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Why Having Tons of Potential Puts You at a Serious Disadvantage

Why Having Tons of Potential Puts You at a Serious Disadvantage

I’m going way out on a limb here, but I bet I wasn’t the only kid whose report card had notes like this:

“Lots of potential. Needs to apply himself.”  

In fact, an informal survey of my client population and general network showed that tons of entrepreneurs were labeled “high potential” youngsters in school.

Specifically, they were effortless achievers. They got As or Bs… without even studying. Without even trying, really. They breezed through school and exams easily.

They’d never put in the work required to make an A plus though. Why put in the effort when you can breeze through and get decent results regardless, right?

Here’s what’s worse: “high potential” can be fatal to business ambition.

Where It All Begins

Authority figures like parents and teachers make statements all through your youth. What these people say creates deep psychological impact.

Your formative years unconsciously formulate the beliefs and values that make up your identity – and dictate your behavioral habits for years to come. So when parents and teachers tell young people that they have “a lot of potential”, they don’t realize how psychologically powerful they are.

They also don’t realize the massive and unintended side effects this “lots of potential” statement creates.

Having Potential Makes You Feel Special

The first belief that develops in “high potential” children is that they’re somehow better than everyone else. Immediately, a gentle sense of entitlement creeps into the mind.

It’s much more subtle than any spoilt-brat entitlement. It’s the simple expectation that they will succeed – better than anyone else. 

While we want to foster optimism and ambition in our young people, it’s important to recognize the dangers of the “High Potential” belief, and what this belief can create: a child with a track record of poor work ethics and lack of discipline, who walks away from conversations with teachers and parents with a solidifying belief in his or her inevitable triumph.

Having Potential Means You Have No Discipline

Being labeled “High Potential” means you probably demonstrated a natural aptitude at something, sometime in your life. Resolving a certain challenge that was difficult for others came easily to you. Maybe it happened more than once.

The conditioning effects of these experiences are powerful. Demonstration of natural aptitude, closely followed by significant praise, conditions the unconscious mind:

Effortless brilliance is fun and rewarding. 

Hard work is not.  

The unconscious mind doesn’t miss out on developing positive cause-effect correlations between hard work and reward. A kid who has to work her butt off to develop basic ball skills, for example, connects the dots between her hours of practice and the joy of praise.

This kid’s unconscious mind will immediately ask: What else can we work on to get more of these good feelings?

Meanwhile, high potential children who don’t have to work hard to achieve rewards make weird and inappropriate unconscious learnings. Were those learnings consciously articulated, they’d sound something like, “Stay away from anything that doesn’t come easily”, or, “It’s fun to slightly exceed other people’s low expectations”, or perhaps (worst of all), “New people are more easily impressed – don’t perform in front of the same crowd twice”.

Simply put, non-gifted children learn discipline. Children who have “high potential” praise heaped upon them develop terrible work ethics.

They simply don’t *get* the positive experience of delayed gratification.

High potential children grow into adults who know in their bones, no matter what their rational mind says, that it’s simply not worth trying at anything that isn’t immediately easy and rewarding.

Unfortunately, the conscientiousness that develops from understanding and practicing delayed gratification creates a well-established psychological corollary for success in wealth, relationships and even health.

Discipline is something you want to be able to have, and action. But there’s a catch:

People with Potential Are Afraid of Using It

The great Irish comedian Dylan Moran mocks potential: “Don’t do it! Stay away from your potential. You’ll mess it up. It’s potential; leave it. Anyway, it’s like your bank balance – you always have a lot less than you think.”

Imagine for a moment that potential IS a finite resource you can access via ATM, just like money. The “Lots of Potential” crowd draw out a few twenties here and there but never check their bank balance.

They don’t want to know how little money they have left.

Now the reality – potential is like that. If you believe you possess lots it, you’re very comfortable in that belief. You won’t harvest every scrap of potential and invest it in a project or business, because if you did, you might find out just how little potential you really have.

Imagine you give a project or business your all, and it fails. What does that say about all that potential you’ve supposedly had all your life? Put your potential to the test, and you might discover an uncomfortable truth:

Potential is An Illusion 

High potential people shouldn’t be subconsciously ego-stroking their untapped ability.  Instead they should be asking:

“Help! I’ve always had tons of potential… how do I fix this?!”

The first step is to cease celebrating your potential, and that of others. Let incremental improvement be the reason you pop open champagne. Treat the first time you try something as nothing but a benchmark, because how good (or not) you are when you start out is irrelevant. The contrast between your first and second effort matters.

