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"He's Got a Lot of Potential"

Monday, June 03, 2013

By: Quinton Ellis, M.S., LPC

I remember hearing that frequently when I was in elementary school and for some time after that. My parents, my teachers- they were all apparently very excited about all that I was capable of achieving- in the future. I remember finding it all incredibly satisfying as well as comforting at the time. Whatever else was going on, I could bank on that whole potential thing one day. I can’t tell you just how sublime it is to know, through the independent confirmation of so many adults, just how easily my “C’s” could have been, and might one day be “A’s”. I didn’t have to work hard at all to make those “C’s”. Others could strive for gaudy accolades (good report cards) but I would remain above that ostentation. My brain is smiling even now as I think back at how deftly my child’s mind worked to miss the point entirely.

I imagine that I spent more than a few nights so focused on all my potential that I forgot about my homework; so enthralled by the possibilities that I neglected to do my chores. And, in the coolest vicious circle I would ever witness, my failures would only lead to more discussion of my endless potential. It was a wonderful time in my life.

Many of my clients are likewise having a wonderful time with their middle and high school experiences. Many, the majority of whom are males, share my thought process at their ages. Average to below average grades are not only no concern, but, if I’m to believe these kids, about what they are aiming for academically. It’s as though academic exertion is a form of surrender. In an aggravatingly common refrain, I’m told that effort is withheld because the work is too easy for them. For some this may be the case, but I hear this many times from kids for whom I know it not to be true.

The problem is that the super-smart lazy kids lack priorities and discipline, while the rest of us lack priorities, discipline and the ability to catch up with relative ease when the time comes. Worse still, I get the impression that many students don’t try their hardest because hitting a success ceiling would shatter their beliefs that their potential is limitless. We’ve worked so hard to boost kids’ self-esteem that many of them can’t imagine failure. They assume everything will turn out just peachy in the future because the assumption is their potential will just “kick in” at some point. That’s just two too many assumptions.

“Having potential” is a wonderful thing, but it requires some context. My bank account has potential. My gym membership has potential. The problem is that the former is as indolent as I am and the latter mainly steals from the former. The requirement is context. What my teachers were saying was that I had the potential to do the work well. Doing the work well would have then enhanced my potential to do things other than schoolwork well.

I think we begin to become adults around the time we begin truly regretting the mistakes of our youth. For many of us, and among other things, this entails wishing we’d taken our education a little more seriously than we did instead of treating our potential like a teeming bank account to which we’d someday gain access. Well, teeming bank accounts require teeming deposits if you want to enjoy them. It’s important that we inform our teens that their grades are not so much report cards as they are deposit slips. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go to the gym.

Quinton is a Licensed Professional Counselor at Edmond Family Counseling and can be reached at 405-341-3554.

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