The Potential to Have Potential

19 Dec

A quick keyword search of the word “potential” in the books collection at Amazon yields 35,937 results including such bestsellers as:

  • Boundless Potential: Transform Your Brain, Unleash Your Talents, Reinvent Your Work in Midlife and Beyond by Mark S. Walton
  • The Soul of Leadership: Unlocking Your Potential for Greatness by Deepak Chopra
  • The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth: Live Them and Reach Your Potential by John C. Maxwell
  • Achieve Your Full Potential: 1800 Inspirational Quotes that will Change Your Life by Change Your Life Publishing
  • Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential by Joel Osteen

Be it business, education, health and diet, parenting or investing, we are at no loss for advice on how to be our very best; how to reach our full potential.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines potential as “existing in possibility: capable of development into actuality.” Potential is the promise of everything that we could do or be or become.

In 1998, the Indianapolis Colts of the National Football League used their first pick in the draft to select Peyton Manning. The San Diego Chargers chose second, selecting Ryan Leaf. Prior to this draft, there was a great deal of discussion and analysis ad nauseum regarding the professional potential of these two young men. In my opinion, it’s probably the best example one can offer to show that potential is just that – potential. It is not without significance, but alone, it really proves little of nothing in terms of what a person will become. Even the most casual of football follower likely knows that Manning is a future first ballot Hall of Famer. Ryan Leaf, last I heard (early in the summer) was, sadly, off to jail. Again.


Bubble Rock, Mount Desert Island, Maine. Credit: dgrice

When I studied the concept of energy transfer in exercise physiology (probably physics, too), I learned about potential energy. It’s often described using the example of a boulder resting on the edge of a cliff or water at the top of a hill, before it goes over a waterfall (McArdle, Katch, and Katch, Essentials of Exercise Physiology, Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, 2006). The boulder and the water have to fall, in order for any transfer of energy (potential to kinetic) to occur. If someone cements the boulder in place or builds a dam above the waterfall, the energy will remain potential. Nothing but potential.

As I slogged my way through David Haynes’, Metadata for Information Management and Retrieval yesterday (Note: The use of the word “slogged” is a reflection upon the reader more so than the author of the text.), I underlined several passages that refer to the library profession’s attention to metadata, the debate(s) over the differences between creating metadata and cataloging resources, and the emerging place of metadata in the curriculum and syllabi of courses within information science degree programs. Haynes’ book was published in 2004. The debate, he writes, began in the 1990s. When I read this last statement, I wrote in the margins, “And it continues today.”

Talk about potential. In fact, talking about our potential seems to be exactly what we’ve been doing in this area for 20+ years. Talking. However, inroads made in educational programs and an entire new field, information science, have risen from the discussions, and the more traditional skills of librarians are now being augmented with ones that prepare them to work as informaticists, informationists, and/or metadata librarians. Small cracks in the dam are appearing, as we start to really tap into the potential once trapped upstream.

With an old year ending and a new one about to be upon us, it seems appropriate to both think and write about potential. I walked into work this morning in front of a few med students on their way to an exam. They were jokingly (I took it as a good sign) quizzing one another on different aspects of diabetes that they’d been studying. The beginning of a new semester always marks a time of great potential – things to learn, assignments to be done, projects to complete. The end marks the time when we can measure how well one lived up to his/her potential. When you look back on the previous months, did you learn everything you’d hoped? Did you make the best use of all of your time? Can you now, at the end of the class, clearly explain to another person what the subject is all about? Did you reach your full potential or do you look back with regrets?

The end of a calendar year is the same. We make all kinds of New Year’s resolutions, often based upon things that we wished we’d accomplished the year before. This striving to be better is what drives the self-help industry. So many people so deeply desire to reach a higher height. We want to be more fit, lose some weight, remember people’s names. We want a promotion or a raise, a better job, something that makes us feel like we’re making the most out of our days and our talents. We have so much potential.

We have so much potential.

Do you ever wonder why there are so many folks ready and willing to tell/sell you how to reach your potential? Is it, perhaps, because we so seldom fall off the cliff? Is it maybe that we like the dams that we’ve built to hold us in place?

Leaving the library, inserting one’s self into a research team, taking the risk to say you’ll do something that you may not be the most expertise in… these are acts of falling. Learning new skills, seeking out new challenges, and redefining our profession release our potential energy. They involve movement and action. They involve change. Perhaps the reason so many people make so much money off of our desires to change is because deep down, we really don’t want to change. And so we don’t. And we buy another book or join another gym.

Carol Dweck, the well-known Stanford psychologist and researcher (and author of a few self-help books), has devoted her career to studying mindsets, particularly fixed versus growth. Libraries, from both inside and out, have been saddled with a fixed mindset. I say “from both inside and out” because it isn’t librarians alone who have a fixed idea of what a library is. In fact, from where I sit (in an academic library), it’s often our patrons who have the more permanent idea of what a library is and what a librarian does. We often say, “They don’t have a clue what we do!” (I’m not going to go into why this might be. Not in this post, anyway.)

In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (How we can learn to fulfill our potential),  Dweck explains why those with a fixed mindset have such a difficult time taking risks. The reason, she states, is because “effort is only for people with deficiencies.” She goes on to say:

When people already know they’re deficient, they have nothing to lose by trying. But if your claim to fame is not having any deficiencies – if you’re considered a genius, a talent, or a natural – then you have a lot to lose. Effort can reduce you. (p. 42)

Truthfully, I don’t know many librarians who believe they are geniuses. I do, however, know a profession that believes it’s greatest value is expertise, particularly expertise in locating, organizing, and providing access to information. But the truth is that this expertise is valued less and less today. In a world of networked knowledge, knowledge itself is redefined. Everyone is an expert. (For more on this, read David Weinberger’s, Too Big to Know.) And so perhaps the biggest challenge we face as librarians and/or informationists is the challenge to put forth the effort; to take the risk that comes with trying.

We probably all know a person for whom we have said or heard, “She has so much potential.” Who knows? Perhaps it’s been said about you. Too often, I’ve noticed, we hear or say that phrase with a tone of regret. “She could have done so much here.” “He could have been so successful.” The “could haves” and “would haves” of life are often tied to untapped potential and untapped potential is often tied to lack of effort and/or the fear of taking a risk. The higher the cliff, the harder the fall.

Libraries and those of us who work in them are filled with potential. It’s my own hope that when I come to next December and I look back on my full year as an informationist, I will see that I’ve fallen down a lot.

(Find out more about Carol Dweck’s work, particularly as it relates to students and learning, at Mindset Works.)


3 Responses to “The Potential to Have Potential”

  1. Regina Raboin December 20, 2012 at 8:45 am #

    Thank you for this inspirational and thought-provoking entry. At the end of an always busy academic semester, it’s good and wise to reflect. Regina

    • salgore December 20, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

      Thanks, Regina! Happy Holidays!!


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