“Potential” is a Dirty Word for Twice Exceptional

How many times have you said, thought, or heard the words, “You’re not living up to your potential” Parents say this to their 2e children, teachers say it about their 2e students, and 2e adults hear it from others or even as negative self-talk based on what others have said to them. The idea that one person can tell another person what the culmination of their efforts should be, can drive someone to avoid developing those very abilities and skills. 2e People must stay true to themselves and understand that with a myriad of talents, the most important thing is to listen to yourself and develop what speaks to you and your own goals. Your true “potential” shouldn’t be based on other people’s agendas, but rather on your own interests and objectives.

The idea of potential, as defined by others, is often filtered through that other person’s assumptions, preferences, and priorities and can be toxic because it relies on someone else’s expectations about you. Somehow, when someone expresses what they think you should become or be able to accomplish, it becomes the only thing you should strive toward. The person likely thinks they are doing you a favor because celebrating gifts and abilities is not a bad thing. But defining a particular strength as the thing you should strive toward, narrows your “potential.” 

Twice exceptional people – no matter the age – have incredible abilities. Sometimes passions and interests are obvious to the 2e person. But at other times, passions and interests develop over time. Laser focusing on one talent – usually because the person demonstrates ability in school – narrows the person’s focus or causes them shame if they don’t further develop that interest. That’s where the “shoulds” come in. 2e people, based on others’ opinions, often carry around unhealthy statements like, “I should be spending more time on this.” “I should like this more.” “I should be better at this.” When they don’t actualize this “potential,” they are labeled “lazy” and “unmotivated.” This process may lead to what is known as “gifted underachievement.”

Why does someone else get to determine your end goal? Why should you have only one end goal? 2e people have vast abilities and interests. Defining “potential” by something you should be doing in a particular environment (school or work), or in a particular way (at a job or to win accolades), sucks the life out of that very interest. If a 2e person is compliant, their parent, teacher, or boss may be happy, but doing something for someone else’s purpose leads to burnout and depression.  “Compliance” in this situation is avoidance. The 2e person avoids a confrontation because they feel there is an authority in their potential being defined for them. 

How can 2e people find the strength, in the face of others’ expectations, to define their own potential? This question is harder for 2e children. Children don’t usually have the self-confidence or independence to push back in the face of someone telling them what they ought to do based on a perceived ability. Children lack the perspective to know what options they have or that it’s okay to think about, try, and change passions and interests. So let’s talk about what parents and teachers can do vis-a-vis their 2e learners and then what adults can do to develop, cultivate, and celebrate talents in order to motivate the 2e person.

Parents and Teachers

Identifying a child’s interests and passions is a great thing to do! Just avoid making everything about those interests and passions. Giving the child choices and researching together ways to do the thing the child likes (art, music, math, writing, etc), is a great way to explore that interest. Pay more attention to how the child approaches their demonstrated talent than to a final decision about what they “should” do. For instance, if the child shows great musicality, do they like the rhythm, the performance, the practice? If they demonstrate proficiency in math, are they excited over the concepts or computation? Paying attention to the actual skill, the way they think, or the way they approach a task or problem, might give insight into how they like to work, or when they want to make efforts. Instead of identifying that a child who critically thinks should become an attorney, perhaps talk more about their analytical approach to problem-solving. Where are all the places that they can apply those skills? This gives the child a broader perspective of their abilities and allows for a wide selection of interests and exploration.


If you’ve been living your life trying to meet others’ expectations, it’s hard to break away from that pattern. It’s important to do some serious introspection. Think about when your brain feels totally engaged. It can be general like, “when I’m outside,” “when I’m writing,” “when I’m fixing something,” or “when someone asks me for advice.” Consider what the skills are that make you enjoy these processes or approaches. Spend time doing things that allow you to enter flow – that total engagement in an activity when you lose track of time, or when you don’t mind that you are spending time doing this thing. If that’s hard for you to determine, start paying attention to communities and groups. What meetups are in your area? It is not for you to join but for you to see how others spend their time. Start asking people at work what they do as hobbies, or what they love about their work or their hobbies. Expose yourself to others’ passions. 

If you’ve been living inside someone else’s definition of your potential, you need to unlearn a lot and broaden your perspective. Another way to learn about other choices for yourself is to go to a library or a bookstore and look at how the books are organized. There are topics that you might find yourself drawn toward that might help you uncover latent interests. Since you are working on interests that may be deeply buried, you might not know right away what speaks to you. You’ve been living in an unhealthy pattern for so long. Give yourself time to pay attention to what speaks to your inner self. It may take some time to uncover concepts and endeavors that truly spark your abilities. Consider making a spreadsheet of all the topics and rating them from one to ten according to interest. Wait a week or a month and think about your ranking again. As you open yourself up to other possibilities, you may be more available to consider some of these activities or passions.  

If you hear comments like “you aren’t living up to your potential,” consider pushing back and asking what that person thinks is your potential, and whether this is accurate for you. Think about your personal and professional goals. Within those goals, consider what actions might move you toward those goals, and what part of those efforts most excite you. This is how you uncover interests and passions. 

You are the only one who can define your potential. To determine that potential you must understand why you are drawn toward something and away from others. What skills do you have and what approach do you prefer? Once you have a deeper understanding of how your brain works and when you feel engaged, you’ll be better positioned to determine what activities require that approach. And remember, even if you land on one thing today, that might change down the road. If you have many interests and passions, focusing on how you do things, rather than what you do, will help you identify various ways to apply your strengths.

Julie F. Skolnick M.A., J.D.
Author: Julie F. Skolnick M.A., J.D.

Julie Skolnick, M.A., J.D., is the Founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, LLC, through which she passionately guides parents of gifted and distractible children, mentors 2e adults, and collaborates with and advises educators and professionals on bringing out the best and raising self-confidence in their students and clients.

Picture of Julie F. Skolnick M.A., J.D.

Julie F. Skolnick M.A., J.D.

Julie Skolnick, M.A., J.D., is the Founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, LLC, through which she passionately guides parents of gifted and distractible children, mentors 2e adults, and collaborates with and advises educators and professionals on bringing out the best and raising self-confidence in their students and clients.

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