Your Rate of Improving Competency is All That Matters

Most skills that make a long-term difference in life and business are those that no one is “naturally gifted” at. Sales. Marketing. Strategy. You can’t learn these through osmosis. They’re areas that involve trying (and initially sucking at) as a primary means of skill acquisition.

If you were to put this in a formula, it would look like this:

Rapid Improvement > Natural Talent

‘Nuff said.


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  1. You really pulled me in on this one. I have mixed feelings about it because the other side of “you have potential but don’t use it” is that you don’t have the tools to use it…and then the individual ends up feeling like a loser, never living up to that potential. They grow up with this untapped potential, and, as you say are so afraid to fail that they don’t grow, period. It’s a hugely untapped subject, in fact, and so glad you opened this can of worms. It’s deeply important to the entrepreneur who has genius ideas but lacks the discipline or ability to lead – and never learned those tools because s/he never had to. Hats off. Great article!

    1. That’s exactly it Teri: “Never learned… because I didn’t have to” <--- this basically sums up my entire point. As always, I can count on my super smart readers to swing by and summarize things better than I ever can! Typical ! 🙂

    1. Marc, what was it that helped you breakthrough this? Sounds like you “worked on it” past-tense, so I’m curious to get a first hand account of how you left it behind you.

      Good stuff, btw. And thanks for commenting.

      1. Well, I spent a good deal of my life (high school and college, mostly) feeling the effects you talk about. Getting by with moderate success because tests, scholastics, athletics came easy enough to do well, but I never excelled and didn’t feel compelled to. The real world is far different. I never got turned down for a job, but never really reached for one either. I found myself working very hard toward a dead-end and didn’t get out when I should have. I did finally leave that bad situation, but only after I was in a hole so deep, it’s taking every shred of mental willpower and hard work to claw my way out.

        It’s taken me a long time to learn a lesson that might have started me out on this track far sooner, or maybe one more to my liking from the get go. I still very often find myself working half-heartedly for current clients, but giving new ones my all, and although it was something I recognized and try to avoid, in hindsight I see why now.

        At any rate, success is entirely about hard work and making it happen. First impressions and some natural chutzpah do make a difference, but follow-through is what success is measured by.

        I said I learned this lesson over 2/3 of my life, but struggling with the fallout and trying to change habits has been the last 1/3, and ongoing.

        1. Hey Marc, thank you for sharing this. I feel like you’ve got a good grasp on it.

          It’s a cliche, but it’s true that simply having conscious awareness of such patterns is half the battle.

          1. Half the battle… unless of course it’s something I was able to grasp easily, but find too difficult to actually put into practice 😉

  2. This reminds me of the psychological trendy traps that come with kids.

    When my first was small, the trend was to tell them how smart they were… and guess what? She tested the theory on me, decided not to attend the last two years of high school (literally, at all), and passed with flying colors. When she got to CEGEP (akin to college) and had to actually work, study and show up to class… she bombed. Never learned how to do that stuff, and was psychologically all screwed up about it… after all, she was smart! Why couldn’t she do this?!

    After her, the trend was to tell kids how creative they are… and I’m sure you’re well aware of the interesting generational behaviors those Gen Yers have. All creative, all the time… but sticking with a job, working hard and enjoying the rewards later in life? Screw that! Fun first!… but that doesn’t create much of a future come retirement planning, though.

    Now, my youngest is in the trend of being told “what good effort you put in!” I’m curious to see the generational effects of pushing effort in a few years. (Dare you to predict it now, ha!)

    1. hahaha I think “Good effort!” is a better philosophy, because it encourages the work ethic. I think we need both though.

      I once heard Seth Godin address a question about parenting in a Q&A after a talk he gave… and he said (paraphrasing from memory) “The number one way you can give your kid a leg up is to teach them to lead. They won’t learn to be a leader in school, or even in sports… but if you teach them how to lead others to make things happen, they’ll be unstoppable.”

      So maybe that’s where should be aiming.

      But then again, I’m just a bachelor in NYC with no kids on the horizon, so wtf do I know ? 😛

      1. ‘Xactly.

        Personally, I think I’m subconsciously teaching “marketing strategies, and which to avoid.” When your 9-year-old decides that playtime includes making a commercial to advertise and includes at least 3 specific strategies for upsells…

        Uh… “Good effort, honey!”

  3. Peter,

    Wow this is so accurate it’s freaking me out, it’s exactly what happened, even down to those unconscious learnings “stay away from anything that doesn’t come easily” and “new people are easily impressed”. I feel disappointed whenever I don’t “get” things instantly or faster than other people, which sounds ridiculous and arrogant now that I am admitting it.

