Not yet flame, or why potential doesn’t matter

​“He’s gonna be the best.”

“We can expect great things from her.”

“They’re gonna be big”

“It’s got so much potential.”

People take pride in their potential. When someone hands them a compliment about the brightness of their future, a modest smile spreads across the face of the recipient. The chest puffs, the shoulders are drawn back.

But potential also means pressure. It means expectations. It means that you’re supposed to fulfil it. And it means there’s still room to fuck it up.

If you have potential, it means you haven’t done anything. It means that you might have the stuff. It means you could be great. But the gap between now and then is filled with your actions, your decisions.

When someone says you have potential, it isn’t praise. It’s counsel. They’re just leaving out the second part of the sentence: “You have potential, don’t mess it up.”

History is littered with the corpses of people whose potential remained unfulfilled. People who could’ve been so much more than they were. And I’m not talking fame or money or reputation. I’m talking about skills, abilities, and of course, character.

When we’re younger, even if no one tells us it, we have potential. We could be this or that. But usually, we don’t get that far. We become mere shadows of what we could of been. 

Which is sad.

How you go about changing that is the great riddle of parenting and the educational system. How do we help our children grow up to be their best?

I think you could start from the realisation that potential is nothing. It’s Monopoly money. It cannot buy anything in the real world. It’s no substitute for learning, for action, for experience, for courage, for skill, for character.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson says, “cinders and smoke there may be, but not yet flame.”

If you have potential, it means the fire is set, but not yet burning. It’s your job to ensure that it catches.