I recently came across a quote along the lines, 'Every year, a vast majority of kids are cheated into believing they have potential'. Meet the typical middle aged man and ask him this question – are you content with the way your life has shaped up? I can safely bet that the majority of the response would have a negative tone to it. A common reason behind this feeling of disappointment would be that they failed to reach their potential and they could have done far better. It is also hard to hear a response with hope for the future, saying they see themselves reaching their full potential in so and so time frame. If we dig further and probe as to why do they think they fell short of their potential, the most common answer would be along the lines that they did not try hard enough or just luck was not in their favor. Both are definitely strong possibilities. Also, quite likely that they have given up trying and are struggling in some way to accept the reality that they might never realize what they think to be their potential and they will just continue to be a compromised version of themselves.
Consider the case where one tried as hard as they could, but still ends up with the regret that he/she could not reach their full potential. This kind of seems like a paradox. Now, stepping back one step further, what if we were wrong in analyzing our potential and what if we were largely misguided in estimating it? If reaching one's potential is the goal, then estimating it cannot be ignored. Right from early childhood, we are led to believe from multiple sources that everyone can lead an extraordinary life and everyone can leave a legacy behind. All it needs is hard work, determination and hundred other qualities. If we try hard enough, nothing is impossible. This all sounds great, but it misses a fundamental point that everyone cannot be extraordinary, for the simple fact that the very idea of extraordinary is based on a relative scale and everyone cannot be at the same level on a relative scale. The hard fact is that for any given skill, if we plot the number of people versus the expertise, it will end up as a bell curve, with the majority ending up in the middle of the curve. An interesting related article Being Average. No doubt that the people at the far end of the curve have put in lots of hard work in reaching there, but they had something in them to work on. As an analogy, I can think of polishing a rough diamond. The whole hard work will reveal a diamond only if it was there in the first place. The hard work of polishing cannot create a diamond out of nowhere.
The Universe does not play the role of Robin Hood, where it would rob skills from those at the top and distribute it equally to everybody else! For whatever reasons, the Universe has it's own mind and does not care much for equal and fair distribution. Given this, by claiming that everyone has the potential to reach the top, we are invariably setting up the majority to end up disappointed and dejected. Of course, with time, these people will accept the reality and move on. But, this is not easy. Just for the sake of discussion, is there a better way to set the right expectations, so that the majority would not feel like losers for not reaching their imaginary potential ? Instead, consider the case where people are made aware of the reality of the bell curve early in their lives and they are better trained to identify their optimum position in the curve. This would possibly help the majority in setting the right target and having a realistic chance of reaching it. Understandably, this is a far more difficult process. Just imagine the complexity involved in analyzing and understanding each kids true potential and helping them accept it and try for it. Instead, the easier way out is a generic approach 'everyone can reach the peak and if you don't, you just did not try hard enough and good luck in dealing with the regret'.