Potential is such an interesting word. For me it almost always connotes positive vibes, such as, she is a young woman with great potential. I guess that says something about my personal outlook more than the definition of the word. It could easily mean something negative, as in the fire has the potential to expand to catastrophic proportions. The dictionary defines potential as capable of being, but not yet in existence. So I guess it boils down to what you make of it.
My father used to extoll the virtues of positive thinking. He once gave me a copy of the book, The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale. If you go through life thinking you will succeed, it makes the going a lot easier. Maintaining this optimism might be hard at times, but it sure beats the alternative. Having a negative attitude and thinking you’re going to fail before you start often resorts in a self-fulfilling prophesy. In other words, if you think you’ll fail, you most likely will. Henry Ford summed it up the best: “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.”
Recognizing potential also has a lot to do with attitude and perception. In one of my undergrad college classes we studied Pygmalion in the Classroom, by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson. Their book detailed how a teacher’s expectations and non-verbal communication can influence the students under them. Their study purportedly duped some teachers at a California elementary school by telling them that this one group of students had tested extraordinarily high on their diagnostic tests and were to be considered “spurters.” The teachers were told to expect that these “gifted” students would show significant leaps in their IQ scores during the upcoming semester. In reality, these students had been chosen at random and had not really shown any such potential. The hypothesis was that the high expectations on the part of the teachers would somehow be stimulating to the students, and this theory was borne out. The result was the students all showed amazing improvement on the end-of-year diagnostic tests. The conclusion of the study was that this leap in achievement was directly related to the way in which the teachers, who thought the kids were gifted, addressed them during the school year. It apparently allowed these underachievers to reach their full potential.
Now I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the methods used in this study. For one thing, I wondered what the effect was on the next group of students once that these teachers were told the group was not really “gifted.”
“It was all part of a social experiment,” some bean-counting administrator must have said with a wide grin. “We had to pull the wool over your eyes in order to test our theory.”
Fool me once, the saying goes... I shudder to think how ticked off those teachers must have been when they found out. And what about the poor students?
“Hey, we told your teachers you guys and girls were really smart,” the bean-counter might have continued, “but we were lying. You guys aren’t any smarter than the other groups.”
I’m sure the parents appreciated their kids being used as part of some kind of social experiment to prove a theory that seems self-evident. I wonder if the people who came up with the idea contemplated the potential for retribution or violence once the sociological experiment was brought to light? If the bean-counters ever tried something like that in today’s litigious society they’d be facing lawsuits from every student’s parents, all of the teachers, the school board, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Talk about potential …
But nevertheless, the lesson remains steadfast and true. If you treat people with respect and dignity and give them credit for have the potential to learn, their performance will most likely reflect that. And the opposite is true as well. This was not lost on former President, George W. Bush when he talked about “the soft bigotry of low expectations” as “the challenge faced by disadvantaged and minority children.” As the husband of a teacher, and a man who overcame his own demons of self-doubt, his words should be recognized and heeded.
Placing those concerns aside, I must confess that I’ve always believed in the principle that the study was said to prove. If you treat someone with respect, and give them the benefit of the doubt, they’ll most likely reciprocate by doing their best for you. Occasionally, you’ll be disappointed, and it may take longer than one school year to see positive results, but generally, people will work up or down to the expectations that are leveled at them. I always subscribed to this theory of leadership when I was a sergeant, both in the military and in police work. Low expectations will beget poor performances.
So it’s sort of like the Little Blue Engine that tried. Remember that childhood fable? It kept saying, “I think I can, I think I can ...” as it scaled that steep hill. Or perhaps you’d prefer to sing along with a Frank Sinatra recording of “High Hopes.” Either way keep that positive attitude and think of realizing your full potential.