    This has been dawning on me recently and I’m now trying to develop a work ethic that other people have been cultivating since they were kids. It’s hard to break an ingrained mental habit (harder than a physical habit I would say) but I’m determined to do it, so I’m changing my mental thought patterns a little each day – incremental improvement as you said Peter.

    Thank you so much for this, great reality check!

    1. Heh, glad this hit the spot Amy. And thanks for your candid comment… it didn’t occur to me that disappointment strikes when things don’t work out fast, but I’ve experienced this myself in the past!

      Glad to hear you’re taking action on this. As I said to another commenter, just having conscious awareness of the habit is a huge part of creating positive change. Good luck with it!

  4. Actually, coming back ’round to this after having thought about it a bit, I’ve realized I know exactly what you mean.

    I took guitar lessons and got really good, really fast, without much work. Heaps of compliments from everyone!… and when I realized I *could* master guitar and get *really* great if I applied myself harder, well, then, I dropped everything.

    I also refused a scholarship to music school back in the day – turned around on the school steps and walked away because I was scared I’d truly be put to the test and come out not as good as everyone thought I would.

    Knitting, same thing. I picked it up out of boredom, quickly worked my way to impressively cabled sweaters and color changes, got all sorts of praise… and stopped. Now I just knit simple scarves to keep my hands busy.

    And so on and so on and so on.

    I related to the article well enough when I first read it, from a business perspective, but kind of dismissed it. It’s only when I applied the same message to hobbies and activities I actually ENJOYED – and was avidly praised for that I realized how many I’ve abruptly dropped like hot potatoes and never went back to.

    Sobering thought.

    Damn you.

    1. yep. Now just think where you’re doing this in business, unconsciously. :O

      I did the same in school, back in the day. I got the top grade in my school in English – senior year. My parents pushed me to sign up for a national essay competition that has crazy opportunities for university scholarships, but would basically pit me against the top students from the top schools… and I knew I would have to actually *really* harvest every scrap of effort I had.

      I signed up, and then didn’t show up to the exam. I just bailed and went swimming at the beach with my friends instead (New Zealand lifestyle for ya!).

      Academic performance in English meant nothing to my career (obviously), but I regret that I didn’t perceive the value in applying myself wholeheartedly and stretching those “effort” muscles.

      But we live and learn. Now I use all those grammar lessons to publish articles like this! And I try to never, ever use semicolons!!! mua hahaha

  5. I heard so much of myself echoed in your words. One difference, though, is that I actually did reach everyone else’s version of my potential.

    I got A pluses. I was a high school valedictorian. I graduated college at the top of my class.

    “Effortless brilliance is fun and rewarding.”

    I found the opposite to be true. I was bored and underwhelmed. I felt like an imposter because I never had to try. I didn’t even know what to reach for because I was “beating everybody”.

    I will say, it’s a long way down from the top. I never believed I was smarter than anyone else. But spending so much time in first place did condition me to believe that I would be awesome at anything I tried.

    Really failing for the first time, as an adult, was brutal. Necessary. But brutal.

    1. Right, I think that’s the point here. It’s seems like the pinnacle of achievement to be valedictorian, but then you become an entrepreneur in the real world and realize that there are about 100,000 valedictorians graduating in the world each year.

      When you come up against something like business, which is complex and ambiguous rather than a linear progression of learning… shit gets hard.

      Natural taken only takes you so far!

      1. “It’s seems like the pinnacle of achievement to be valedictorian, but then you become an entrepreneur in the real world and realize that there are about 100,000 valedictorians graduating in the world each year. ”

        So true. I thought I was so special for having the highest SAT scores in my high school. Then I applied for colleges, and the only question on the application involving the SAT was a list of check boxes:

        *Below 900
        *901 – 1000
        *Above 1200

        “ABOVE 1200?” My “amazing” score, significantly above 1200, didn’t even warrant an actual question? It was just part of a check box? How many other people were also checking off that box? My school would never know just how high above 1200 I scored? They didn’t care? It wasn’t that special? It blew my mind and I’m pretty sure I cried on and off for a few days.

        I was the biggest fish in a small pond, becoming one of the many fish my size in a huge ocean.

  6. Hey Peter, this was spot on. I was always number two or three without much effort. Why bother to beat number one?

    Question: If most of these entrepreneurs are high-potential types, does that mean the low-potentials ones don’t even get started… Thinking the lack of natural talent is an obstacle that can’t be overcome and shouldn’t even be bothered with?

