The discourse of wasted potential is omnipresent but it may be a harmful way of speaking about ourselves, relating to others, and thinking about our or others' accomplishments.
1. The Power in the Talk of Others
A few years back, I had a conversation with an acquaintance who told me that they recently realized that they had to step up their game: They wanted to put more energy into their studies and use the upcoming semester to get off to a flying start. I asked them what had brought about this sudden burst of energy and they told me this: “I had a conversation with my friend and they told me bluntly that I was wasting my potential. That's when I realized.”
When I started my PhD thesis in 2015, I had a conversation with a researcher in my field. They asked me what I was working on and I enjoyed talking to them about my project. They then asked if I already had an idea for a second book project – a requirement to climb the academic career ladder in Germany and become a professor – and how I would get funding for it. I told them honestly that, for a variety of reasons, I didn't see myself writing a second book or pursuing a career as a professor. Their answer: “That's a shame, someone like you wasting their potential...”
They told me it would be a waste of my potential and that they are afraid for my future.
A young student told me during my office hour that they really wanted to stop studying because they felt unhappy and dissatisfied with their current situation and didn't see themselves succeeding or even having fun with going on studying. Upon asking why they had started to study at a university in the first place, the student answered me that they had felt pressured into going to university because that is what their family and friends expected of them. They told me that they would much rather pursue a career elsewhere, outside of academia, but felt they couldn't because it would disappoint their parents. “They told me it would be a waste of my potential and that they are afraid for my future.”
2. Well-Meant but Ill-Advised
The people offering advice in the anecdotes above all acted in good faith, sharing what they believed to be helpful, flattering, or vital for their interlocutors in some form or fashion. My acqaintance’s friend saw them “wasting potential” by not working harder for university and believed that telling them to put more effort into their studies would produce a boost of motivation – which it did for a while. The researcher telling me that it was “a shame” that I was “wasting potential” by not going for a career as a university professor was genuinely trying to be nice and made it sound like a mixture between a compliment and an expression of disappointment. My student’s parents told them that leaving university to pursue an (in their view less prestigious) apprenticeship in a different field would be a “waste of potential” because of fear for their child’s future.
The rhetoric employed to express all these very human emotions – the frustration, the disappointment, the fear for a loved one’s future – is, however, as well-meant as it may be, counter-productive and harmful. How can other people know fully what will make us feel a sense of pride, accomplishment, and satisfaction in the present and the future? Who determines how great the potential of others is? Who measures to what extent potential is ‘wasted’? And if potential – whatever that may be – is there, why should it be a bad thing to decide against ‘using it’ fully?
3. Reflection Required
The discourse of wasted potential is intertwined with the fetishization of productivity.
Potential is usually seen in the context of work, i.e. in anything we perceive to lead to financial success or a better reputation. But if people's potential is solely found in the answer to the question of how well they could – potentially – succeed on a career path, we are excluding a plethora of things that make up our lives and daily experiences. By doing so, we bow to a neo-liberal and utilitarian understanding of what people are supposed to be. The discourse of wasted potential is intertwined with the fetishization of productivity that tells us that we are only worth something when we do work that is socially approved, prestigious, and considered by our peers as worthwhile.
I believe that, as well meant as it may be in some cases, the discourse of wasted potential is in essence a way of instilling guilt and fear, of shaming people into feeling bad for not working as hard as they can: Not simply to do some work that may be necessary to pay bills and fill the fridge, but to completely associate oneself with one’s work, to become one's work and “give it your all”. I will need to speak in a different piece about why that in itself is a huge problem, especially for people working in academia.
My acquaintance’s friend may see their intellectual capabilities and believe them to be not used ‘fully’, but may not take into consideration their frame of mind, their health, their interpersonal relationships and struggles, their priorities: Maybe their university career is not at the top of their list. Maybe their energy and focus currently goes into something else – staying healthy, keeping relationships intact, doing extra-curricular work, adjusting to a new phase in their life, or simply enjoying their existence. And that is okay.
The researcher I met may perceive the job of professor to be the apex of academic achievement and therefore meant it as a compliment when they told me that me not working towards such a position was a shame and a waste of my potential, but what they failed to acknowledge was that for me reaching this position meant for the best and brightest does not offer me anything that I personally deem valuable or important for my personal growth. The idea that being satisfied with what one has achieved in one’s career is a sign of indolence and lack of vision or drive is a faulty one since it reduces human existence to the work that we do.
My students’ parents spoke out of worry for their child's future because they, too, have grown up in a world in which a person’s worth is so dependent on their ability to succeed, i.e. not just to be able to support themselves financially but to impress while doing it, that they felt the need to push their child into a study programme that made them profoundly unhappy and in which they could not see themselves succeed at all.
Accepting feedback and other people's opinions is a valuable skill. Sometimes, the perspective of an outsider, a loved family member, a lecturer, a boss or co-worker, can open up new ways for us to think about ourselves and our future. However, rejecting other’s expectations and demands for our own lives when these expectations and demands are not congruent with our own desires and plans for the future is just as important a skill to learn. Just because someone offers a piece of advice does not mean that we are obliged to take it. A kind piece of advice offered to us may have been given in good faith, but that does not necessarily mean that it will be helpful at that point in our lives – or ever.
...learning to recognize our own desires to experience the world at our own pace, in our own time, by our own choice, is a vital process.
I would like to encourage my students – and everyone really, myself included – to reflect frequently and reguarly, on whether or not other people’s demands, expectations, and wishes for us are reasonable, attainable, and in sync with our own desires and wishes. Sometimes to distinguish between our own wishes and those of others is hard; after all, we are social beings that are shaped in large part by the interactions we have and the experiences we make with the people around us. But particularly for us who are constantly faced with private and professional pressures that have influence on our personal and academic decisions, learning to recognize our own desires to experience the world at our own pace, in our own time, by our own choice, is a vital process. It demands of us to learn to be honest with ourselves, to acknowledge our needs and see them as valid, and to perceive our lives as gardens and ourselves as gardeners: Where others may want to have a neatly trimmed lawn, we might find a wild meadow full of dandelions more pleasing. It is our garden. And it doesn't care about potential.