Potential

My least favorite word is “potential.” I despise this word.

In mechanical systems, potential is clearly defined. Potential energy is the amount of energy stored in a system. A ball suspended in the air has a measurable amount of potential energy; the higher you raise it, the more potential energy it has that can be converted to kinetic energy as it falls. A compressed spring has a measurable amount of potential energy that is converted to kinetic energy when the spring is released.

And so on. In a mechanical system, potential makes sense.

When it comes to people, potential makes no sense (unless you suspend someone in the air and drop them). This word comes up frequently in the corporate propaganda we get from HR at work, e.g., “Reach Your Peak Potential Through Learning and Development.”

I would be OK with personal potential if it wasn’t misused, i.e., if it didn’t assume that there is a measurable amount of potential that a person possesses. Imagine, for example, a bowl. The capacity of the bowl is a person’s potential. The level to which the bowl is filled is the person’s current fulfillment of that potential.

How do you measure the capacity of the bowl? What attribute would you measure to determine the capacity of the bowl? Do you have a different bowl for each attribute?

If someone has advanced leadership skills but does not become a CEO, is that unfulfilled potential?

If someone scores well on math and science exams but does not become an engineer, is that unfulfilled potential?

And so on.

And what happens when you achieve your “potential?” What happens when you fill the bowl? Why, you could make the bowl larger, call that potential, but wouldn’t that new potential be just as arbitrary, just as likely to be incorrectly measured as the previous limit?

I believe in improving — Citius, Altius, Fortius. I do not believe in potential. I certainly do not believe that someone else — especially a large organization — could tell me what my potential is. But I absolutely believe that I could be told by someone else that I can improve.

There is no conclusion to be found here. I want to break free of potential. I want to run in whatever direction suits me — not capriciously, but fundamentally — as long as it is far away from here, as far as I can go. And when I collapse and do not rise, bury me where I lie and inscribe this on my headstone: “This was his potential.”

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