    1. I know plenty of entrepreneurs who are massively successful despite being told they were slow, stupid or worse as kids. Of course, that treatment won’t always result in a positive “rebellion” and development of a powerful work ethic…. but I’ve seen it happen!

      1. I’m actually talking about starting. Just starting.

        A huge part of success is worth ethic. But you actually have to start before you can use that work ethic. But starting is just courage and confidence right? And I wonder if “slow” kids tend to not start…

        1. heh to be honest? Sometimes starting in entrepreneurship is pure naivety.

          When I started out, I was motivated by simply not wanting to have a real job. If I had known that building a successful business is waaaay more work than a regular job, I might not have started!

  7. Thank you so much for this post.

    I spent all morning reflecting on how things have always come naturally to me in athletics, academics and my career. I quickly have “success” in a new endeavor but I carry the constant weight of “my potential” and it shadows my efforts. I tend not to start what I can’t prove that I will succeed at, and I lack work ethic when it really comes down to it.

    Do you have any suggestions for cultivating a work ethic for new business owners? Is there a training plan?

    1. Hey Christen,

      Developing conscientiousness in other areas of your life will have a payoff effect into your business habits/behaviors. Get yourself to a fitness bootcamp or some type of experience that is centered around discipline (yoga camp, meditation retreat etc) and it’ll start showing up in your entrepreneurial efforts too.

      That’s the most accessible first step, IMO.

  8. Thanks for the post. I am able to connect with what you have written as similar things happened in my life . Was always told that you have high potential ,went into my head ,thought would achieve results without having to put in extra effort. .Somehow managed to complete my graduation. Now I am trying for Post Graduation since last 4 years. Last year even got into one of the colleges , didn’t get subject of my choice ,joined there ,worked for a month ,was finding it difficult as thought that it would be easy .But it wasn’t ,it was tougher than I thought .Plus to add to it , my mind was always telling me that you have more potential ,you should get only in the subject of your choice.Gave up that course ,now regretting it .Your posts made me think and analyze myself .I really appreciate the psychological aspect of these posts. Thanks

  9. Wow, I’m almost embarrassed by how well you nailed my brain! School was easy for me, so were creative classes (dance, sculpture, etc.). I’ve heard all my life, “Is this really your first time doing this?” I end up taking one class, or making one thing, and then never doing it again. I tell myself it’s because it’s so easy that it’s not interesting for very long. When in reality it’s because I know that getting *really* good at that thing will actually be very challenging, and I don’t have the discipline for it.

    In the cases where I’m not instantly good at something – physics, writing fiction, softball – I really HATE those things. And hating them becomes a permanent part of my personality.

    But now, in my mid-30s, I’ve found two things that have taught me the rewards of perseverance. One is writing a book, and the other is training for a 5K. With each, the only way to get to the finish line is by small steps, daily training, regular writing. Finishing my first 5K last year was probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done – because for my whole life up to that point, running fit solidly in that HATE category.

    Of course, after doing two 5Ks, I stopped running altogether… Argh!

    1. Hey Anna,

      Really glad you found something that seriously resonated here. Sounds like you’re making the right moves too – the key is just to keep going. Incremental steps and don’t give up when it starts to get tough. You’ve got to look forward to the challenge, like the way a tough work out feels good afterwards.

      If it was easy, everyone would be doing it 😉

  10. Peter, where were you when I was in the 6th Grade?

    That’s when my teacher wrote a paper about me for her graduate work: “The Gifted Child.” Not a few pages about how brilliant and popular I was. Then she shared it with my mother, and of course my mother shared it with me. Boo! I already thought highly of myself, but after that episode I had a really swelled head! That is, until I failed Organic Chemistry as a college pre-med and blew up my dream of being a doctor. Ever since then, when something didn’t come easily, I lacked the wherewithal to succeed. So “The Gifted Child” fails at something clearly ‘inferior’ competitors and peers are succeeding at. It will surprise you not at all that I have suffered through several bouts of clinical depression in my adult life, beginning with that sophomore year of college.

    At 51, it’s still difficult to view myself as a beginner at anything–it’s supposed to be easy for me. I’m paralyzed with fear imagining myself making a presentation and being asked a question I don’t know the answer to. Besides which, there’s 30 years of practice and experience at which I have often performed at a fraction of my potential(!) (of course, I mean I made a half-assed effort or just quit). That’s where I need help now — accepting where I am, not expecting myself to know it all, recognizing that my audience won’t expect me to, and believing anyone will value what I have to offer them enough to pay me for it.

