We unconsciously undervalue actual success at the expense of potential success.
Our universal preference for potential is to blame for the consistent failures of our sports teams. General Managers routinely graded as subpar are extensions of the fans. They give us what we want; we think we want success when what we actually want is hope, because with hope we have all the success our collective imagination can dream up.
This is the reason that arbitrary, no-name quarterbacks rise up draft boards at the expense of mountainous lineman who come to the pros with proven track records of high-level accomplishment. This is the reason upperclassmen fall off draft board cliffs while diaper dandies zoom into the NBA lottery. This is the reason great bands whose most egregious fault is familiarity fail to get the admiration of unfamiliar bands that could potentially become great.
Our allegiance to potential was made obvious in a series of inventive studies carried out by Stanford’s Zakary Tormala and Jayson Jia, and Harvard Business School’s Michael Norton. They ran studies that controlled for everything but potential success versus actual success.
In one study the participants played the role of pro basketball GM at contract time. There were two distinctions of players, players with potential and players with results. The players with potential came with a rundown of projections of potential statistics, while the other subset came with concrete statistics of how they have actually performed. The fake GMs acted much like the real GMs do, they (over) paid nearly a million more in annual salary to a player with potential than to one with precedence. The participants believed that the players with the highest potential would eventually score more, make more all-star games, win more games, and outperform the players with actual greatness across all relevant categories.
To prove their theory that potential outweighed reality, our researchers changed the profession from NBA player to team leader, with the only difference being years of experience.
And again those with more potential came out as the overwhelming choice. The potentials won regardless of the profession; chefs, writers, artists, even comics were rewarded for potential over actual results.
They compared click-through-rates on Facebook ads. One ad for a comedian had the tagline “everyone’s talking about him” and the other proclaimed “the next big thing.” The ad featured the same unknown comic and all other variables, except for the copy stayed the same, and the ad for the “next big thing” earned significantly more clicks.
This universal predilection for potential is why GMs consistently get away with selecting promising talent over guaranteed results.
Potential instills the hope that sells tickets.
This is the reason 5 rookie QB’s started on opening weekend in the NFL. Rookies ooze potential – a potential that is realized in our shared imagination. A rookie QB will develop into anything we can dream, he could be the love child of Peyton and Eli Manning, he could be an ambidextrous John Elway, he could be, well, that’s just it, he could be. In those two words exists our preference for potential. When we imagine the “could be” it’s always better than the actual.
I mean, what’s the point of dreaming if we imagine what’s actually going on.
And the trick about our imagination is that it can be massaged into dreams of grandeur rather easily. The Miami Dolphins are a perfect example of the myth of potential and the fan base’s unwavering digestion of the myth. With the 12th pick in the 2012 draft they selected a QB of little renown, Ryan Tannehill. They already had two serviceable – if not decent QB’s, in Matt Moore and David Garrard, but they drafted the potential over the actual, because as we’ve learned, potential sells. In a draft teeming with lineman and cornerbacks, two areas of need for the ‘Fins, they picked a player who would spark fan interest.
Next, and most important, is the peppering of stories that move along dreams of limitless potential. Local sports writers began mentioning Tannehill’s name in the same sentence as Dan Marino. Most likely at the request of the franchise and in exchange for an exclusive leaked story down the road. Lines like this began popping up online and in print:
“Ryan Tannehill, Miami’s first-round draft pick, is set to become the team’s first rookie quarterback to start a season. Not even Hall of Famers Dan Marino and Bob Griese can claim that honor…”
The mention of Ryan’s name alongside Dan Marino’s gives our collective imagination a boost. QB is the most important position on the field, so instilling the hope that a rookie QB could be Marino-like is pivotal. Because the fan base’s collective imagination is now fantasizing about the potential greatness of young Mr. Tannehill.
This buys the team 1-2 years of profiting off our love of potential. This is why teams like the Dolphins pass on players who could help immediately for players who could potentially become great. This is why when the potential shifts to the actual for these rookies we will be begging for new potential to replace them. Few ever live up to the potential we dream. And that’s why there are drafts and cuts.
It isn’t their intention to build a bad product. It is their intention to build a profitable model.
And since we buy potential over actual, we are to blame for their mistakes.
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