Potential and the Growth Mindset

Something that I’ve come to assert time and time again, both here on John Chow dot Com and on my own blog at Beyond the Rhetoric, is that inspiration and key insights can be gleaned from practically anywhere. You can learn from Instagram models and South African super geniuses alike. And yes, you can learn from would-be professional gamers too.

Where’s Bobby Scar Now?

A few years back, I featured this guy named Bobby Scar (I don’t actually know his real name, but that’s what he called himself publicly) as part of my weekly Sunday Snippet series. At the time, he was a player that was better known for his skills in a game called Super Smash Bros. Melee, but he wanted to make some headway into the Street Fighter scene.

He appeared on an episode of Excellent Adventures with Gootecks and Mike Ross, a YouTube series where the guys play against online warriors for our entertainment and benefit.

Long story long, Mike Ross said that Bobby Scar had a lot of potential to be an exceptional Street Fighter player. Most people would have taken that comment as a compliment and as a form of encouragement. Having potential is certainly better than being told you’re clearly not cut out for this, and this can help boost your confidence.

However, Bobby quickly rebutted, “Potential is one of those words that is a double-edged sword… You never want to be the player with potential for too long.”

Because you need to “do work” and convert that “potential” into tangible benefits. Having potential doesn’t mean you’re actually any good at this game yet, whether the game is Street Fighter or blogging or Internet marketing or whatever else. It means that you could be successful, that you could be skillful, that you could be seen as the best at what you do… but you’re not there yet. And you can hardly take “could be” and “might be” to the bank.

The Danger of Potential and Praise

And here’s the thing that might turn out to be completely counter-intuitive. Being told that you have potential, being told that you could be great might actually hamper your ability to boost your skills and improve your lot in life. Being showered with praise early in your career could be counterproductive.

When you’re told that you’re pretty great (and you could be exceptional), you feel compelled to maintain that state so you can keep receiving that praise. As long as you keeping doing great, everything is fine. But as soon as you slip up, you start to doubt your ability and diminish your potential. And being the human being that you are, you tend to gravitate toward positive experiences and shield yourself from negative experiences.

So, instead of constantly pushing yourself forward and giving yourself a legitimate shot at fulfilling your potential, you shy away from risky situations. You become too afraid to stretch beyond your comfort zone, because you don’t want to risk messing up. So, you stick with what is safe. And when you stick with what is safe, you inherently limit your opportunity for growth.

Punched in the Face

And that is why we all need to embrace the growth mindset instead. The growth mindset understands that failure is inevitable, and failure in and of itself is not a negative thing. You have to understand and appreciate that in order to develop your talents and skills, in order to ascend that virtual ladder, you must be willing to face those challenges where you will likely make mistakes.

You’ll stumble and fall. Over and over again. You’re going to get punched in the face, and you’re going to take a beating. But that’s okay, because it is through all that falling and failing (and by picking yourself up again and again), that you are able to grow and improve. Failure is not something to be avoided. Welcome the challenge, learn from your mistakes, and keep pushing forward. Put in work.

Don’t be just the guy with potential. Be the guy who took his potential and actually did something with it.