Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Potential is Not A Number

My friends, there are different kinds of potential, and you must not confine yourself to one alone.

Most people are driven by parents, teachers, and society in general to the potential that looks wonderful on paper.

"I'm ranked #3 in my class right now."
"I have a 4.26 GPA."
"If I keep this up, I can hopefully get into Stanford!"

This kind of potential is great, right?  Usually associated with "genius, top student and 'going places'", this is the potential that you're either proud of (if you are that person), or spend a lot of time wishing for.

We are constantly pushed to reach this potential.

"If you can do it, why don't you?"
"Look at all she's done.  She's gonna accomplish so much."

This kind of potential is basing everything on this society-determined formula for an American Dream-type success.  Stats, performance, exceeding the 'average person'.  The goals, whether or not professed?  Usually something along the lines of:

In highschool:
Good grades, so good college

In college:
Good grades, successful major, so good job

Good job, so money and security, family

From an early age, people with this kind of potential are identified.  Along each step of their life, they are pushed to keep reaching high levels of success.  They are told to constantly challenge themselves.

"You had straight A's all through kindergarten!  You're gonna do great in 1st grade."
"You've qualified for the Gifted Program, we want to prepare you for a higher level of achieving."
"Don't take that class, it's too easy for you.  Drop the fluff classes and take all honors, challenge yourself. You can always do art as a hobby at home."
"You can totally handle all honors classes - you're wasting your potential if you don't take them!"

It's awesome if you have these qualities.  Good grades, challenging classes and financial security in the future are all awesome, amazing things.  Don't stop trying hard, doing your best.

But if all we do is constantly challenge ourselves for a future that is always two steps ahead of ourselves, what are we really doing?  Often the education system seems to be a petri dish of competition. Competition against ourselves, each other, and society.

Friends, there are multiple kinds of potential.

What we started telling children that they have the potential to change the world with their smiles?
What if we told them that their kindness is the most precious asset they have, not that 32 on the ACT?
What if society recognized that a good grade card isn't always a good reflection of individual growth?

Because isn't that what a challenge is for?  To grow someone in some way?

And it should be clear that there are far more ways to do that than taking the hardest classes possible from kindergarten through college.  Imagine.  Someone could be challenged by talking to someone from a vastly different background than them.  They could be changed by seeing a work of art that finally acknowledges something they always felt alone in feeling.  You can find a challenge in a blade of grass.

And yet here we are, too often attributing the highest worth to a series of letters on a paper denoting that a student has successfully completed the requirements for a course deemed 'challenging'.  

I have a personal story to complement my point.  I have been told many of the things quoted above throughout my life - either by friends, teachers, parents, or even my own brain.  (My own brain has actually adopted this 'academic potential' motto and constantly reminds me).  But as I've had to start trying to decide on a college to attend, I've had to redefine potential in my mind, and realize the infinite possibilities for different kinds of challenges.

I went to a very challenging high school.  I took the hardest classes available, and pushed myself to get A's in all of them, 4 years straight.  Senior year, and I'm finishing of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.  My GPA is 4.26 and my class rank is #3.  32 ACT.  These are great things, and I'm proud of them.  However.

However.  I believe I lost sight of some more important things along the way.  One of my main justifications for choosing the classes I did was because I knew I could succeed in them.  My mindset was, "I can feasibly do well in college calculus.  I'd be lazy if I didn't enroll in it."  And so I went through high school this way.

This year, as I've made the choice to focus on my passion (writing, art, theatre) in college rather than a more financially-secure career path, I've questioned some of my past decisions.  Those challenging classes, while certainly beneficial, forced me to stop almost all writing and art.  I have rarely had time to do any of the things I love and wish to pursue the rest of my life.  I have been so stressed and tired that I've neglected my family and God.  So while I have perfect grades, I've sacrificed a lot.

When I choose a college, I don't think I want to do the same thing all over again.  The hard thing is that I know I could continue with this path and go on to the next level.  Every time I consider a more casual, less-prestigious college, my brain kicks in and says, "Caroline, no.  You'd be wasting all that potential!"  I feel bad choosing something less "prestigious", when I've already reached that level.  Lazy, my brain says.

But honestly, I'd only be choosing a different potential to pursue. And also, it's not wasted!  I still have everything I've learned from that path in my life. Now, I want to cater to my potential as an artist and writer, rather than an Ivy-League top student, because the latter has never been my passion or goal in life.

I've come to the realization that there are multiple kinds of potential.

Challenging yourself by going deep into art and growing as an artist is no less worthy a challenge than all honors classes.  There's so much potential there.

Dedicating 20 hours a week to working on your novel is a huge challenge with so much potential to grow in thought and creativity and technique.

You, my friend, have the potential to be a dreamer.

You have the potential to be someone who changes someone's life with a few words.  Or many words.

You have the potential to be so happy and peaceful.

You have the potential to make amazing friendships.

Potential is not about reaching the highest number on a scale.  No.  The most important things cannot be measured in numbers.  

Perhaps, potential is about fulfilling who you were meant to be.  For some people, that is the academically-driven person whose dream is to go to Harvard and be the top in their class.  But some, they are artists whose dream is to sit for hours alone in a tree dreaming up their next magnificent work.

These people should not have to be judged by the same standard for success.  These potentials, these purposes, are beautiful in their own way.  We should be allowed to pursue them with the same passion, without shame.  Without feeling we are slacking for not holding class rank on a pedestal above our heads and hearts.

These people should not be told find a 'real job, or you won't succeed in your life'.  Artists shouldn't feel guilty for spending time on and prioritizing their art.  Success, my friends, depends entirely on what you're chasing after.

I am not saying we should totally ignore one form of success, because academics are important.  Stay in school, kids.

But Albert Einstein once said, "Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."

The fulfillment of your potential is not determined by a universal standard set by society.  You are much more than a number.  

~ CM

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