Sunday, July 28, 2013

Against potential

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.


Anonymous said...

I once heard a professor describe a particular college as an enfant terrible, which I then had to go look up, and thought was sort of interesting given that the enfant in question was late 30s or early 40s maybe and tenured.

Anonymous said...

colleague that should say.

Susan said...

I would add that for the most part, the golden boys and girls sometimes flamed out, and *never* fully lived up to the hype. In one case, these expectations put a huge burden on someone that he was paralyzed by perfectionism. In other cases, people are fine scholars, but not the field changing / defining scholars they were compared to. The most successful ones have been more tortoises than hares.

Anonymous said...

My field is all about who knows who. We even got rid of blind refereeing sometime in the past 10 years. And golden boys are still tall white guys. And they're given many second and third and fourth chances (in the form of fancy post-docs created just for them, or a 180K tenured job elsewhere for the guy who was denied tenure at his institution for sleeping with too many undergraduates).

So I am very glad for my elite graduate school status-- it's a privilege that makes me equivalent to my tall white guy colleagues from "lesser" institutions and on speaking terms with the golden boys with smaller cvs.

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

My progression was the opposite: I did my graduate and post-doctoral training at decent--but not superelite--institutions in the labs of good--but not well-known string-pulling--mentors. Now I am tenured faculty at a superelite institution and more prominent in my field than either of my prior mentors. I don't take any particular lessons from this other than that I was in the right place at the right time on several occasions during my career and have the personality type that enabled me to benefit from such fortuity.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Potential is really hard to judge. And I agree that I'd rather be judged on what I HAVE done rather than what I COULD do. In my experience, there have been a lot of people who flamed out because the pressure of their potential was too high. For someone like me, a late-blooming underdog, it's been nice to surprise people out of their expectations of me. Maybe that's why Prince Hal continues to resonate with me. I've redeemed time when men think least I will.

Flavia said...


Was it meant as a dig? I'd assume there's something at least a bit eye-rolly about calling anyone, especially someone that old, an enfant terrible.


In my field, as in most, white men definitely have the edge--but I know of some white women (and, more rarely, minorities) who also get credit for their "promise" for a long long time. In thinking about the most egregious examples of those who still get cited as up-and-comers long after they should have up and came, what they tend to have in common is (a) wealthy families, and the confidence/breeding that comes along with it; (b) an excellent academic pedigree; and (c) fluent, even dazzling verbal facility.

That performance of intelligence is crucial, though the other stuff--the breeding/pedigree--also needs to be there. They're well-read, with all kinds of information at their fingertips, they can think on the fly, and since all their credentials are in order, why shouldn't they be taken for brilliant? They perform brilliance.

(And, obviously, this isn't limited to academics--just think of all those "experts" who confidently tell us how to reform education, or the economy! Call it the TED-ification of everything.)

Comradde PhysioProffe said...

That performance of intelligence is crucial, though the other stuff--the breeding/pedigree--also needs to be there. They're well-read, with all kinds of information at their fingertips, they can think on the fly, and since all their credentials are in order, why shouldn't they be taken for brilliant? They perform brilliance.

This is a really good point, and I think "performing brilliance" is an important aspect of my personality that has enabled me to take good advantage of the opportunities that have presented themselves.

Anonymous said...

I've been working very hard at cultivating moxy since graduating (and ending up at a non-top 20 institution)-- and just the right about of moxy without hitting the "women shouldn't be too self-confident" barrier, which I have seen in action many times. I wish I could be as arrogant as my (male) colleagues without setting off female-alarms, because that would be much easier than the balancing act I have to walk.

One nice thing is that my chosen smaller field is less obnoxious about these things as my greater field of labor economics. But hoo boy, can hanging out with labor economists make a person not at a top 20 institution feel lousy (as I was reminded again last week).

Anyhow, I embrace my privilege and wish I had more of it! I use it to try to help other folks who do good work to do more good work. That's got a much better chance of changing the system than too much modesty. When you say things enough, people start to believe them, and I'd rather have folks believe I'm doing a great job.

Historiann said...

Heh. Anyone over age 40 who's described as having "potential" is being damned with faint praise. (Unless of course this person's second career is in academia & so they didn't go to grad school until their late 20s or early 30s, or later.)

"Potential" is for rookies. If you've got a book out and tenure somewhere, that's your potential right there.

Flavia said...


Yes, but you obviously also have the goods!

I'm talking about the credit people get for being brilliant, absent actual accomplishments.

Now, sometimes these people really are brilliant (or, at any rate, talented), but haven't produced anything because they're early-career (i.e., grad students), or because they're slaving over the work that will eventually make them famous, or because life circumstances have intervened. Or the form of their brilliance may be a bad match of the normal parameters of academic measurement. I certainly am not implying that all talent can be distilled into the number of publications, grants, etc., that one gets.

But there's also a performance-of-intelligence that substitutes for substance, or that causes the performers to be more highly valued than people with equal or greater accomplishments. And that's something I'm happy is less valorized than it used to be in my discipline (the Great Man holding forth on Eternal Truths shtick), though I'm sorry it still exists to the extent it does.

Canuck Down South said...

Oh boy...did this struck a chord with me, and I'm still in graduate school! What's become increasingly obvious since my cohort has become ABD is how little our current performance as dissertation-writers matches up with what the faculty saw as our potential 3-5 years ago: many of us who were implicitly (or sometimes explicitly) informed we were at the bottom of the departmental totem pole are on track to finish in the expected time, publishing, going to conferences, etc., whereas many of us who were treated as full-of-infinite potential at the start are falling behind, dropping out, not submitting work anywhere. Despressingly, the faculty seem to regard this mis-match with our earlier potential with complete puzzlement, rather than readjusting their expectations based on work done.

Maybe potential is always more exciting that results.

Flavia said...


I think it's most aggravating in grad school, because there are fewer other sources of self-esteem (no one yet has a job, few people have published).

And your experience is true to mine. I understand being disappointed that the horses you initially backed haven't made good on your expectations (...yet!), but it shouldn't be hard to say, "Well isn't this lovely! So-and-so has really hit her stride in these past few years. I had no idea she had it in her, but what a credit she is to our program!"

(And this brings us back to Susan's initial point, which is that being burdened with others' expectations about your promise can, in fact, be a burden.)

i said...

I hear you, oh do I ever hear you. I think I've been treated as "promising" a fair amount during my academic training and career, and I've hated every moment of it. Yes, it brings nice rewards, and it would be disingenuous to complain about those. But I also have an impostor complex the size of the Burj Khalifa, and every time I have an "achievement" that's based more on promise than on accomplishment, the complex just gets more threatening. When I'm in my dark moments, I focus on clear tasks done: the essays published, the presentations made, the times I've faced situations that scared me and gone through with them.

When I read comments like Susan's I get a bit superstitious, though I'm sure it's meant to be an objective observation rather than a curse upon the promising.

Re: professionalization. In those few corners of the Ivies that I happen to be familiar with, grad students were until recently not necessarily encouraged to publish heavily or early. In the past few years, as the job market has gotten even *more* competitive, that has come back to bite them in the ass. Not always -- connections and pedigree will still get you somewhere -- but often. I think a number of us wish we had been guided differently.

And yet, at the same time, I'm a bit torn about the whole thing. Nobody told me I had to publish my grad school papers, and so I used them to experiment intellectually, to play with ideas and texts and forms. I can't say I'm sorry I did that, and I can't say I envy students who feel they have to produce publishable work when they're just getting the hang of a field and what they can contribute to it.