I am no philosopher, nor am I a motivational speaker, but I am a college student who had a big goal, accompanied by big fear, and I accomplished that goal. I was able to do that because I changed my definition of the word “potential,” and I have been able to accomplish a couple of other goals after that with this definition-change as well. Consequently, I am writing this article to challenge the reader to change their definition of the word “potential” and use that new definition to do whatever good things they want to do. If I can help one person accomplish their goal by providing the definition of the word that helped me accomplish mine, then I will have made at least a small difference in the world. That said, I will get into the article, using my own experience as a lens.
“Potential” was always a scary word to me, to say the least. How could I ever know how much of it I had? Was it even possible for me to be able to tell whether or not I had maximized my potential? Was everyone’s potential similar across the board? These questions trapped me in my own anxious thoughts for hours, even though I knew they were uncertain.
I even felt hypocritical worrying about something that was simply uncertain; I had always been agnostic because I felt like religion was only there to absolve the discomfort around uncertainty by providing answers to all uncertain questions, like what happens after death or why bad things happen. I had moments where I would wonder if I was dreaming or living in a simulation because I knew that there was no certain way to determine whether my lived reality was actually real, so as someone who had regularly dismissed the idea that anything at all could be certain, I understood the futility of my grasp for certainty around what my “potential” meant.
I did not understand it enough to stop worrying, though. “Potential” remained an ugly word until I entered college.
In elementary school, I heard the word “potential” here and there and believed that I had a lot of it; I fell under the impression that “potential” referred to however much one can accomplish without necessarily putting in hard work. With that definition in mind, I was fairly confident in my potential; my teachers told me I was reading at college level, I was doing middle school-level math, I was reading young adult books, and I was participating in seemingly intellectually stimulating activities like piano guilds and spelling bees. Once middle school came around, my elementary school momentum persisted and I continually got on the Honor Roll and Principal’s List, continued honors math, got awarded in a poetry competition, and felt like I had high academic potential.
My definition of “potential” changed in high school. My freshman year, I did not work hard, because I figured that I was “smart enough” to do well without studying for tests or putting in time to do homework. As my grades slipped into what would make thirteen year old me cry, I lost hope. I figured that I never actually had as much “potential” as I thought I did, because if I truly had a lot of potential, I would be doing well. My sophomore year, I hit my academic rock bottom– passing my classes but getting grades that made college seem like a no-go– and I started to wonder whether I had anything to prove that I had any sort of potential; it seemed to me like I had no academic talent, no artistic talent, no athletic talent, and no purpose.
Two years later, as a high school senior, I started to understand that the inherent capacity to do well academically without putting in work was not the most important thing in the world. I also started to realize that a lot of students who acted like they weren’t working hard were working hard behind the scenes and letting others think that they were just “naturally smart enough” to accomplish big things without working hard.
If you were a straight A student at my high school, it was a bragging right to talk about how little you worked. It meant that you were so smart that you could get straight A’s without studying. It meant that you were smarter than students who got straight A’s and worked hard, because those students weren’t “smart” enough to get straight A’s “naturally” and had to work hard to “compensate” for their “lack of innate intelligence.” As a result of that mentality, I found out that a lot of students did work hard, and just did not want to be made fun of. That said, if other students thought that it was a bragging right to do well without working hard, it meant that other students had a similar definition of “potential” to my elementary school definition: the capacity of someone to do well without needing to put in work.
I realized that maybe that definition of “potential” was correct; but it certainly led to toxic thinking. That definition made students feel ashamed of putting work into things that they were passionate about. That definition made students feel like if they had to work hard to accomplish anything, then they just weren’t smart.
This revelation led to another: no matter how little anyone claimed to have worked, if someone accomplished something, then they most likely did work hard for it. For example, I accomplished perfect report cards in elementary school without any studying for my school. What I didn’t take into consideration as an elementary schooler, though, was that I did work hard. I just worked hard earlier. I worked hard, thanks to my parents, to learn to read very early. I worked hard to learn my times tables at home before I had to do multiplication in school. I worked hard to read lots of books, so that I did not have to work hard in school to level up my reading comprehension. I found that my experience could be extended to other instances; for example, someone who got a 1590 on the SAT without taking a single preparatory SAT class might say that they “accomplished something without any hard work,” but in that case, it would be likely that that individual worked hard prior to the SAT by putting in external time to do other things that improved that individual’s general reading and mathematics skills.
Upon learning that pretty much anyone who accomplished something had to work hard for it, and that someone’s choice to work hard did not mean they had “less potential,” I was able to discover that I had similar potential to anyone and everyone else: potential to do well with past, present, and future hard work.
As expected, this discovery didn’t immediately transform me into a hard worker and high achiever, but it did push me in the right direction.
Initially, I was afraid of all hard work, because I thought the idea of having to work hard threatened my innate potential. At this point, I was afraid of hard work not paying off, but I wasn’t afraid enough to make that an excuse to not work hard.
