Strong opinions, weakly held

One dangerous idea

The Edge Foundation’s question for 2006 is, “What is your dangerous idea?” They explain:

The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?

As usual, they’ve gathered answers from bunches of smart people, some of whom you’ve heard of. I, of course, was not invited to contribute, so I’ll publish my answer here.

Everybody reaches their potential.

My idea is that when you take all factors into account, everybody reaches their potential. Take, for example, the 6’11” guy who works at the gas station. People will say they didn’t live up to their potential, that they could have been a famous basketball player if only they had been willing to work at it. Or that the brilliant but difficult programmer who never contributes what they could to a project because they’re too stubborn to mesh with a team squanders their intellectual gifts.

My hypothesis is that those personality traits are just as important as the physical traits in assessing what a person accomplishes. Socially, we are biased toward the short guy who works his butt off to make it in basketball rather than the tall guy who just goes through the motions, under the notion that character is a personal choice whereas height is beyond one’s control.

This idea is dangerous because it undermines the basic sense that everyone should work to make the most of themselves. However, nobody really can predict their potential, so everyone should probably live under the assumption that the sky’s the limit. I think that the concept of squandered potential is more useful as a motivational tool than as a description of reality.


  1. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the movie “A Bronx Tale” with (and by) De Niro, but the whole movie kind of revolves around that concept and one of it’s most memorable lines in fact is:

    “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”

    It’s a pretty nice movie, I’d recommend it.

    However, nobody really can predict their potential

    You can’t know it with absolute certainty, but potential is more like the probability-distribution for alternative “timelines”, and so I think there’s certainly some value in (squandered) potential for describing reality.

  2. “Character is destiny” — though I can’t remember who said it first.

  3. Heraclitus, apparently.

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