Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Pay Achievements Heed, Not Potential

Written by johnleemk on 12:17:24 am Apr 17, 2007.
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Men have an unfortunate habit of measuring their fellows not by their achievements, but by their potential. When we see someone is intelligent, brilliant and charismatic, we can't help but see him as a great man, even if he has virtually no real achievements to his name.

Take examination results, for instance. In many countries, you are seen as having made it if you can score well in an exam. Exam-obsessed societies, especially those in Asia, don't often seem to realise that all these exams do is measure potential — if you can't hack it in the real world, your exam results are meaningless.

If you have a string of As to your name, it does not make you intelligent, clever or knowledgeable. It indicates you may be intelligent, clever or knowledgeable — but whether you can apply that intelligence and knowledge is a whole different matter.

Can you present your ideas in a clear and effective manner? Do you have any ideas at all? Even if you intend to go into academia, in academia, it is research that matters, not examinations.

Credentialism is a common and ugly result of our intense but unwarranted focus on potential, as opposed to results. We look to see what university you came from, what your grade point average was, but these indicators are only, at best, necessary factors. They are not sufficient to justify saying "Ah, here's someone who has done/can do something."

Look at leaders who have had the potential but can't necessarily lead. In Malaysia, there's Hishamuddin Hussein and Khairy Jamaluddin — two men with degrees from prestigious universities, and impeccable political pedigree.

Has this made them brilliant leaders? Far from it — both are known for their penchant for making racist statements rather than much actual leadership.

Or look at the former Malaysian Prime Minister himself, Mahathir Mohamad. The man is smart — he's a prolific author, reads a lot, knows what he's doing, and knows what he's talking about.

But does this in itself make him a good leader? What fruits did his leadership bear? The economic development during his administration would have occurred under any leader who let the country be carried by the rising tide of development in the early 1990s.

The main mark of Mahathir's administration was his outrageous statements that sometimes made Malaysia an international pariah, and and his insane megaprojects designed to massage his ego without yielding much real benefit. Even those that might have been necessary, such as a new administrative centre, have not been planned well.

If someone has a degree from Harvard, does that make them another John F. Kennedy? Certainly not. George W. Bush has a Harvard degree, and look where that got him and his country.

Meanwhile, you can come from nowhere, and you can succeed. Michael Dell, the founder of one of the largest personal computer companies in the world, did not have anything to mark him as a corporate leader and innovator — his business was set up while he was studying at some relatively unknown university.

Don't get carried away by the potential that is represented in some people. Potential is one thing, but actually exercising and realising it is another.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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