Potential vs Achievement: How to Stand Out

One of my favorite quotes was sung by Ella Fitzgerald:

It isn’t where you came from; it’s where you’re going that counts.

If Ella says it, it must be true. And it is. We have long assumed that the strongest candidates for anything — job or college placement — are those with résumés that are jam packed with their awards, experiences, and extraordinary accomplishments. That in order to stand out, we need to showcase our achievements.

Not so fast. A study by researchers at Harvard and Stanford yielded some surprising results about how we assess other people’s talent. It turns out that potential is far more appealing than achievement.

The study explored the preference for potential over achievement across a wide variety of settings. 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. A painting by an artist who was described as having potential to win a major art prize was preferred over the work of an artist who had already won a major art prize. 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.

Of course, just having potential isn’t enough. The study’s authors recognized that, in order to be taken seriously, you have to be a contender in the first place. In other words, potential needs to be backed up by substance. As the researchers write:

Having a horrible performance history but good potential…is unlikely to outweigh having a good performance history.

They also theorize that when a person’s achievements are truly outstanding – think Michael Jordan or Roger Federer — a preference for potential over achievement is canceled out.

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?

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman