Who gets to decide how much "potential" I have in me? My report cards in grammar/junior high/high school were very consistent: nearly every one noted that "Susan is not working up to her potential." (The corollary to that, appearing nearly as often, is "Susan has a bad attitude," but that's another post.) My entire school career was thus characterized by failure. I should be doing better in class, but I'm not. I should be a better citizen, but I'm not.
The point is, in graduate school, I get a lot of feedback about my potential. (Another aside: I had no obvious potential as an undergraduate. Mostly my professors wished I wouldn't sleep so much in class. I'm not making that up.) I understand that professors like students who show up on time for class, do the reading, fill in the awkward silences in seminars, and compose grammatical sentences in their research papers. And I do like getting feedback on my work, and it is nice to know that I don't sound like a complete idiot when I hold forth in class. Still, once someone starts making positive sounds about a student's work, there's always that specter of "failing to live up to one's potential" hovering in the background.
It's so easy to not live up to your potential in graduate school, maybe because so many people have so much invested in your success. If I listed off the number of people who have some sort of aspirations for my academic career, I'd be here all night. Everyone seems to have somehow magically assessed my potential for academic success, and part of me would love to fail just to make people think twice about the assumptions they make about me. If I could figure out a way to do it without losing my student health insurance, I'd probably give it a try.