Of all the words in the English language, the one that brings me the most apprehension is…potential. The word “potential” packs a punch. It’s filled with so much promise, and yet it is such an irresponsible word to use because of how empty it is. Potential is a colloquial cop-out. It is a mildly inspiring word, while simultaneously acting to diffuse the already imminent possibility for failure. It’s a glorified “maybe”, a mature “probably”, a hopeful “conceivability”, and complete bullshit. Growing up, that word was thrown around to describe me more than a Frisbee at a fraternity barbecue.
“You have so much potential. If you continue to train, and focus, you could be really great” – Every tennis coach I ever had
“People really look up to you, you have so much potential to be a great leader” – High school physiology teacher
“You have so much raw talent, if you hone your skill you have the potential to be a really great designer” – Drawing and Rendering professor
And while these are all still words of encouragement, I find that the word “potential” has the potential to either stagnate me, or paralyze me completely. Because potential is a double edged sword, while the possibility for success is there, the possibility for failure looms on the opposite, and sharper, edge of the sword. I say sharper because failure is easy, or perhaps more precisely, giving up is easy. While giving up is the easier option, it is a toxic punch for your sense of self, because the central source of failure is you. Whereas the success side of the blade is more akin to that of a butter knife than a proper sword, and the destination is through a series of thickets and brambles that you have to hack your way through.
The tone of the word potential changes to one of urgency once an individual has completed their education, doesn’t really matter if that’s high-school or university, once you are on your own, “potential” falls on your shoulders despite your preparedness. When you’re younger, potential is an inspiring thing; there are so many options! You can do anything you want! But when it comes to making a decision upon which of those “potentials” to act on…well that’s when things get a bit convoluted.
Psychologist Barry Schwarz gives an incredible talk on the TED stage, delivering a powerful speech on the paradox of choice. He describes the official dogma of all western industrial societies as: “if we are interested in maximizing the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximize individual freedom…the way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice.”
In the case of potential, I had nothing but choices! Which is such an ideal scenario to be in! Yes I realize I am complaining about being good at stuff and having options, but this is my blog god dammit. Plus it feels like in the modern era of opinions even when things are going perfect, everything is shit. I’m simply trying to highlight the insanity of having to choose what you’re supposed to do with the rest of your life by picking from a bunch of half-baked “potentials!”
However Schwarz continued his talk and described why this ideology of excess choice resulting in excess happiness, is a huge farce.
“All this choice has two negative effects on people: one effect, paradoxically, is that it produces paralysis rather than liberation. With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all.
“The second effect is that even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options.”
To many, paralysis is also known as procrastination, and boosts the likelihood of potential failure. To me the word potential is the embodiment of Barry Schwarz’ paralysis regarding choices. If you have potential in something, chances are you have potential in multiple fields, and therefore the opportunity for regret and failure can lead to fear-based decisions and a diminished sense of self.
With the surplus of choice and potential, there is also a surge in self-doubt. I began to think of myself as a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. I was so perplexed with having to choose a singular path that I ended up choosing none. And ironically, I’m really happy with that decision. Instead of using “potential” as a word of encouragement, I implore you to instead use the past as the source of motivation. “Potential” lives in the future; there are so many variables and unknowns attributed to it. In my opinion it is a much more powerful motivator to see how far you have come, rather than to grasp at the ever-changing elusive future.
Much love & many adventures,