I don’t know WHY this occurred to me the other day, but I suddenly got super angry, about “potential.”
I think in part I started thinking about it because of a “This American Life” story that affected me pretty deeply, and I still don’t fully understand why. If I tried to retell the story, it would take forever, so I’ll limit it to the part that impacted me. A young man from the Bronx gets a full scholarship to a reputable college in Massachusetts. He then promptly fails out, because he can’t afford his books, and he’s embarrassed about it, and he has no one around him who believes in him, and he was raised by a foster mother who constantly told him what a piece of shit he is. So he fails out, goes home, and tells his mom she was right. He’s a piece of shit.
This made me ANGRY. Very, very angry. And sad.
Why? It’s not my story, and yet, I related to it on this very deep level, as if it were my story, but my story is so different. I went to the top school, I graduated, I got a good job.
The main thought I had was, this is so fucking unfair. And then I thought of UVA Law School, where I went. It’s a top ten law school — and I absolutely hated it.
I found the student body at UVA incredibly off-putting. Everyone was so self-important, and at the same time desperate to prove how smart they were. Every class was torture for me, a bunch of students who just wanted to hear themselves talk; I zoned out 90% of the time, except during my contracts class, because our professor wouldn’t let us take our laptops into his classroom.
I thought of the students at UVA because of how fucking delusional they are. And it’s not just them, by the way, they’re just who came to mind. They truly believed they were among the cream of the crop; smarter than most, better than most, more talented than most.
Nope. Not with the unequal, distorted playing field we have. I wanted to tell them, there are so many people who would leave you in their dust — but because they aren’t as lucky as you are, you’ll never be faced with that reality.
I thought also of Otis, a homeless man I used to teach creative writing to at the NYC Rescue Mission. Otis was about 40, in decent shape, stoic and quiet. He would drag himself into my class with zero enthusiasm, never smiling, and every fiber of him indicating “I’m only here because I was told I have to be.”
There was more going on under the surface with Otis, though. One day I gave them an assignment to write a scene about a character that was entirely different from them (because I found that, in most of their stories, the main character always ended up being a carbon copy of who they were).
Otis wrote about an old woman who lived alone. She was sitting on her porch in a rocking chair, contemplating the live she didn’t live. He didn’t say that, either, it’s just what he conveyed with the scene he painted — the woman alone on the porch in a tattered robe, the lines on her face, the spots on her hands, the wind chilly and restless. It was really good.
I remember getting angry then. This is such BULLSHIT. This man doesn’t deserve the life he’s living. He grew up poor, with an abusive father, around drugs. He never had anyone around him say “you’re amazing” or “I believe in you.”
Could he have “gotten responsible” and done something different with his life? Sure, with a lot of effort. A LOT of effort. Effort that other people – who didn’t get served such a raw deal – will never have to expend to have twenty times what he has.
Okay, so how does this relate to my anger about “potential”?
Well, first, everyone has potential. Literally everyone. What distinguishes us from each other is NOT potential. We ALL have it.
Instead, what distinguishes us is that some people BELIEVE they have potential (an empowering belief) — and some don’t.
I can see that Otis could be at UVA law (for example), doing fantastic, schooling everyone. Otis can’t. And that makes me infuriated, because I just don’t think that’s his fault, that he can’t see it.
If you don’t believe you have potential, what action do you take? Almost none.
What I would want to tell Otis — and that young man from the Bronx from the story — is that there is NO difference between you and the people who are much more successful than you. NO difference. I feel like, if they knew that, they would suddenly wake up, say this is bullshit, and quickly surpass everyone.
Jimmy sometimes makes comments that concern me, like when I use a “big word,” such as “discernible,” which I used casually over text this morning. He said something like: “Slow down there, college graduate, I haven’t had my coffee yet.” Jimmy went to a two-year college. It never even occurred to me that he would have any disempowering beliefs around being “smart,” because to me it is so clear that he is very smart, and yet sometimes he makes comments like that and I realize maybe he does. From my perspective, he’s smarter, wiser and more insightful than most people I know — but does he see that? Or does the lack of a four-year college degree, something society says “smart” people have, actually affect his view of himself, no matter what the truth is?
He may resent me saying this, but he grew up pretty damn poor. His parents didn’t go to college, his father was a blue-collar guy that worked night shifts, printing papers for the New York Times. So what, you might say. He could’ve gotten a college scholarship or something, right? No, not if you don’t believe that’s a future that’s available to you.
I guess I just really HATE that some people have it as the truth that certain futures are just not available to them.
I went to Jamaica with my sister and her friends during LP. It was fun. One night, we went out to a karaoke bar. By that time, I had been singing for about four years, and I had been to many karaoke bars. I had never sung in front of my sister, though, and she never knew me to be a singer at all (I started as an adult). After I sang, something great happened — she wanted to sing, too. She got up and sang “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and she was a little shaky, but it was really sort of sweet, her voice has a sweet tone, and I thought to myself, maybe this is the beginning of something. She even had her husband take a video. I feel like, after seeing me embrace this new talent, she sort of wanted to see if maybe she had it, too.
She sent the video to my mom. My mom joked about how awful she was. My sister later referenced my mom’s comments when she told me later that clearly she was not a singer.
So, all of that is bullshit. I know this better than anyone, because I “couldn’t sing” either. And look, I don’t think I’ll ever be Adele, but I do believe I have a nice voice. Now. I didn’t start there, I started EXACTLY where she was when she got up and sang “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” The ONLY difference between me and her is that I got in my head that I have potential as a singer. With that belief, one day I decided to seriously pursue it. That’s all.
I tried to tell her that, but, she didn’t even hear me. That’s how strong our beliefs are, they’re like brick walls — we really do have them as the truth.
I digress, though, how does this affect ME? What is the thing I think I can’t do?
The fact that I’m having trouble answering that question — and I know that there IS an answer, it’s not “nothing” — tells me how deeply buried my answer is.
So, that’s my self-assigned task for the week. Answer that question.