A Meditation on Potential


What does it mean to have potential? This is a tricky question to answer because people mean different things when they use the word potential. It is most often associated with youth and most often vetted by the elderly. In this sense, it is the ability to do things of worth in the world. We know it when we see it. For example, we see it in kindergarten, in kids to whom everyone gravitates. We see it in high school with athletes, the nerds, and the like. More to the point, you would also place your money on it. For example, you would donate to a campaign that you think has the chance of winning, which is obviously an endorsement of some form. Thus, potential seems to be the ability to make the unactualized, actualized.

Other phrases that describe this same phenomenon are: “They never fail to rise to the occasion,” or “There is something about that person.” Through this lens, the answer is to be found in the intersection between what wisdom sees and naivté attracts. It is the ability to operate on a frontier inspiring to people who find that endeavor important. For example, professional boxers, professional MMA fighters, and Economic students. This lens clues us into an essential description of how our society is formed and fairly operates: Potential is not domain restricted. With the important caveat of the supermajority of people accepting that ability and eventual rise as legitimate.

Further complicating this issue is that what it means to have potential also changes as one ages. In Econ speak, it is the changing of comparative advantage as the landscape changes. An attentive reader might ask: does one ever stop having potential? Or is there a limit to how much potential a person has? Is it exhausted when a person specializes? Although an apparently easy question, further thought shows it is not. This author would like to think that a person with “potential” excels in a specific field, they might transfer the skills that helped them excel in an area to other domains. Yet, we don’t have to look too far to develop examples of successful athletes who ended up ruined. Or poker players who are incapable of risk assessment in their personal lives. Although where the individual can or might not be as successful as he would have been before specializing and would not be as good as the best in that domain.

Overall, one should celebrate and give opportunities to those who truly have potential, broadly defined, but the status of those with potential in meta-skills like learning, in the deep sense of the word, should get more status.

Certainty rating: 80%


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