“…a Man’s Reach Should Exceed His Grasp…”

20 May

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.

8 Responses to ““…a Man’s Reach Should Exceed His Grasp…””

  1. Shulamit Widawsky May 20, 2012 at 7:36 pm #


    Somewhere I have a paper that I wrote, explaining that NOBODY EVER LIVES UP TO THEIR FULL POTENTIAL. It is a logical fallacy. We each have 24 hours in a day, and the more potential a person has, the more choices they must make of the things they will NOT do. So, no matter what a person accomplishes, there will always be someone who notices what they did not accomplish.

    Even if enjoying life was utterly removed, there would still never be enough time to accomplish all of the things a person was capable of accomplishing if that were all that person did. In other words, even if we DID use every bit of our mind, always, we would still not be able to accomplish every individual thing that someone might look at and say, “you could have done that.” Taking the rest of human needs into account, on a person with extreme potential, and the number of things they “could have done” will always FAR outnumber the things they did do.

    I’m truly sorry your family did not appreciate what you DID do. And however it came to be, I am forever grateful for what you DO do.

    Thank you, for being you.


  2. Aimee Yermish May 21, 2012 at 9:58 pm #

    I remember unpacking this with an 11yo kid a number of years back. By definition, potential is what you’re *not* doing. The minute you do it, it’s not potential, it’s actuality. And you get a new potential, which is just a little further away. The goalposts constantly move.

    The worst part is that people act as if the mere act of imagining a potential for you somewhere out in the future then creates in you the obligation to be meeting it *now*. My 11yo had the *potential* to do calculus — I could see it in the way his mind worked. But he didn’t have the algebra chops at that point. What good did it do him to tell him that he had the potential to do calculus? It just meant that he felt like a failure. Rather, it was more helpful for us to focus on the zone of proximal development — what was something he could learn right at that moment?

  3. Paul May 23, 2012 at 5:36 am #

    Excellent. It is sad all the things we “do” to our kids in the name of education.

  4. Joshua R May 23, 2012 at 2:07 pm #

    I often see the opposite problem. The gifted students are only at a fraction of their potential and coasting through the class. A’s were easy for me and required little effort. Sometimes I put in even less effort and scored a B or C. A few times my dad rightly said I wasn’t living up to my potential. Even when I aced the tests, I wasn’t living up to my potential.

    Now, I find it exceedingly difficult to “live up to my potential”. I never learned to work hard or self-motivate. I never learned study skills.

    I look at two of my daughters and see drastic differences. Both are gifted, but one is willing to put in the time to succeed and the other isn’t. I foresee discussions with one about living up to her potential, because if she doesn’t learn now how to overcome challenges, she may never.

    Why are we often afraid to push gifted children to study, but we’ll insist a struggling student spends extra time studying? If we push the struggling learner to succeed as much as possible, why can’t we push the gifted learner too? I see no reason to take it easier on a gifted child. My parents and teachers did that and it hurt me in the long run.

    • kisekileia November 27, 2012 at 11:24 pm #

      A lot of people who “never learn to work hard or self-motivate” actually have ADHD. I strongly encourage you to look into it both for yourself and for your “not willing to put in the time” daughter. If she has ADHD and you are attributing her symptoms to lack of effort, you may be inadvertently emotionally abusing her. You need to figure out ASAP whether that’s happening or not.

  5. Stef May 23, 2012 at 3:55 pm #

    Absolutely, Joshua! I know a great deal about that batch of kids you’re talking about. There are plenty who float and dawdle and skim the surface be/c they can! Their fine minds don’t need to be engaged so they don’t engage them (at least in stuff adults would like them to do). This is yet another reason to offer real challenge so that challenge can become interesting and exciting. Maybe I should clarify that elementary school taught me that gold stars and A’s got you positive responses from adults, not that you had to *work* for them. Work was not involved—only willingness to do what felt silly and pointless. That is no way to teach kids the fun of challenge! That “zone of proximal development” is important! I’m told the creators of video games know that there’s an amount of challenge that turns the gamer on and an amount of challenge that defeats him. One tries to find a balance.

