Your Aptitude and Your Potential

Prodigies are fun because you think, “Wow, if they can play like that now, what are they going to be like when they’re adults?”  But prodigies aren’t fun because a lot of them burn out.  Child actors, child musicians, only a very few end up staying the person they were at a young age.


It’s nice to be able to predict a winner.  Everyone tries.  Marshall Crenshaw was touted as the next big thing in the early 80’s (He’s actually amazing, but have you ever heard of him?)


From my end, as much as I’ve done, and done well, almost no one ever told me I was going anywhere.  In high school my English teachers loved me, but that’s 9 million nerdy kids.  Only one guy ever said he thought I had real potential:


When I was 29, I played some of my compositions for my jazz piano teacher, and he got excited.  He said he thought they were better than the works of one of the composers who was currently a big deal on the Atlanta classical scene.  That was nice.

Notice that he praised me as a composer, not a jazz musician!  He didn’t think I was ever really going to amount to much in jazz.  And considering how I was playing back then, who could blame him?


The problem is that a lot of people look at aptitude as a measure of potential.  They see what you can do, or what they think you can do, and they use that to decide what you’re capable of doing.  They’re either too lazy or not competent to really judge.


Aptitude, your apparent ease in learning how to do something, is a very slippery concept.  Imagine someone whose brain was completely hardwired to be an amazing musician, except they’re deaf.  If you didn’t know about their hearing problem and you tested them on their aptitude, you’d conclude they were a musical idiot (because they wouldn’t be able to hear anything you played them!)


Yes, that’s an absurd example.  But what about someone with high anxiety who gets tested and is too nervous to be able to demonstrate their talent?  What about someone who’s brain hasn’t kicked in gear yet?


Springsteen, Elvis…according to their biographers, these guys were nothing special at age 13.  You wouldn’t have guessed if you’d known them.  They had a lot of potential, though, didn’t they?


Your potential is determined by a combination of your aptitude, your hard work and the quality of teachers you can find.  Any two of the three will take you a long way.  Nobody gets to decide how good you can be but you.


If you meet your hero, your favorite writer, your favorite musician, don’t assume that they’re going to recognize your talent.  If they could do that, they’d be editors and agents, not writers.  Many times the people who are like you can’t see you, and they’re competing against you anyway so why would they want to?


My point is that you may be the only one who knows your potential.  Don’t wait for someone to encourage you.  Instead, do your best for forty years and wait for someone to tell you they always knew you were going to make it big.

Adam Cole is a Jazz Musician Who Writes Books.  Fantasy author, music educator and performer, Adam chats weekly on the subject of listening, creativity and living your best life.  To take a quiz on what kind of music warrior you are, please visit

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