I want to go on record as hating "potential." And "promise," too--promise is a real bastard.
Now, I assess potential all the time: in the classroom, in recommendation letters, and in job interviews. I don't expect this to stop soon. But potential is always a projection, and the younger or more junior a person is the easier it is to read him through the lens of your own experiences and biases. This student reminds me of that other student! So, she'll probably turn out the way that one did. This job candidate got his degree from Program X! So, he's probably about as strong as their other grads.
Or: I've never seen a person like this succeed. So I won't believe it until I see it.
I make such judgments when I have to, but I'm wary of them. I'm wary even though, as an Ivy-degreed white lady, the promise game has long been rigged in my favor. As far back as I can remember, I hated being evaluated by my potential. I wanted to have done something, not to be judged capable of doing it eventually. And I was terrified that those judging me were wrong: that their assessments were based on something trivial, some one smart thing I had said or done, or some superficial resemblance between me and a prior success. It was nice to be thought well of. But I never really believed it.
(Which may, incidentally, have something to do with my predilection for uncomforting or unkind authority figures.)
So I never understood the grousing in certain quarters about grad students becoming "too professionalized," and I never understood those who were sorry to trade their graduate institution affiliation on their name-badge for that of the less-elite institution that had hired them. To me, "professionalization" was a relief: I could stop worrying about whether I sounded like an idiot in my graduate seminars, or whether I was sufficiently praised and petted, and by whom, and what it all meant--instead, I had concrete goals like attending conferences and publishing articles. And as for my name badge? I hated worrying that people were only talking to me because they thought I was junior faculty at my alma mater. The place that hired me as a lecturer, and then the place that hired me as an assistant professor? Dude, I got those jobs.
Indeed, the best thing about my current career stage may be my confidence that any judgements about my "potential" are now--for the most part--grounded in what I've actually done.
I don't presume that my specific neuroses are widely shared, and I know that many people of my class and background are at least a little sad that they no longer live in a world of limitless options (now I'll never live in a yurt! now I'll never play saxophone on the streets of Paris!). But on the whole, even the most golden of former golden boys and girls seem happier and more grounded as adults than they were as students.
And in any case, we're past that now, all of us: past the stage where our futures are being constructed out of whole cloth by our elders: those people who thought they could predict who, at age eighteen or twenty-two--or who among a group of unpublished, inexperienced ABDs--would go on to stardom.
Well, most of us are past that.
Some people, it seems, still do get described chiefly in terms of their potential or promise, even many years into their career (and/or absent much experience or success in it). And some people get to be The Next Big Thing year after year, or are regarded as up-and-comers for decades.
If I dislike the rhetoric of potential when applied to those who are nothing but potential, I especially dislike it when applied to those who really should have delivered on it by now.