Last year, researchers at Stanford and Harvard discovered people seem consistently more interested in potential achievement than actual accomplishment.

A comedian's advertisment that reads "critics say he could become the next big thing" generated more clicks on Facebook than the same ad reworded to say "critics say he's become the next big thing."

A hypothetical rookie athlete with a potential for incredible stats is offered an NBA a contract with a higher 6th year salary than the athlete who's already played for 5 years, actually generating those same stats.

A sample job application listing no work experience and a very high score on leadership potential is rated more favorably than the same application, but with 2 years of job experience added to demonstrate actual leadership roles have been taken.

The secret, according to the researchers, is uncertainty. People are consistently drawn toward the unknown and are fascinated by possibility more than reality. The implication is, 'you're better off advertising your potential than your achievements.'

However, I have a tough time reconciling this concept with real world observations. Sylvester Stallone made a lot more money after turning 'Rocky' into a box office smash than before. Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell get paid much more to speak now than before unleashing their best-selling books. Peyton Manning's salary is higher than Andrew Luck's.

I suspect there are some amazing lessons in this research, but it's also not as black and white as we might like.

What do you think? Are you fascinated more by potential or achievement? Do you prefer to digest articles that have already been read all around the world, or do you find it more interesting to consider the potential of our words right here, right now, in this article, and to think that even this could go viral?


You're likely to enjoy the original research here. The HBR has also written a good synopsis here.

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