    My own theory (as a non-educator, so you can dump it in an eyeblink) is that one way to help kids accept challenge is to show them why it’s meaningful—what is in it for them. And the more the “what’s in it” can relate to their own interests or their sense of their own future, their own power, their own efficacy, the better. School tends to be just school—“the stuff you’re supposed to do”—in many kids’ minds, so if they can skim by with no work and they don’t buy into external motivation like grades, they’ll do the minimum.

    My suggestion is that this has nothing to do with “living up to potential.” It has to do with learning to persist in doing what has meaning for them, which is what life will require. If grades have meaning for them, they’ll do what they need to do to get them. But my A’s had nothing to do with my “potential.” When kids can get “A’s for garbage” (a concept I wrote about many years ago), it lowers their respect for what schools ask them to do, and it gets in the way of their own sense of meaning.

    BTW, my A’s did not mean I was actually learning. I could take in information, regurgitate it on a test and promptly empty it out of my memory banks. It had no meaning, so I didn’t “learn” it. It didn’t get integrated into my awareness. When I loved the subject (English and writing) and truly had a need for it, I learned it, or when I really cared about the teacher, I learned it “for love” as it were.

    A thing I deleted from my “potential” post was how many kids get accused of cheating when they do something really, really well. Almost every hg-pg person has a story about that. When my own son learned to type and did a splendid report for 5th grade social studies, both he and I were accused of cheating because the teacher said that no 5th grader, certainly no 5th grader who was only 3rd grade age, could write such a piece, and that because it was typed, it was obvious that I’d written it. I had not. So on the one hand super bright kids are asked to “live up to their potential” by doing work that doesn’t require anything nearly like what they could do, on the other they may be accused of cheating if they use a whole lot of their potential while doing it. And finally we expect them to develop work ethic and perseverance and a desire to achieve (and to have “task commitment”) for tasks that may have little or no interest, meaning or obvious pay-off for them.

    What I’m asking is that we find ways to help kids learn to accept challenge (sometimes to create their own) and work hard to accomplish meaningful things for reasons they can agree with, and to learn enough self-discipline to persevere when even meaningful work is boring, or repetitious, or not as much fun as they expected it to be, without using that toxic and illogical statement (which I’ve used myself all too often) “you aren’t living up to your potential.” Some of us are worker bees by nature. Some are more drone-like. But some drones invent more efficient ways of accomplishing things precisely because they don’t want to work hard…

    I admire what you do and I would hope gifted kids could learn to work for what they care about. However you can accomplish that with them, I support you!

    What bothers me is the idea that someone outside of themselves thinks they have a right to a) determine their potential and b) expect them to “live up to it that determined potential” in prescribed ways.

    • Christa June 16, 2012 at 5:31 pm #

      Yes on the cheating accusations! My oldest is an exceptional writer. Within a week of starting a new school at age 8 she wrote a poem for a reading class that the teacher clearly thought I had written for her and asked her to replicate the effort by writing one of equal quality while she watched. Despite being highly offended, this teacher became one of my daughter’s biggest advocates later as she produced writing after writing that matched the quality of the original poem (all in class, so clearly not written by her mother).

  6. felixfemina June 2, 2012 at 7:30 pm #

    I just love your perspective, and have ever since first reading “cheetahs” years and years ago. I very much appreciate that you wrote that, for it meant wonderful things for my family, and this: It has to do with learning to persist in doing what has meaning for them, which is what life will require. If grades have meaning for them, they’ll do what they need to do to get them. But my A’s had nothing to do with my “potential.” When kids can get “A’s for garbage” (a concept I wrote about many years ago), it lowers their respect for what schools ask them to do, and it gets in the way of their own sense of meaning.

    I was always told that my grades were luck — not by my family, but by my teachers who also told me that things would get more difficult and that I’d fail. My family just ‘expected’ good grades. They didn’t push for them at all, but there was no reward for them or for the arts and music that I excelled in, those things that had meaning for me.

    Even knowing that, it was very difficult to push aside what I knew about my son’s math ability and allow him to pursue what he likes. He’s not as good at what he likes, but perhaps that’s what the challenge is that keeps him going…that quest for an A in his B interests. Wonderful to watch. 🙂

    Thanks so much for your upliftng posts.

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