In coaching cheerleading, I like to say that potential at the beginning of the year is a great thing, but potential at the end of the year is not.

Potential is a dangerous word, but society sees it as a positive. This post is about how dangerous that is and why using this word can have unintended consequences.

I just picked up a copy of How to ADHD, and I haven’t even finished the first chapter. The author talks about potential. (As if I needed a clue that I have ADHD, I’ve already put the book aside to write this blog post.) She talks about how people kept on telling her she had so much potential.

I can resonate with this. When I was younger, I was told about my potential—my potential to do this or achieve that. I’m not young (despite what my mother implied this morning), and while I’ve had success, I’m not sure I’ve realized the level of potential that was expected by others and myself.

See, potential is an interesting thing. Potential means there is a possibility of becoming or developing into something in the future. It’s not a guarantee, but often, the implication is that achieving it is an effort dependent on the person or circumstances between now and some future date.

When applied to people, this is a really hard thing to hear. When someone says, “You have potential,” the expectation is that you will do great things. What if you don’t? Who’s fault is it? Usually, the implication is that you failed to reach your potential. The word “failed” in that sentence. That is a rough word to hear.

The truth is, failure is often not you. It can be situational. Your interests are also important. Maybe achieving that potential wasn’t important to you. Maybe you didn’t have the tools needed to reach your full potential, such as coaches, supplies, equipment, access to facilities, or something similar. Yet you are stuck with that word.

As a coach, I think back on the times that I have said this to a team. This might have put additional pressure on people, pressure that may have been unwelcome or unnecessarily stressful.

See, pressure is about expectations. It implies belief but puts too much responsibility on the individual. In my future coaching, I plan to talk more about belief and work on helping people discover their own potential. I can acknowledge potential but want to focus on support instead of calling it out.

Our world would be less stressed if we focused on supporting each other instead of recognizing and discussing potential.