    I’m stoked that I’ve started with Commit Action. Here we go!

    1. Wow! You sound like me! Well I never had a “gifted child” thesis written about me but I was good at everything with no effort. I was never the top of anything but I was always well above the curve. Everyone always said “you have a lot of potential”… I’m in a similar age bracket and emotional state as you – unfortunately I live in Australia so I’ve no idea where this event you mentioned is situated.

  11. Hi Peter.
    Spot on.
    Was just told I have potential, but I didn’t get the job. Almost feel potential is a swearword at this stage. Also tended to be in the top of the class relatively easy but never the best.
    Small steps you say… I’ll give it a try…
    Enjoyed the read, thanks. Really needed some motivation 🙂

  12. Wow.

    If this doesn’t hit home.

    In sophomore year of high school, I had a genuine mental break for one of the stupidest reasons I could imagine: I didn’t quite grasp a concept in class.

    Yep. In order to understand something, I had to ask a question about it… And I’d never had to ask a question in school before.
    I was “the smartest in the class.” I was “intelligent beyond my years.” I was “high potential.” How could I not understand something in English class??? I couldn’t handle it. I absolutely freaked out.

    Having been in Gifted classes my whole life, having skipped a grade without putting any extra effort in, having always been picked for the lead role in plays and the lead vocal in chorus, having been treated like a child prodigy in almost every aspect, I genuinely panicked at the thought of not excelling at something. Not even failing. Just. Having to put in effort. It was completely new to me. I wasn’t actually great at everything, of course, but I was good enough at picking up concepts that I could coast by in areas I didn’t like, and excel without effort at things I enjoyed.

    Being told so often that I was “going to do great things” as a definitive, not a possibility, I genuinely thought it would happen no matter what I did.

    Towards the end of high school, I started understanding that the world didn’t really work that way. I wasn’t THAT smart. But… I still couldn’t handle it.

    I didn’t do any homework at all during senior year of high school, because I didn’t have to. I wouldn’t get anything below a 90 on exams, so my final grades would even out to passing. “See, guys, look at me, I’m not trying at all, imagine if I applied myself, hahaha.” But… if I had applied myself, I don’t know what would have happened. I’m a great test taker, but I don’t excel at memorization-based homework assignments. What if I tried my best and only got B’s? What would I tell my friends, who legitimately thought I was a Genius God who knew Basically Everything and Never Had To Try Ever???

    The thought patterns you’ve described above are so dead-on I re-read the article repeatedly. Those patterns nearly destroyed my entire life. I barely got into college, left after my first year because I wasn’t excelling, delayed applying to another school, delayed applying to any real jobs in my desired fields, delayed getting in shape, delayed, delayed delayed…

    I’m trying really hard to move past those patterns, and I’ve made some progress. But honestly, those patterns are extremely hard to overcome.

    Just the other day, my boyfriend took me bowling. I haven’t ever bowled in my entire adult life. So when I tried, of course I did kind of badly at first. That should have been expected. But by my second gutter ball, I was nearly in tears and considering faking a wrist injury to blame my score on.

    I didn’t, though. I sucked it up, and bowled a second round. I actually tried, and I ended up doing okay for a first-timer. And it was hard, but I did my best to accept that.

    (Sorry about the long post. I’ve just never even talked about this, and seeing it written out so perfectly meant a lot to me. Cheers!)

  13. Hello Peter,
    I know I’m a bit late to this post, I just so happened to stumble upon it while mindlessly reading articles. As a student in high school still hearing the much dreaded “You have so much potential”, I am very much struggling in all the ways described both in your post and in the comments. It was very satisfying to have it all summed up nicely, followed by personal accounts. This gave me a bit of hope of being able to break out of my mindset. So, to summarize: thank you! 🙂
    Have a good day 🙂

  14. This is extremely true. Now add ADHD to the mix and you have real problems. Not only did I have “lots of potential”, I have no clue how to start the really big projects in my life. I’m 54 years old, took 19 years to finish my Bachelor’s degree (with 190+ hours and changing majors 7 times), and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. If I believed as the millennials do, I would be a puppy midwife, but not sure how to pay the bills with that. I think that is why I work in the Tech field, it is always changing and something new to challenge me, but I don’t “love it”. It pays the bills. My whole life I felt as if I failed at everything. I have to try harder to get the same results, but I have “lots of potential”. People who know me tell me I’m one of the smartest people they have ever met, but I feel so stupid most of the time. I know I’m not stupid, but that doesn’t negate the way I feel.

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