extraordinarily smart they are and reward them accordingly.
Potential, then, is not some idealized hope of what you might do, given the perfect circumstances. Potential is what you are doing. It’s a rich stew of intelligences, opportunities, and emotional and social skills that takes years of practice and experience to develop. Teachers or mentors, like trainers at a gym, may recognize that you are capable of doing more and drive you a little harder, but they can only urge you to push yourself.
The dark side of knowing (or believing) that you possess vast unfulfilled artistic or intellectual potential is perfectionism. Are you working up to your potential now? Are you doing your best work today and every day? As adults, these questions can haunt us years after we hand in our last exams. The disease of perfectionism demands a constant examination of every endeavor, requiring not just our best efforts, but the best possible results. The question of whether one is working up to one’s potential is kind and gentle by comparison; perfectionism insists on what should be impossible– that you work beyond your potential in every aspect of life.
At some point (and sooner is better than later), we finally stop wondering whether we are meeting our parents’ or teachers’ idea of what our potential was, and start defining it for ourselves every day, acknowledging when we have done the best we can do at present. The practice of self-compassion allows us to be that wise, loving teacher to ourselves, not the one who scolds us for failing to excel, but the one who says, “I believe you can do even better than this. What can I do to help?”
1/19/16 Update: Hello! If you are reading/assigning this essay for a class, I’d love to know more about it! Please leave me a comment about your school, the course, the readings, your responses, or anything else. I’m curious!–JMG
(Thanks to Neil Fein of Magnificent Nose for editorial advice.)