“You know what I never want to hear again? That I have great potential. It just feels like so much pressure.” Elly, the student sitting across from me in my office, is visibly upset. I’ve just done the unpardonable. I’ve been the (to her) millionth person who has told her she has “potential” after she has turned in a mediocre piece of work.

Elly is smart, engaging, insightful about difficult concepts, and generally interested in what we talk about in class. She also doesn’t do all the required reading, or put enough time into assignments, or meet due dates. She’s the kind of student who exasperates me the most: Smart student. Dumb performance. She thinks if I really looked hard, I would see her for the fraud she is. I think if she really looked hard, she would find out that she’s got what it takes to do well.

Elly isn’t alone in her confusion and self-doubt. No, I don’t have any statistics. But my own experience in college teaching has shown me that there are a few students in every class who suffer from a terrible lack of confidence. They are convinced they are imposters or frauds. In order to spare themselves the indignity of being found out, they have developed strategies for hiding what they are sure are their inadequacies. By not trying their hardest or doing their best, they can preserve the notion that if they did put in the effort they would, of course, get the As they deserve. So they accept the Cs that come with hurried papers, minimal studying and missed deadlines. What a shame. Elly, and the others like her, will graduate from college this year but they’ll be carrying the burden of self-doubt and anxiety with them.

How it Happens

How does this happen? If you share Elly’s feelings, your history may be like many in her shoes. Generally, life has gone something like this:

You have been seen as “promising,” but not achieving, for most of your life. Your parents tried to encourage you. Your kindergarten papers were posted on the refrigerator door. Relatives oohed and aahed over every project and story. Even when you did poorly there was something about how you talked or something about parts of the work that had them convinced you were a budding genius. At least at first, it was pretty intoxicating stuff!

Your teachers, too, saw you as gifted and special. Whenever you slumped, one of them would call you in and say some version of that hated phrase: “You’re not living up to your potential.” The stress mounted. Like most kids, you believed the grown-ups. If teachers said you had potential, then it must be so. Like most kids who manage to be judged by potential instead of performance, you got more and more afraid to do your best in case it wouldn’t be enough. What if you really weren’t all that everyone seemed to expect you to be? The more scared you got, the larger and more unattainable those expectations seemed to be.

Meanwhile, the course of your life seemed somehow to get established. Bad grades, bad hygiene, outrageous clothes, drug abuse, or rebellion didn’t change anyone’s mind. Your reputation was so thoroughly established at home and at school that no one ever saw you as dumb or even average. They saw you as really, really smart but “depressed” or “artistic” or “counterculture” or “bored.” So you were encouraged to go to college anyway.

Maybe a good college, or one of those colleges that prides itself on seeing potential despite lackluster grades, even let you in. And maybe once there you generally got pretty good grades. Kids that are marked as having potential are generally smart enough to sound good even when they don’t do the reading and don’t really know what was going on. You covered fears with arrogance or attitude and majored in partying. Something about you always made a caring professor or two call you into his or her office to talk about, you guessed it, how you weren’t living up to your potential.

You might not have been living up to your potential but you’re no fool. So you put in just enough effort to stay in the subsidized life called school. Further, you may have started believing in that whole “potential” thing. You did the minimum and slid by, protecting your self esteem with the idea that if you did put in time and effort, of course you’d get straight A’s. Maybe yes. Maybe no. But you never had to find out because you never put it to the test. Better to stay up all night and get only a C than to put in real time and find out that a C is all you could get.

Now you are in your 20s. You are about to graduate. Maybe you’ll get a decent job in spite of pretty average grades. Are you nervous yet? You should be. You just might be able to skid by for a while longer but surely before you’re 30 you’re going to have to show what you’ve really got. Having “potential” does have a shelf life and it does run out. At some point, you can no longer be the promising “kid” with great potential.

Here’s the irony of this dilemma: You don’t even know whether you really have something to fear. It’s just possible that underneath the charade and avoidance and sham you are really, really smart. You’ve just never been brave enough to find out. Then again, maybe you really are pretty shallow and you’re only good at the con. You haven’t been brave enough to find that out either. At some point, maybe this point, your only choice is in the timing of finding out and in your level of control while doing so.

Making a Decision

Here are the two obvious directions you can take:

You can decide to just keep playing the game. If you don’t have what it takes, there will come a point when some boss will figure it out. Bosses have a whole lot less tolerance for pretense than teachers. (Remember, at school, you paid the teachers. At work, the boss is paying you. That shift in the way money flows changes the rules.) This can be needlessly infuriating to your employer and embarrassing for you. Then again, if you do have what it takes, the boss, and you, will find that out too. Your boss will never know that you’ve been sweating a day of reckoning, hoping finally to be able to breathe a sigh of relief.

The problem with this strategy is the stress of living every day with the uncertainty and fear until there’s some crisis and the answer presents itself. You’ve put the control in the hands of others who are evaluating you on their terms instead of quietly finding out for yourself what you’re made of.

So you could decide to finally put up and shut up, to use what is left of your college career to really, really do your best and see what you’ve got. Sure, it will be scary. But at least you get to choose the forum for testing yourself. It will be a new thing to give yourself plenty of time to do an assignment, to do it with thoroughness, thought, and detail, and to do it on time. But you are more likely to see it through if you feel you’ve made the choice and that you are doing it to prove something to yourself instead of to someone else. If you face your fears and just do it, you’ll find out what you’re made of in short order.

Chances are you’ll do okay. Someone smart enough to sustain a bluff as long as you have probably isn’t stupid. The worst-case scenario is that you’ll find out what you do and don’t know. Once you figure that out, you’ll be able to do the work of filling in your gaps so that the actual and the potential begin to line up.

I have high hopes for Elly. She may be upset, but she is talking to me. There is still time for her to work on proving herself to herself in this, her senior year. Perhaps I can give her some of the support she needs to face her fears that she is an imposter and fraud and invest more in her work and in herself. I hope so. She’s been afraid long enough.