As long as I remember receiving feedback from teachers, bosses, acquaintances and even family, the most common thing I’ve heard is that I’m “wasting my potential.” Potential for what? On what scale? What values do these people think I should be prioritizing that I am not? And most importantly, why is this what they feel the need to share with me?
The first time I remember hearing a message to this effect in my science class in 8th grade. Mind you, this is the first year after we moved to a pretty conservative small city (pop 15,000) after living in VERY small, rural forest communities (pop 300-600) up until that point. To give you an idea, I went to kindergarten in a grade school that had around 60 kids, K-6, and a total staff of 10, including a principal, secretary, librarian and P.E. teacher. My next town’s school was about the same size, where I spent 3 more years: 1st, 3rd and 4th grade. Then we moved to a slightly larger place (pop 3500), where there were at least two teachers per grade and classes of 20 or so. There I went to 5th and 6th grade in intermediate school and 7th grade in junior high. In each of these places, I got a good deal of “special” attention, extra projects to keep my mind engaged or I actually got to skip a grade or advance in my work above my grade level.
In going to the next town, we really “leveled up.” More kids and more class elective opportunities meant I got to play in jazz band, study foreign languages, take advanced chemistry classes in high school, but I was also not getting the same kind of individualized attention I had in the past. I recall not really understanding what to do with this tradeoff. My only path to “success,” good grades in this context, was to follow the instructions, do as I was told and not overextend myself. The social consequences for asking for more work or more challenging assignments were brutal, so that avenue was closed off. Besides, making more work for my teachers was not what I wanted to do, even if it would have helped me grow. In short, I never advocated for myself or my own education outside of very limited occasions where specific teachers showed interest in helping me pursue my extracurricular educational interests. The opportunities just weren’t made available.
So what did I do? Well, in science class in 8th grade, I partnered with one of the slower girls in class because she was nice and I thought I could help her. I understood the science and was unlikely to gain from pushing myself in that way in class. Even if I had partnered with I’ve of the other “smart kids,” I would not have gotten more science education out of the lesson, but I might’ve had to tolerate the ongoing talk/attitude about how rich their family was, how the vacations to Hawaii were so amazing or how hard it was to be the child of a doctor and a lawyer. I don’t know if these are exact examples of conversations I recall having, but the feeling of being grouped with the rich kids for all potential “gifted” class options was very real and something tells me this would have been tortuous and excruciating. At any rate, my choosing to pair up with the slower child was tolerated by my teacher for about a week before I got the “wasting your potential” talk and got paired with someone new. I still remember that slow kid’s name, but not the next lab partner I had.
Many other examples followed, most recently in a conversation with a very recently-turned former coworker. He, along with many other middle-/upper-class neurotypical white men I associate with now, has recently discovered the book “Think and Grow Rich.” I haven’t read this book, but along with other “self-help” texts/programs, I feel I can safely presume that the gist is to tell you that with these 5 easy steps you, too, can stop limiting yourself, realize your potential and grow “rich,” however you define it, by ignoring what others say and keeping focused on your goals. In a brief (but spectacular) conversation with this former colleague a few weeks ago, he proceeded to explain to me that he didn’t understand why I was still at my job because I could be doing so much more with my life, not the least of which is making more money (selling Herbalife, no joke). That I just needed to change my limiting beliefs about myself so I could stop “wasting my potential” and do something better with my time. I’m so glad he figured this out for me because it was the exact bit of knowledge I needed mansplained to me. Indeed, I will now read this book and thrive. *eye-rolling*
Then I got to thinking, I wonder if anyone had ever said these words to my father. He worked his entire life in the federal government, never made a huge living, but that was not the goal. I’m not sure whether he thought of his career as one of public service or whether he considered that the point, but he raised 3 kids, bought a home, grew a modicum of wealth, helped us all get through college and earned a pension for his early retirement. This is what used to be called the “American Dream.” We didn’t have much and never would’ve been mistaken for upper class, regardless of where we lived, but for the most part our bills were paid and we were healthy and fed. Did he waste his potential too? Probably. I mean, my dad is wicked smart also, so what if, instead of studying forestry (his passion), his attention had been directed toward computer science or the medical field. Would he have become Bill Gates or cured cancer or something? Who the fuck knows. Would he have been happier with his life looking back on it now? Probably not.
So what does “waste” mean? And what does “potential” mean? Are there opportunity costs to my having wanted to help the slower kid in science class? Sure, but I’m certain they are not what my teacher thought they were. If she wasn’t going to challenge me to learn science beyond what she was teaching the whole class, I might’ve missed nothing by helping Tina and her life might’ve been changed for the better. These are, of course, counter-factuals, thoughts that could never be proven. But I don’t think my time would have been more wasted had I not been redirected.
Similarly with my current job. Could I make more money somewhere else? Sure. Could I go back to school and get a PhD in some field where I could apply myself to making some earth-shattering discovery? Sure. But would doing either of these things improve my quality of life? I’m not so sure. I may complain about my job sometimes, mostly about how I’m misunderstood, my ideas aren’t heard and I don’t feel respected for what I bring to the table. These are external issues that are quite likely to exist in every workplace. But the work itself is easy enough that I don’t find it particularly stressful, my passion for accuracy is mostly appreciated and I make enough money to pay the bills. I own a home, have traveled to Hawaii multiple times (suck it, rich kids!) and recently have been pulling back my attention to focus on other personal projects.
The extent to which I don’t now have the “American Dream” is a function of society moving the goalposts, not my “self-limiting” thoughts. I am limited, surely, but by others telling me what I should or should not do with my time and energy, not by my beliefs. There are more important things in life than money and influence and personal accomplishments. There is how you move through the world, how you show up for others and how you are remembered when you are gone. And shifting my focus during the pandemic away from the former and toward service, relationships and vulnerability has been the best thing I could’ve done for myself and for others in my orbit.
In fact, maybe my former coworker is actually wasting his potential to act and speak with humility, build relationships and serve others. I’m certain he would not see it that way, but maybe he just needs to be womansplained about it. I wish him well.