The Problem of Potential

“Ollie* was so good in primary school, such a good student”. Ollie’s mum described his history at his first session. Ollie was a natural learner in his early years of schooling but, now in Year 9, he was struggling. “He pretends he doesn’t care, until the last minute he does anything but study, then he gets really angry and overwhelmed the day before due date. Now he’s crashing out – such a shame, he has so much potential.”

From where do we get self-esteem? How do we develop a sense that we have value?

A modern, psychologically-minded person might answer, “from how we were raised by our parents, or perhaps from our school, our sports or childhood friends”.

And it’s true that a youngster can absorb the goodness from a validating and encouraging environment. We internalise the messages that trusted authority figures tell us about ourselves. We get told that we have value, and we feel of value.

Psychologically-minded parents understand that the messages they broadcast to their kids might help or hinder the future adult. Such parents work hard to validate and encourage their kids, even when the child is not behaving in ways that are valuable or encouraging. We encourage because we want the child to have a durable sense that they can achieve. We hope to build confidence, self-esteem, resilience, and a can-do attitude.

A nice plan, and sometimes it works. But we get our sense of self-value, not just from ourselves, but from observing what society at large values. What does society value? If we know what society values, we can measure ourselves against others.

Social Values

Children learn better by looking than listening.

Children will look and automatically grasp the values of those around them. The values they observe (by looking) are often very different to the values that adults try to indoctrinate into them (those received by listening). Parents and teachers preach values such as “hard work”, “no shame in trying”, “doesn’t matter if you win or lose as long as you did your best”. But kids need only look at the type of society to know what we really value.

So, what type of society do we live in? We live in a meritocracy. Meritocracy means that power is held by the people who supposedly deserve power (those who merit it). We laud success.

We also live in a capitalist society. Capitalist means that individuals control resources and money and are driven to make more money or acquire more resources (the profit motive).

Combine these two social values you get a society that in which we are encouraged to acquire ever more money and power and we value those who do acquire such success. No prizes for second. No prizes for sportsmanship or a race well run.

I’ve been listening to adolescents for much of the last 10 years. I’ve been observing their choices. Kids have revealed their values to me: success, money, status symbols. And this is a problem because you’re never poorer than when you’re young. Poorer in money sure, but also poorer in knowledge, credentials, experiences and connections.

But there’s one thing that you’re rich in when you’re young: Potential. Actually, you’re at your lifetime richest in potential – you’ll never be this rich again!

The Problem with Potential

Children and adolescents are pure potential. Everyone has some potential. Everyone could do slightly better than they are today, we could all achieve a little more. Kids however are nothing but potential.

And in our meritocratic society, when your value is set by what you achieve, potential is something to really hold onto: Better to never have tried and have potential, than to give it a go and prove once and for all you’re a failure.

When we tell kids that they have potential, we validate them for doing nothing, achieving nothing, being nothing. And I have seen so many teenagers hold on tightly to their precious potential. In effect, this means never properly trying so as to never properly fail.

“So, telling a child he has potential is a problem. What’s the solution? Telling the child that he has no potential?”

It’s important that kids know that they are basically good enough. This sense of self-esteem (I am basically good enough) is healthy and should not be tied to achievements. Families that raise stable happy kids usually encourage this “good enough” feelings in their kids. Most religions also stress the basic acceptability of the individual.

However, when it comes to school or sport or extracurriculars, validation should be attached to outcomes and effort. Striving hard is praiseworthy. A high mark is praiseworthy. Winning an award is praiseworthy. Potential is nothing and is not praiseworthy.

The truth is that everyone has potential. A young person who has developed a sense of their own specialness based on their special potential, has been done a disservice. Tell your kids they are good enough, but don’t tell them they have potential.


* Names and key details changed.

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