small tree in the palm of a hand

Who doesn’t love potential? It’s got promise, hope, possibility. It faces forward and explores what could be. It’s all about opportunity and growth, right?

Actually, I see it as a bit of a slap in the face. It’s delivered as a compliment: You have so much potential. This idea has serious potential. Think of the potential here!

Yet, in reality, it’s shining a giant spotlight on what’s NOT present, what doesn’t exist. In an underhanded way, it says, “You could be here, but instead you’re back there.”

I don’t like the implications, which tend to be some variation of “you’re not measuring up – get it together.”

I’m not suggesting that dreaming into the future or visioning what we could create is unproductive. I want to hear possibilities and awe-inspired movement towards what could be – just not the a deficit lens. Not by putting a pretty term on something and walking away, hoping someone else harnesses and cultivates said potential. If you want to build something, that’s awesome. Do it. Own it. But don’t look at something or someone and see lack and slap a pretty label on it.

I first started chafing when I heard the word potential come from parents about their kids’ failures or sluggish performance. At first, I would perk up and think, “Oh, they believe in their kid. They’re securing resources for their kid.” At the time, I was working as an ADHD coach, primarily for traditionally-aged college students. I came to realize that – far from being a compliment and a vote of confidence – using the word “potential” in reference to their kids, parents meant, “not good enough.”

What if we start seeing the word “potential” as a red flag? It’s code for, “I don’t accept the current situation.” Fix this person. Fix the program. Fix this idea. Get it into working order and then I’ll engage, approve, endorse.

Dave Evans, co-writer of Designing Your Life and Designing Your Work Life, says, “You can’t solve a problem you’re unwilling to have.” There’s an inherent rejection when the word “potential” gets trotted out. And, as the design thinking protocol outlines, acceptance is the first step to tackling a problem.

So, let’s not dress problems up with potential. Let’s own our dissatisfaction, whether it’s with a career, a relationship, a program, an idea, or with yourself. What’s NOT working? Let’s start there.

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