Conventional wisdom holds that in order to stand out, it is important to highlight your achievements.
Findings from a study conducted by researchers at Harvard and Stanford University suggest taking a different strategy. If someone is writing a letter of recommendation on your behalf, request that they underscore your potential. The study found that people are more impressed when they hear about what a candidate is capable of doing in the future rather than dwelling on what they have done in the past. In the study, a painting by an artist who was described as having the potential to win a major art prize was preferred over the work of an artist who had already won a major art prize. A rookie basketball player who demonstrated great potential was preferred over an accomplished more seasoned player who had been in the NBA for five years. Advertisements for a comedian who “could become the next big thing” versus “has become the next big thing” generated far more interest as measured by click rate. Applicants to a Ph.D. program with letters of recommendation emphasizing potential over achievement were considered more appealing.
These findings have broad implications for how we market ourselves and, perhaps more importantly, for how we think about ourselves. Do we dwell on the past and on what we have done or do we focus on the future and imagine what is possible?