Turning Whine Into Gold
In high school, I was the type of high achiever that had my teachers taking me under their wings. Turns out, that wasn’t always such a good thing.
My fifth-year Russian teacher, thinking I’d follow in his footsteps, challenged me to write a research paper on a Russian ballerina—in Russian. My biology teacher got permission for a small group of us budding doctors to watch two surgeries at Johns Hopkins Hospital (where my best friend fainted dead away). I loved math, and attacked my homework problems the second I got home each day. I’m sure my math teachers wouldn’t have been surprised at all if I’d become an engineer, although that was at a time when girls weren’t encouraged to think such things.
I benefitted from my teachers’ interest in ways I will never be able to fathom. But one thing they did was particularly damaging to a girl whose self-esteem was already wobbly: they whispered to my parents about my “potential.”
If you believe in the power of words, then know this: “potential” is a cruel mistress. Such talk set up a syndrome in which I was always comparing my performance to a future standard I had no clue how to define—and without fail, I found my performance lacking.
A person who strives to fulfill her potential can be a person who is never done preparing to live her life.
“Potential is a concept that can bind us to personal powerlessness,” wrote Marianne Williamson in her book, A Return to Love. That held true for me at the start of my writing journey. Wondering if I had the “potential for brilliance” made it all the harder to take those first, bumbling baby steps toward story without the handrails of an MFA or PhD to guide my steps.
How could it be, I wondered, that many successful novelists never even graduated from high school? My guess is, they didn’t waste time focusing on their potential. They just wrote.
Instead of potential, Williamson suggests we think of our “capacity for brilliance.” Capacity is available to us right now. Our memories, curiosity, imagination, and desire to learn can open the gates to unused brain space and open our hearts. As a novelist, I already have the capacity to be a Russian translator, a doctor, and an engineer—all in one story.
Instead of thinking, “I have the potential to be a novelist,” try telling yourself, “I already have the capacity of a novelist.”
By celebrating our capacity to write, we no longer need to worry about our potential—we’ll be accumulating the words that will line a path straight toward it. Extend your efforts into the fullness of your capacity. Show up powerfully on the page and apply the brilliance that exists within you, today. As Williamson says, “how will we ever get to tomorrow’s promise without making some sort of move today?”
The story that is growing within you is yours to tell.
Have you ever been paralyzed by worrying about your potential? What unlived lives are within your capacity, that you would like to manifest through your characters
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Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, both from Writer’s Digest Books.
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Kathryn, I was the same type of student with the same type of potential. The former principal of my high school, upon hearing from my then-boyfriend-now-husband that he was dating me, said to him, "She can do anything she tries." And that kind of comment, while flattering and ego-feeding at the time, can lead someone to a strange combination of too much pride and too little satisfaction with one's personal performance. So you've got someone with a big ego, big dreams, and yes, plenty of ability, but who can never rest in her accomplishments because she hasn't quite lived up to her potential. She can't just write articles or books--she has to be an award winner and a bestseller. She can't relax because she should be striving more--more clout, more recognition, more money, more followers, more prestige. It's an exhausting way to live your life.
Oh Erin, you get me. I’ve known so many brilliant people, with so much to give the world, who were sunk by this. Who perhaps submitted three times and determined that no one wanted what they had to offer. Work itself, combined with a willingness to see failure as providing necessary stepping stones, seems to be the only way back to a productive path.
Thank you for sharing this important message and reflection on the psychological struggles creatives face. I was also a Russian student! I had the opposite message from parents and teachers, however. I was told I was not smart enough, talented enough or athletic enough to tackle the things I wanted to do...so my struggle was having the confidence to do them anyway. I ended up majoring in Russian. Goes to show when we sit down to write, there are a lot of ghosts sitting down beside us.
Always hoping to use a name, I clicked on your avatar—and while I didn’t find one, I learned other similarities—I went to high school in Maryland (Baltimore County) and, later in life, studied dressage! And it was my teachers who saw my potential, which is why I loved school. At home I was never good enough. It sets up a problematic syndrome to be sure, but writing is a great way to break through these influences and create your own. Love what you said about ghosts sitting down with you—so true!
I was paralyzed my whole childhood, thinking I couldn't live up to my parents expectations. It took me a long time to realize that when I found what I wanted to do, instead of what they thought I should do, I got busy living up to my OWN! Still working at it, and loving every second! Thanks for the reminder, Kathryn.
Identifying goals we are passionate enough about to see through to the end, owning them, and then acting on them is key, right Laura? “Potential” does not manifest on its own!
Thank you for a great post. The moment "potential" came up against "capacity" your post started flashing like a neon sign. I listed all the assets within my capacity and energy flowed freely. I am banishing the "p" word from my thoughts today.
Jane I love this!! Be free and brilliant.