So in college, I did start working hard. That choice was not easy.
By my third quarter of college, I wanted to transfer to a different college, and I started working tirelessly to get there. To say I had daily moments where I asked myself what the point was is an understatement.
That said, I did transform my actions. Instead of being uninvolved in school and activities, I took on leadership in six extracurricular activities, one job and one internship, research, volunteering, and publishing in another school’s law journal. Every time I caught myself crying or worrying, I’d work on homework so that I could “kill two birds with one stone” and get distracted from my emotions while working towards better grades. My GPA went up, I got on the Dean’s List, and I took on more and more.
One night in February, I opened my laptop and my heart sank, my stomach churned, and my head began to hurt. My worst fear, my fear of working hard and having it not pay off, seemed to have come true. I got a rejection letter from what was my first choice college at the time, after feeling like I put in so much effort to get there. I bawled for hours, circling back to my high school mentality that there was no point in working hard. The rejection hurt so much that I wondered what the purpose of life itself even was; it felt like I wasn’t smart enough to accomplish anything even with extremely hard work, meaning I had significantly less potential than the people around me. To add salt to the wound, I had gotten my transcript back from the previous quarter only to get two B’s in classes in which I thought I could get an A.
My reaction afterward was what completely turned everything around; I have to attribute my change in attitude half to my parents and half to one of my best friends from college.
My parents laughed when I said that my hard work didn’t pay off, telling me that it obviously still did; even if I didn’t get a transfer, it would pay off because it built my resume for graduate school and for careers. It would pay off because it gave me people skills and life hacks. It would pay off because it gave me the work ethic to be able to do all sorts of other things, even if transferring wasn’t one of them. They also told me that if I worked hard and did not get in, it didn’t mean I was not smart; instead, it meant one of two things– either that I felt like I worked hard but I didn’t actually work hard enough, or that I did work hard enough and I just happened to get rejected because sometimes things don’t work out.
My friend from college, upon hearing that I got rejected, told me that while I should still shoot hard for a transfer, I should learn and understand the merits of staying at the college I was enrolled in at the time. I reluctantly took his advice, and ran to be the chapter chair of one of my university’s organizations. Upon doing that, I won, and I realized that even if I didn’t get a transfer, I would have enough opportunities and leadership lined up at my school that I could do well afterward.
By combining my parents’ and friend’s advice, I did two things.
First, I thought of and addressed all the things that could have gotten me rejected from the college from which I got rejected. I started to prioritize things I wasn’t prioritizing before, namely my GPA rather than my resume. I started to take on certifications outside of class so that I could demonstrate my commitment to learning outside of learning from school. I decided to reach out to one more of my instructors to get one more letter of recommendation so that I could have two, rather than one, letters of recommendation for my future transfer applications.
Second, I changed my attitude about transferring. I stopped perceiving my transfer as a metric for my success, intelligence, or potential; and started to understand the merits of staying at my current college. I realized that if I stayed at my current college, I would be the chapter chair of that organization. I would be able to do the research with my professor for more than one year. I would be able to live with my boyfriend. I would be able to stay on the quarter system with which I was familiar. I would be able to meet all the amazing people that I only met on Zoom, in person.
One might wonder why becoming okay with not getting a transfer was what helped me actually get one, and it’s because of this: learning to become okay with whatever the universe handed me took away my anxiety, which was one of the biggest blocks to getting what I wanted. Before, I wanted to transfer too much, to the point where it gave me anxiety that held my applications back. Now, I wanted to transfer just enough, to the point where I still worked extremely hard and fixed my mistakes from my initial rejection, but avoided the anxiety that would only block my path.
That’s when things started falling into place. I got into colleges that I wanted even more than the college from that first rejection– one that I once thought I could never get into. I also had been admitted to a summer institute with students from all around the world. I went to the reelection for the next chair of the organization of which I could no longer be the chair, and it was hard for me to register that I actually accomplished what I wanted. I could have given up after my first transfer rejection, but I pushed my anxiety to the side and continued to work hard. As a result, I finally got my goal. Because I had changed the lens through which I looked at my transfer, I didn’t think of it as a moment that proved that I was smart. I thought of it as the revelation that changed the definition of “potential.”
I realized that my potential is and always has been my attitude. My capacity to do well was defined by my responses to both success and failure. Intelligence barely played a role, and hard work could not play a role unless I had the right attitude.
Essentially, if there’s one piece of advice that I can give to anyone who has a goal, it is this: your attitude is your potential. If you make the choice to feel like you are going to succeed, then you are going to succeed. That said, don’t feel entitled to anything; get comfortable with the fact that what you want may not happen, and if it doesn’t, you can still succeed. That’s what I did by not feeling entitled to a transfer and realizing that staying at my current college would not have been the end of the world because I could have still been a chapter chair and had opportunities lined up.
People will tell you that you have potential to do whatever you want to do. Don’t get scared. Believe them, because you can do whatever you want to do, when you have the attitude to do whatever you want to do.