Saturday morning musings

Potential is a bullshit word. No one knows what anyone’s “potential” is, nor if they are working up to it or falling short of it. I hear this at work all the time. “He isn’t working up to his potential.” How do you know?

I once had a student who I thought could be doing much better in my class. He was getting a solid C+. He sometimes got Bs on assignments, but he often didn’t turn things in. He knew exactly how much work to do so that he would always pass his classes with a comfortable margin, and he did no more. So, when I had the inevitable, “I think you could be a B student” conversation with him, he smirked that teachers have been telling him that his whole life.

“‘I’m not working up to my potential’ is all I’ve ever heard, since kindergarten.”

“Really? Since kindergarten?” I went on to tell him that with such overwhelming evidence (11 years of school), I had to concede that he was in fact a C student, and I was wrong about him.

I didn’t mean this to be cruel. He had always received the ego boost of “You could do better, but you choose to just do ‘good enough’.” I thought maybe for once hearing someone say, “Oh, maybe you are just average! That’s okay, most people are! Welcome to the middle” would be a welcome difference.

Last I heard, he went to a respectable middle-of-the-road college and continues to do completely mediocre work with average results. Twelve years of teachers telling him he had the “potential” to do better didn’t make a dent.

Conversely, I read a forum post recently where a woman proudly reported that her 7th grade daughter with Down Syndrome was getting a B average in mainstream classes. She had been told by the daughter’s previous school that the child had reached her academic potential and couldn’t do any better.

And she rightfully told them to suck it. No one knew what her child’s potential is. And no one can know this for any child. It is something that can never be predicted nor measured. I have seen hundreds of “brilliant” and “normal” children over the years accomplish completely underwhelming things. Like graduating from high school with a 2.0 average. I have seen students come here from other countries in 9th grade knowing little to no English enter Berkeley, Harvard, Stanford, Notre Dame, USC, UCLA, and other schools a mere 4-6 years later. And I’ve seen everything in between.

Potential is a word we use to excuse failure and mediocrity, or to limit people from trying to achieve something greater.

I have the “potential” to be a size 4, but outside of getting cancer, it will never happen. As usual in life, I fall back on the wisdom of “Star Wars” (the original trilogy and NEVER the sacrilegious “prequels”)

“Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

And p.s. to the commenter who knows who she is. I did NOT spell it wrong. Look it up.

About Mrs Odie

Friendly Pedant; Humble Genius
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4 Responses to Saturday morning musings

  1. Niamh says:

    Dylan Moran is one of my favourite comedians, and he sums up the concept of potential beautifully:

    • Mrs Odie 2 says:

      “The 95 habits of highly effective toss-pots you’d never want to talk to anyway.” LOVE HIM! Thanks for the link!

      • Niamh says:

        You’re welcome! That stand-up show is called “Monster” and is well worth a look. He also co-wrote a series called “Black Books” – if you can find it online I think you’d enjoy it.

  2. Sturgmom says:

    I quote that Star Wars line to my children all the time. “Have a good day at school and obey your teacher!” “OK, I’ll try.” “No, you will or you won’t. There is no try.”

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