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The Trouble With Potential

The Trouble With Potential
by Lindsey Muscato


adjective [ attrib. ] - having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future

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 able”

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 the measure.

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 follow-up to this article by editor Wendy Priesnitz, and an earlier article by author Rachel Gathercole.

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