“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.