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