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1: People Should Work And Play To Their Full Potential vs. How To Live Beneath Your “Potential

Super Joy Thinking: There is no such thing as “human potential.” When we pressure ourselves to do all that we should be able to do, we fail to fully experience and enjoy what we are doing.

The mother and father had waited for what seemed like hours to see the teacher of their kindergarten daughter. As they nervously took their seats, the teacher uttered the words the young parents had feared most on this parent/teacher conference night.

“I’m afraid Molly is not working up to her potential,” said the teacher as he turned to the parents with a stack of what were in his opinion Molly’s below-potential work samples to support his evaluation.

The parents were at the same time flattered and frustrated. They were happy that the teacher somehow knew of the genetic gift they had given their child, for they felt that this reflected positively on the heredity of their respective families. They also felt frustrated and guilty, for they thought that they must not be fulfilling their “potential” as parents, failing to help their daughter fulfill her genetic destiny.

As the teacher documented his case, he leaned forward and added in a soft voice so parents of children without potential could not hear, “I don’t want to get your hopes up, but I don’t think we even know your daughter’s full potential.” The mother and father felt guilty again, as if their daughter were taking up the potential of other children or as if they were missing something they should have identified in their child.

Unknowingly, this teacher was creating a white whale for these parents’ evolving Ahab complex. The parents and teacher were now in agreement, and they plotted a stressful course to make Molly “live up to her potential or even her potential potential,” and for her parents to live up to their parental potential. But what is this potential we all seem to be trying to work up to? Our psychology of deficit, sickness, and the prevention of mental illness has been based on the false concept of “potential.” Joyology suggests that the “potential” concept is a creation of mental health sciences, particularly the testing movement. All tests are designed to measure “potential,” yet there has never been a test that could perform such a measurement.


The dominance of the testing movement in our society has seduced us into thinking that test scores “are” potential. Test scores are simply numbers used to arrange people in order from “less to more” on some arbitrary scale.

Aptitude tests are not “apt to do” tests at all, but they do become “ought to do” tests. Tests are really only sets of mini-puzzles that measure something of what we have already learned and what we can do right now.

If Albert Einstein, one of the greatest geniuses of our time, were to take a test to measure his potential, it is likely we would find that he had no potential at all. Einstein failed miserably on simple tests, and simple arithmetic baffled him. He was labeled an educational failure at an early age. There is not a test that could measure the “potential” of an Einstein, and there are no tests that could measure little Molly’s potential.

Intelligence testing is based on the idea of potential, a concept borrowed from physics. In physics, potential refers to the position of an object, as when a weight is suspended and in position to fall.

In this case, potential is a type of “dropability index.” Tests ranging from the Army Alpha intelligence test to the Stanford-Binet and Wechsler intelligence tests are all intended to measure potential, ignoring the fact that people are not objects suspended in space. People are constantly changing, and there is no single factor that predicts brilliance of any type. If we persist in the pursuit of our potential, we only end up suspending ourselves in space, waiting for our potential to be released. We miss out on the power of the present when we focus so much on the pressure of potential.

Constant change and adaptation of educational and life plans are essential to any good teaching, parenting, living, and working, as is the providing of challenge and opportunity. Assigning potential or making decisions based on assumed potential has the counter effect of restricting rather than expanding our overall development and potential for joy.

To use the word “intelligence” as singular is to make a major mistake, for there are an infinite number of and varieties of “intelligences.” By measuring one type, we automatically ignore the presence of all the other faces of intellect. Multiple personality is an extremely rare mental illness, but to have multiple intelligences is a human trait. Super joy depends on keeping all of our intelligences operating and not searching for an ever-elusive human potential factor.

When we turn ourselves over to the testers, we destroy our super joy, for tests do not speak the language of happiness. Instead, tests speak the language of the left side of the brain: words and numbers in the abstract. Many of my patients complain that they were too early limited by some well-intentioned teacher or counselor who “knew their potential” through some analysis of a battery of tests. It is no coincidence that we use the phrase “battery of tests,” almost in the sense of “assault and battery.” There can be no joy when we chase the ghost of what we ought to be able to do.

If we must speak of potential, let us ask a different question. The key question is, “What is your dream?” Were you ever asked that question in school? I am not referring to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I am referring to the question, “How do you want to be when you grow up?”

Imagine a world where children answered “Happy” to the question, “How do you want to be when you grow up?” In preparing this book, I asked this question of fifty of the children of my patients. The children ranged in age from four to fifteen and were equally split as to gender. In response to the “How do you want to be?” question, every one of the fifty children responded with a career or activity plan of some type. Not one responded with an emotion such as “Happy” or “In love.” One further warning about the robbing of joy by the focus on human potential. What we are good at is not always what we are joyful at. A common myth of the sick psychology movement is that doing well at something must mean we enjoy doing it. Success or competence is not a measure of joy, only of effort and practice. If all we seek is success, all we will have is effort. Super joy involves the knowledge that you can fulfill your dreams, but you can never fulfill the false expectations of society’s view of your potential or your own self-assigned potential, which becomes a “white whale” for you rather than an opportunity for growth.

“Question 1: People Should Work And Play To Their Full Potential vs. How To Live Beneath Your “Potential” is an extract from Super Joy, the New York Times bestseller by Paul Pearsall, Ph.D, now available in paperback from Amazon and other bookstores, and on Kindle, Nook, and iTunes.

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