adjective [ attrib.
] - having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in
noun - latent qualities
or abilities that may be developed and lead to future success or usefulness
Origin late Middle English:
from late Latin potentialis, from potentia - “power,” from potent - “being
I think about potential a lot. Too much. I find the
feeling of having potential…unnerving.
Potential wasn’t something my family talked about while
I was growing up as a homeschooler...maybe because we were raised to value
learning for learning’s sake. We were in the moment. Potential is about
development for the future.
And there’s another way the idea of potential didn’t
align with the family paradigm. Potential implies a sort of special, or
at least not-universal, capacity or ability. And we really weren’t told
we were special!
My mom is such a practical, progressive, humanist.
She’s certainly not an exceptionalist. The message growing up was: You’re
special because everyone is special. Work hard, because it’s good for you,
but pursue your bliss. You are unique, but you’re not better than anyone
else. Oh, and don’t forget, there are billions of people.
I had no sense of worry about living up to my potential
until college, really. But then, surrounded by more peers than I had ever
been adjacent to, living up to my own potential seemed obvious, and urgent.
Today I worry about living up to my potential partly
because I’m convinced that I’m not! And partly because I’m uncomfortable
thinking in those terms.
I shared a blog post by writer Penelope Trunk on our
Facebook page. This completely resonated with me:
"I confess that I don’t
feel like I’m working to my potential. And it makes me feel sick. I know
the signs. It starts with me not being able to cope with my to-do list.
It all looks too overwhelming. [...]
The next stage of not
living up to my potential is that I can’t read anything. I tried to read
the New York Times magazine cover story about fixing a marriage. I can’t
open it, though. The woman who is the author wrote about her own experience.
F%#k. I should have posted about that."
It’s like she’s in my brain. I could have written the
above passage. Anyway, I like Trunk’s writing because she’s kind of neurotic,
and so am I.
My mom isn’t, though. The thing about my mom is she’s
super confident and in-the-moment with her choices. In an
interview I did with her this past Mother’s Day, we talked about her
approach to parenting and how she decided that she valued living in-the-moment
through her own family story growing up. That value informed her approach
to learning and education. And I think it’s strong and beautiful to live
that way, especially in an “achievement” obsessed society.
Still, the desire to “live up to my potential” nags
at me. When I think about education helping kids to harness their potential
for personal satisfaction, I wonder about the balance between being in the
moment and looking ahead.
What is the best way to help kids develop goals, contextualize
goals, understand trajectories, and harness their particular potential without
overly focusing on the future? Without dampening exploration, experimentation,
and curiosity? How do you cultivate potential without putting people into
boxes? Or projecting your priorities onto kids?
I asked my mom her thoughts…
She said: “You try to help your kids unwrap their
own truest desires and greatest talents and most important passions like
you would help them unwrap a present. When the kid is older and the wrapping
and packaging offers no difficulty, you don’t step in at all. But when the
kid is teeny, or the packaging is really tough – an impossible knot on tightly-tied
ribbon, or one of those plastic packaging thingies you need tools to pry
open – then you help out a lot more. But you still don’t want to take over.
It’s the kid’s present, not yours. It’s your kid’s gift to open and respond
to. So you’re just there to help unwrap whatever is inside.”
We talked about how my mom was told I had a lot of
potential as a dancer, and that she “had to” cultivate that. But she didn’t
believe in potential becoming a chore, or an obligation. So she kept exposing
me to opportunities to explore the world of dance, and ultimately I really
enjoyed it, but it wasn’t something I wanted to pursue in a serious way.
And she was totally supportive both of the experience I had, and of the
choice to refocus when I wanted to.
But we also talked about the time we were traveling
in Hawaii. We were at a beach with a rope swing into a small lagoon. Kids
and adults were all taking turns swinging out into the lagoon, but you had
to let go at the right point to land in the deep part of the water. I wanted
to try it so badly, but I was terrified – afraid that, in the moment of
truth, I might not let go and just come crashing back to the tree instead.
The stakes were so high!
I was like…six or seven years old? But my mom knew
I could do it, and that I wanted to, and she basically made me! She made
me take on the adventure. And I did it. And then I did it a million times,
and I felt like a million bucks. It was really empowering.
Mom said it seemed strange in the moment to force the issue, but she intuitively
felt it was what I needed.
The roots of the word potential are from the Latin
words potential, meaning “power,” and potent, meaning “being able.” It’s
such a positive thing, right?
But I think the trouble with school is that often there’s
a really narrow focus on defining potential, one model that’s the aim and
Is there a paradox in unschooling: a deep belief in
kids’ potential combined with an aversion to talking about potential to
allow for freedom and exploration?
Is the idea of potential troublesome or empowering?
Lindsey Muscato is a visual artist and writer based in Oakland,
California, where she lives with her husband. Muscato grew up in Southern
California; she and her two sisters were unschooled. She received her BFA
in Painting and Drawing in 2006, and she has shown work in exhibitions on
the East and West Coasts and in Europe. After living in Brooklyn, NY, for
several years, Muscato moved back to her native California in 2012 and began
a collaborative project with her mother, writer Cathy Earle.
The No School Kids: A Homeschool
Retrospective is their blog reflecting on their family’s experience
of life learning over twenty years.
This is a topic we have written about quite often in Life
Learning Magazine. Check out a
to this article by editor Wendy Priesnitz, and an
earlier article by author Rachel Gathercole.