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What is “potential” but bulls**t rooted in external expectations

by | 20 Apr 2021 | Reflections

My therapist introduced me to this TED talk about the necessity of gamification in reframing challenges, and the example of the toddler who fails at walking but tries anyway reminded me of an interaction I had with my niece. She took her sweet time walking, and I remembered jokingly yelling at her, “You are a bipedal organism! You can do this!” while trying to kind of force her to walk. Given her age, she did not understand me, but if she had I can only imagine how demoralizing this kind of talk would be.

Failure is a natural part of life, despite our displays of fortune and luck on social media. The “highlight reel” is not real. Plenty of people have rehashed that point, but I want to apply that to the phenomena of “wasted potential” that we so often see in young adults that were theoretically poised for wild success as children.

Children with a knack for anything are often assumed to be prodigies in the making. We see this in teachers, parents, families, and friends of “gifted” children. They are told that they will go on to do great things (without ever specifying what those things are) and that success is assumed. People say these things with no regard for the child’s health and well-being nor any understanding of the world that that child will grow up in. These platitudes make gross assumptions from limited input.

Of course, children don’t know that. They take the words of authority at face value and as fact. I remember reading that a child’s inner voice was a reflection of the adults around them—which explains why I was boastful, according to my kindergarten teacher. All I ever heard were compliments and assurances of success, so why would I expect anything different? Unlike many “gifted” children, I was never pushed by my family nor overly criticized for my shortcomings. In fact, they were extremely easy to ignore, often to my own detriment. This is a rather stark contrast to the children of helicopter/tiger parents, but came with its own set of problems (namely arrogance, and later depression when life became more difficult.)

Constructive criticism is necessary for improvement and growth; however, there can be a delicate line between criticism and emotional assault. Some people never learn the difference or have difficulty discerning them, but there is one refrain that I commonly hear that is intended as constructive criticism but is actually emotional assault:

“You had so much potential.”


Fuck that phrase. Despite the literal definition, people treat potential as this innate ability to do something great—a switch that one merely needs to turn on. At best, potential is a foundation which requires studying, training, and practice to manifest into anything resembling success or contentedness. At worst, and in many cases, potential is the expectation that someone will succeed effortlessly.

Nothing good worth having comes easy, supposedly. This is typically said in the throes of visible struggle and not at the onset of an undertaking, which is when it should happen. This is the expectation that children should and originally do have. The child attempting to walk understands that it is no easy feat, but that does not stop them. Instead, they fall on their ass and laugh. Falling is inevitable, and it would do us good to have a right laugh about it rather than lament about our “wasted potential.”

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