The Power of Potential

So I really like this Australian musician named Courtney Barnett who writes superb autobiographical songs with witty lyrics about everyday themes (e.g. house-hunting in “Depreston”). I mean, how often do you hear a lyric as perfect as “The paramedic thinks I’m clever ‘cause I play guitar/I think she’s clever ‘cause she stops people dying”? That one is from the excellently named “Avant Gardener”.
Her debut album is supposed to come out at the end of this month and I’m extremely excited for it.

However, I think a part of my excitement stems from the fact that nobody else I know is aware of Courtney Barnett yet so if she becomes very successful (as I expect) then I get that added ego boost and social credit of being aware of something before my peers.

Now before you go and call me a hipster, you should be made aware that this is a really common character trait. As this study by Tormala et al shows (http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2012-18069-001) “people often prefer potential rather than achievement when evaluating others” such that “the potential to be good at something can be preferred over actually being good at that very same thing”.

This peculiarity of human nature crops up in pretty much every area you can think of. I’ve often noticed it myself in sports, where people love to tout their knowledge of up-and-coming young players who they believe have the potential to make it big.

I do wonder if it would be possible to take advantage of this knowledge when applying for a job. Perhaps it would actually be a better idea to emphasise one’s potential rather than achievements? Or maybe it would be better still to list one’s achievements to date and then explain that this provides evidence of how one can be expected to have the potential of achieving even bigger things in the future.

I’m going to start paying attention to this characteristic more in myself (and others) now.  It’s possible that after Barnett’s debut is released I’ll end up being less enthralled by her work.
To be honest, I don’t really think that will happen in this case (both because she’s so great and because I’m now aware of this bias) but it’s certainly something I’ve done in the past and which I know many others have done too. How many times have you heard someone say “Oh, I liked their earlier stuff”? I mean, I’m pretty sure that was used as a gag in a McDonalds advert.

Anyway, here’s Barnett’s Tiny Desk concert for NPR. It’s exceptional.

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