I seldom use OMG, but OMG was my immediate reaction to "...they whispered to my parents about my 'potential.'" Six or seven years back, I wrote a lengthy rant in one of my journals about being hounded by the word "potential,'" except I don't remember anyone whispering. But I do have a lot of vivid memories of having that word yelled at me, beginning with a second grade report card (now 62 years ago), and the first parent-teacher conference I remember ("What's with all these Cs and Ds? You heard your teacher, you have the potential to be a straight A student!"). Not "living up to my potential" was something that got me punished with every report card. Needless to say, I hated school (except for the books), and by age 18 I saw myself as just some blob of potential with not a clue as to what I could do with it ("you can do anything you want" is not a helpful answer). Obviously, you struck a pretty sensitive chord with me this morning, so I'll stop now.
Even with straight A’s I hadn’t lived up to the potential my parents saw in me, CK, so I understand your need to rant, if from a different angle. Not until I got into the college dance program did I start to connect with my own capacity, from the inside out. My mom knew of my growing interest in dance and tried to quash it by forbidding me to major in it. I was so angry at this power play I never told her the school didn’t even have a dance major. But I spent every spare hour rehearsing in that studio. In many ways, dance saved me.
Your mama squashed your dreams like that? I'm so sorry, Kathryn.
I never had a dream of being a professional dance career. But she felt my passion for it and it scared her. I didn’t know what to dream for.
I think that breaks my heart even more. EVERYONE should have dreams to chase.
"I didn’t know what to dream for." <-- If it's not already, that line needs to be in a book of yours, Kathryn.
Oh my, I have just the spot. Thanks Erin!
“If you believe in the power of words, then know this: “potential” is a cruel mistress. Such talk set up a syndrome in which I was always comparing my performance to a future standard I had no clue how to define—and without fail, I found my performance lacking.”
Me to a 'T'! And it gets even worse when the potential seems in the past! Comparing with others is bad enough. Comparing with a 'perfect' self can be lethal. So I try to enjoy the journey NOW.
Glad this resonated with you, John. I like your approach!
One of my favorite teachers, Mr. Craig, encouraged me and told me I could achieve whatever I wanted, to not let my past prevent me from following my dreams. And that was something my parents never really said. He understood me, came from a similar background, and he had daughters a little bit younger than me. His words still resonate with me. He helped me apply for scholarships. He truly cared. I knew his wife, too, and she was just as kind.
I feel that was more about capacity than potential.
What an amazing man, to have helped you see what you already were. Mr. Craig was a true gift.
You are my tribe! Potential was the favorite word of every teacher I had. And I actually got punished for “only” getting a perfect score on a spelling test but not asking if there was extra credit work I could do. Sigh... There I was doing high school work in grade school and college in high school, but it was never good enough. My favorite was getting a D for an AP score that excused me from college English because I wasn’t “working to potential.” Talk about doing a number on a kid!
Oh Beth, I feel you. This was the wrong way to handle a smart, self-motivated girl.
This post was exactly what I needed to hear.
I struggled with math as a child because we moved so often (at least once every two years, including three schools in three different states in 4th, 6th, and 9th grades). As you can imagine, I'd miss chunks of material with each move because every school district's curriculum was different, not to mention differences between states. At every school, from multiple teachers, I'd hear about my potential, but I was always playing catch up. But worst of all, one 4th grade male teacher, upon seeing how far behind I was, actually patted me on the head and said, "Don't worry your pretty little head, your husband can do the math." Imagine the lasting impact of that chauvinistic, misogynistic comment on a bright eight-year old girl!
Your message of focusing on capacity touched me deeply and I thank you for that. P.S. "Don't Worry Your Pretty Little Head" is the title of my upcoming second memoir. 😉
Vanessa! OMG! Those moves created big educational challenges on their own, let alone that teacher’s awful comment. Good for you for finding the story in that chaos.
Luv this. Thanks much Kathryn!
Thanks for reading, Lisa!
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A wonderful way to think about this. Thanks, Kathryn! Now...to get off the blogs and start using my capacity to write.
Education and doing—a delicate balance. Glad I inspired you Victoria!
This is beautiful! Thank you, Kathryn.
Aw, thanks Debbie.
My experience was in some ways the opposite. My parents were stunned when my first report cards were straight As. They didn't know what to do with me, so I was pretty much left to study and learn on my own. I found it easy, all the way through high school, and didn't understand why some kids found school difficult. But I got my comeuppance when I hit University. My dreams of being a physician foundered on the rocks of undergraduate sciences and calculus. I had to learn how to learn. But I managed, and by graduate school I was getting straight As again. No-one ever used the word, "potential" with me, and for that I am grateful.
The transition to college can be rough for many reasons—glad you figured it out, Ann. How wonderful that you were able to hold yourself to your own standards.
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Yeah, I had that potential thing hung over me...people expecting great things based on whatever about me. And it became paralyzing, as if I shouldn't do anything until I knew it would be great. Thank goodness I dropped that perfectionism hoopla and decided to just jump in with both feet and see what I could do. I eventually realized that "good enough" really is a wonderful thing. And books that are done are far better than those with potential. 😉
Haha that last line could not be more true, Julie!