It’s tempting to fall into the habit of expressing ones own ideas under the guise of “we”, “they”, and “people.” Doing so introduces the comforting illusion that I am not alone in feeling what I’m trying to express in that moment. Nonetheless, most interesting observations are those I suspect to be somewhat universal. So, hopefully, I’m not delusional in assuming the following ideas are relevant to audiences greater than myself.
I recall being informed of my potential from early in life. People near to me were stubborn in their claim that I possessed qualities. Qualities that — whatever they were — deserved no more definition than the word potential itself. Excited by such mystery, I adopted a great enthusiasm for my future-self over my present-self, mirroring the confidence that those around me seemed to exude.
Reflecting an individuals self-worth and identity against what they earn is, on a sunny day, spiritually sadistic
As my interests evolved, so did a peculiar shift in the ongoing feedback received regarding my potential. The more time I spent with music and art, the more frequently reminded I’d be that such activities were to be enjoyed and not pursued. The greater my intensity and focus on athletics and sports, the more aggressively reassured that they shouldn’t be top priority. Over time, this constant pushback from family, friends, and educators fostered a mental reflex, ingraining the belief that my limitations were aligned with my interests.
Anyone can reflect on their past through the lens of any story they’re willing to entertain, and believe it. Nonetheless, believing that this origin story does accurately represent a dimension of my psyche, I can confidently say the following.
The word “potential”, as it relates to the hopes and dreams that families and communities hold for their children, is rarely more than a proxy idea for “earning potential.” In which, any perceived deviation from a linear path to actualizing ones earning potential is considered a threat to their trajectory, or for the sake of dramatization, their destiny.
Communicating observed potential, as vaguely as many seem to articulate it, does a tremendous disservice to young creative individuals; a type of person that I do consider myself. The reason is that realizing ones potential in western countries is largely communicated as the ultimate form of self-actualization, and foundationally reflecting an individuals self-worth and identity against what they earn is, on a sunny day, spiritually sadistic.
Now at 31, I’ve stumbled across this mental stone unturned. It seems evident that, for decades, this foundational impression has long influenced my calculations of self-worth and worthwhile activity. However, I now feel equipped to correct that with the following reflection.
Every human possesses potential. Potential to do tremendous harm in the world, tremendous good, or — the potential that most humans actualize — a tremendous amount of nothing at all. Giving importance to another’s idea of what you should become is sacrificing the self-agency that makes any capable person formidable. There is no value in realizing a potential that leads to becoming someone they never interested to be. A path that adopting a self-image others have defined, as opposed to exploring the interests found in ourselves, will surely lead to.