The Cult of Potential

In societies that worship and revere their ancestors, the death of the aged is a tragedy. In more modern, progressive cultures, the death of a youth is considered to be worse.


The greatest curse that can be hurled at you in school is that you are not living up to your potential.


In modern (post-WWII) American culture, there is no greater sin than wasting potential. This results in a terrible double bind for anyone who is not a privileged, compulsive overachiever. The greatest problem is, your potential is measured, not by your true aptitude and attitude, but by someone else's perception, what they feel you are capable of. Sometimes this is based on standardized tests, sometimes on school records, but most often on the subjective judgements of your teachers and your parents.

It is no longer sufficient to do your best. It is now required to do the best that they think you can do.

The sword of potential cuts both ways. Many people, especially in the last twenty years, have been diagnosed and/or medicated for a variety of "disabilities" (from dyslexia to ADD to the new fashionable syndrome-of-the-moment, Aspergers). This is not to deny the struggles and sometimes amazing feats of people genuinely afflicted. But when a syndrome becomes a catch-all for anyone who doesn't slot perfectly into the system, it not only demeans and diminishes people overcoming their PC euphemism, it saddles the unconventional with lowered expectations.

So you can either be doomed by too much, or damned by too little. There is no cure, not as long as your imaginary achievements are more important than your real ones.