When I was growing up, my mother believed I was a prodigy; the only problem was, she didn’t yet know at what.
It started with the piano. On a Monday afternoon in the late 90s, I was deposited on the doorstep of a Mr. Wayne Miller, greeted by the sounds of disembodied barking and tortured scales. Wayne, as he urged me to call him, had long white hair, a lovely demeanor, and not a disciplinary bone in his body. He believed in something called positive reinforcement, which seemed to mean that his cupboard was always full of candy.
Four years of Mondays passed, and Wayne and I developed an understanding. Before coming to the bench, I would spend no less than ten minutes on the floor petting Fluffy the decrepit Shih Tzu, on whom I had forced a begrudging friendship. There would be a bowl of Sour Skittles waiting for me, perched on top of the pile of exercise books. A few months into our lessons, I told him I would prefer not to read music. The next week, he had translated the black and white symbols on the sheet music into letters of the alphabet and labeled each key with masking tape. On particularly sunny days, I spent the entire hour in his backyard, reading Judy Blume books and sipping ginger ale. I left each lesson, vibrating with sugar, no more musically capable than when I had arrived.
At home, I refused to practice, likely because my mother didn’t keep sugary snacks in the house. My mother would stand over me as I struggled through Ode to Joy, unable to comprehend my obvious lack of talent. On one particularly bad recitation, she told me she wasn’t going to send me to lessons anymore unless I would practice every day. Fine, I shouted, I don’t want to play the piano anyway. That Monday, she picked me up from school and drove straight home. As we approached Wayne’s street, my mouth began to water. But my mother kept right on driving. Where are we going? I asked, my mouth full of saliva. Home, she answered. You don’t want to play the piano. I sulked in the backseat. It was true. I didn’t want to play the piano, but that was only because I couldn’t play the piano. I wanted to play an instrument I could play. How could she not understand that?
Around the same time that I began to reveal my mediocrity at piano, my mother signed me up for ballet and gymnastics classes. Ballet was wonderful. We danced with scarves in a church basement and I got to wear a tutu, which I then proceeded to wear to preschool for a year. After two blissful years, my teacher brought us all to a classroom on the second floor. If you want to continue with our studio, she said, this is where you will be dancing from now on. I peered into the studio and saw rows of knobby-kneed girls in identical leotards, their hands on the bar, moving like graceful robots. I quit the next day. I stayed in gymnastics for another year after quitting ballet, until my instructors finally told my mother that I was simply too tall and I would never be a serious gymnast if I was afraid to do a split. (I had recently screamed YOU’RE GOING TO BREAK MY VAGINA when an instructor had attempted to push me deeper into my split.)
Late childhood was marked by a suite of instruments and activities, each less successful than the next. Guitar made my fingers hurt, and painting just made me angry. At hip-hop dance class, I was all knees and elbows. My teacher located my awkwardness in my outfits (a series of filmy skirts in shades of brown that had ended up in the clearance bin of a nearby dance supply outlet) and told me I should buy sweatpants. As it turned out, my inability to drop it low had nothing to do with how I dressed. I stayed with opera for longer than any of the other activities; it was my mother who finally withdrew me, unable to sit through one more pre-teen aria.
By the time I hit high school, my mother had all but given up on uncovering my hidden talent, but by then I had internalized her mantra of potential. Over four years, I tried out for and was cut from nearly every sports team my high school offered. As a freshman it was easy to pass it off as lack of experience, but as I got older, more experienced but no more talented, it became harder and harder to convince myself that I was anything but uncoordinated.
When I was seventeen years old, I read Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother for class. My classmates balked at her extreme parenting tactics, which included forcing her daughter to stay at the piano bench until she peed herself, but all I could think about was the unused piano in our living room. When my mother got home that night, I was waiting at the kitchen table. Why did you let me quit the piano? I demanded. My mother shrugged. I was just trying to be a good mother, she said. I wanted you to find what you were good at, and it didn’t look like it was going to be piano. She offered to sign me up for piano lessons again, but I told her it was too late. I would never be good at piano, or ballet or gymnastics for that matter.
When I arrived at Princeton, I began to have this feeling a lot, that maybe it was already too late for me. Growing up, there was always the promise that the next activity would be the one, but when I came here I started to lose that sense of limitless possibility. My classmates were already more accomplished than I could ever hope to be. They were concert pianists, Olympic athletes, and classically trained singers. They wrote plays and coded apps and I could barely remember the first line of Ode to Joy. If I was going to be good at something, I needed to figure out what it was and fast.
Much of this anxiety stems from a desire for perfection, but I think it has its roots in this notion of potential. At Princeton, we’re constantly reminded of our potential. Buildings are named after the ones who did something with it, and they’ve left room on the walls Firestone’s Trustee Room for your name. The oft-repeated motto of “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations” reminds us that we are obliged to do something impactful with the potential that the admissions department saw in us. You have the raw mental horsepower. You can be the best.
With this ethos of limitless potential comes the threat of wasting it. But what happens to wasted potential? Does it have an expiration date, or does it remain, nebulous and anxiety producing, affixed to your painfully average life? Once we leave here, we will be expected to realize this potential. No more waiting around for the instrument you’re good at. No more teams to try out for after you get cut. When we leave here, potential will solidify into talent, which will translate into genius, which will write your name on the walls. Or it won’t. For every one extraordinary alumnus, there are hundreds of average ones. Despite everything that our parents told us, despite all of Princeton’s assurances, most of us will not be famous. More likely than not, we will go on to live successful, maybe even happy, but ultimately ordinary lives. So why does this scare us so much?