How many of us were told at some point in our lives that we were not living up to our potential?
I was. I was a high achiever in school—mostly A’s, a fantastic (probably intuitive) ability to take tests. But my potential? Suppose I got a 98 on a test. “What happened there?” my father would ask. Once, the Director of Studies at my high school wrote a note on my report card about the B+ I got in a demanding, college-level biology class. “For a person of Stephanie’s potential,” her note said, “a B+ is not an acceptable grade.” There was in my world the idea that there were only two alternatives: A (better yet A+) and F; perfection or failure.
It has taken many decades (and some costly therapy) to extricate myself from that mindset. As Linus, in the Peanuts cartoon, says, “There is no heavier burden than a great potential.”
Just in the last few weeks, during all this conversation in the “gifted realm” about achievement and eminence (an old conversation that has only taken on this recent intensity because of an effort to make it holy writ instead of a conversation), I have come to see the charge of not living up to one’s potential as a toxin. These days we worry about toxins in our food, about dangerous drugs, about tainted air and water, but we freely dispense the toxic judgment of unfulfilled potential to ourselves and our children (most especially those labeled as in some way more full of “potential” than others).
Eleven years ago in an online seminar I was conducting, a mother expressed concern that if her child chose to follow some deep current interest, he might not reach the top of his field. That was her goal for that child—to reach the top of his field. I have talked about the cages schools create for cheetahs—think of what a narrow goal it is, what a tight and limited pathway such a goal creates for any person, let alone any child. How could he even be sure the goal had been attained—isn’t it pretty much always a matter of opinion? (I can’t help thinking of Edison and Tesla for instance.) And if he could somehow prove he had reached the top, how long could he stay there?
This toxin is often put out with the best of intentions. Whether it’s a teacher with a bright student who doesn’t turn in homework, a mother worried that a child isn’t getting the support necessary to develop her unusual intelligence, a politician concerned that we are losing the productivity of our finest minds, or a father furious over his son’s laziness or passion for video games, people seem to think that living up to one’s potential is a good and necessary thing, perhaps the only road to success.
Here’s the thing. None of us lives up to our potential! We all use only bits and pieces of our minds. Even if we were to leave out the distinction between mind and brain, we know that the potential of the human brain is vastly complex and no matter how fervently we study it, its capacities continually astonish us.
Savants have been the source of many surprises, of course. From “Rain Man’s” ability to instantly tell how many toothpicks spilled out of a box, to Leslie Lemke’s ability to play full length classical piano pieces after a single hearing, to Stephen Wiltshire’s ability to fly over a cityscape and then draw what he’s seen in excruciating detail and perfect scale, the things savants can do confound us and send us searching for explanations of how certain brain deficits might result in extreme surpluses of one kind or another. Still, the very fact that any human can do these things means that such a potential exists (one way or another) in the human brain.
There are a great many mental capacities that most of us would consider “impossible” that are not only possible to some individuals but may be available to anyone open to experiencing them. There are people who are able to read with their hands rather than their eyes, for instance. I first encountered this phenomenon in a woman with extreme intuitive capacities, who was also dyslexic. So difficult had reading been for her as a child that she was driven to find an alternative to using her vision in order to access the information on a written page. She discovered that she could “download” what was on the page by running her hands over it.
I know of at least two people who have conducted experiments to test for this ability with young children, who report that this is not a rare phenomenon—just one that our current theories of brain and mind can’t explain. The younger the child (therefore the less caught in our ideas of what is and is not possible) the more likely that child is to be able to acquire information from a printed page this way—both photographs and words. Says one of those experimenters, “We could probably all do this, but nobody ever told us we can, so we have never tried.” The other has found that some adults can do it as well, but with considerably greater difficulty. (I can’t, of course, give you citations from peer-reviewed scientific journals for these experiments—they are not the sorts of experiments scientific journals are interested in publishing. At least not yet.)
It has been suggested that the more we study the brain the less we understand consciousness.
You don’t have to be willing to allow nonrational mysteries like reading with the hands into your own world view to be aware of the extraordinary reach of human mental processing. We can recognize the kids we’re calling mermaids here by the “impossible” things they do within the range of the rational. What kind of brain/mind does it take for a six month old to begin speaking in full (if short and perhaps not perfectly pronounced) sentences? Most child-development experts would say that couldn’t be done because a child of that age does not have a brain developed enough to begin using verbal language. But there are children who do it. Forty years ago parents did not think of teaching their infants sign language so that they could communicate before developing the ability to speak. But the success of this (now not at all uncommon) practice has shown us that infant brain/minds are far more attuned to and able to process language than previously thought.
Julian Stanley famously said that the “mathematically precocious” kids he brought into SMPY could learn algebra in from 0 to 15 hrs. Zero hours? Really? Yes. There are children who seem to come with algebra “pre-loaded” into their mental systems. Just as there are those who seem almost to “recognize” languages that no one in their world uses, so that they can learn or teach themselves those languages with lightning speed. How is this possible? The very easy answer is that we don’t know. The list goes on and on. The abilities shown by prodigies are very little different from savant capacities, though the prodigy does not have countervailing deficits.
Finally, of course, there is the problem of “multi-potentiality.” Being able to do many things doesn’t necessarily mean we will or even should do them all. A person with vast, varied, complex and extraordinary capacities may not want to follow some of them. And if she does have a passion for all of them, may find it hard to choose a direction in life. Under the pressure of their diversity she might take a side trail that leads away from any of them, or she could bounce from one to the other and piece together a patchwork of a life path that looks nothing like success from the outside. And then there’s the impact of life itself. It can be very, very tough. There is no way to know how much of “recognized intellectual potential” might have to go into just figuring out how to survive.
And finally, where do the concepts of personal fulfillment, joy, peace, happiness or the ability to come to the end of one’s life free from the misery of a long trail of regrets come into this conversation? Let’s just get over this potential thing. Potential is unlimited. A single human life is not.