Is there such a thing as an overachiever?

This post is from the 2012 drafts.  I think I was annoyed with people calling my kid an over-achiever, and annoyed with being called an over-achiever as a child.  I think I get less of that now (I’m achieving less?)… but I’ve tried to finish off this post anyway so we have something to post for Monday!

There’s achievement.

And there’s underachievement.

Pretty much everyone is an underachiever.  Nobody is going to reach their fullest potential– that requires the optimal amount of effort and the best luck.  That’s just really unlikely to happen.

But you can still achieve a lot as an underachiever.  And quite possibly be happy because achievement isn’t everything!

How do we define achievement anyway…

And here’s a line I have no idea where I was going with this:  “maybe watching videos helps maximize the whole person even if you go over the amount necessary to maximize your work-life…”  Like… what?

Oh I bet I know!  I bet I was using watching videos as an example of goofing off and not trying to optimize achievement.

How do we define achievement anyway?  Maybe goofing off by watching youtube videos helps to provide happiness, even if it doesn’t optimize some measure of work-life balance, which is a stupid concept anyway.

What are your thoughts on the concept of “over-achievement”?  What is achievement anyway?


27 Responses to “Is there such a thing as an overachiever?”

  1. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    I think I define achievement a lot more loosely or more generously these days. I consider survival an achievement! Like, that’s a thing which can be so hard to do sometimes but you did it, so yay.

    But also I’m still currently far enough away from the very goal oriented specific metrics academic (K-12) life to maintain what I consider a healthier perspective than when I was measuring achievement like stacking blocks and needing to stack as many blocks as so and so or feeling inadequate because I had fewer blocks than my friends, etc. I think it’s going to be hard for me to stay balanced when JB and Smol get through high school, I felt ok going through HS at the time because I’d buried my emotions but it’s going to feel a lot harder this go round when I’m empathizing with them or worrying for them, and I’m supposed to feel the emotions that come up and not shove them into the metaphorical box.

    Also I guess it’s hard to be honest and fair about what under-achieving means now. There are what seem to be the obvious, like my brother when he was still in school and now in his life where he’s incapable of self support, and there are my relatives at the other end of the spectrum who have earned white coats and are out there taking care of people.

    I fall somewhere in between and that part feels harder to define. I used to be way more driven but I choose not to be anymore. Am I underachieving because I’m prioritizing life over career? Am I underachieving because I don’t even want a career anymore once I have enough to retire on? I don’t really think so. I did a whole lot of that traditional stuff, fighting for the As, fighting my way up the ladder, fighting to be heard and respected in my field. I have the ear of the head of the company even if I’m not the tippy top boss and I’m not trying to find a way to leapfrog anymore. I’m good where I am as long as they keep paying me more money. I always thought that stagnation, or settling into a rut was underachieving but now that I’m making that choice, it seems like a sensible choice.

  2. EB Says:

    Overachieving has two meanings. A while back, and when talking about school, children were said to be overachievers because their academic attainment was higher than their underlying intelligence would predict. And that was taken to indicate that either they pushed themselves extra hard, or else some external person or factor was pushing them hard. The idea was that this situation would not last, and that these children would not “achieve” as much in life as they did in school. This dynamic could also be applied to other fields — especially music and sports.

    Now, overachieving has come to mean simply (or in addition) the habit of working really hard and getting a lot done. Maybe from some sense of responsiblity, or ambition, or as a hangover from having been an overachiever in that former sense.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I think that first derogatory meaning has always been thrown at the second set of people. People like cutting down tall poppies. And overachieving is a terrible adjective for something that’s actually abuse. The problem isn’t the outcome but the process in that situation. Achieving from steroids isn’t a problem, taking steroids is a problem.

      • EB Says:

        Not sure I entirely agree, speaking as someone who was once K-6 teacher. There really were children who worked so hard that they got all A’s (or “excellent,” or “proficient” or whatever the current term was. But there was also a realization that some such children were likely to hit a wall in high school when the subjects got much harder. The aim was not to impugn their hard work and the real learning that they accomplished, but to be wary of feeding their sense that their only worth was because of their grades.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Seems like BS to me. (The kids who work hard will hit a wall— in my experience it’s the kids who never had to work hard who end up not being able to deal with walls later.) Fortunately now we have growth mindsets in schools that focus on the process not the output. Seems pretty terrible to have teachers just assume that hard workers are going to fail later like that’s some sort of bad thing instead of a regular part of learning and growth, like that isn’t something hard work makes it easier to deal with instead of more difficult.

        Of course grades aren’t worth— yet we still shouldn’t punish people with good grades by telling them they’re over achievers.

      • EB Says:

        I think we are talking about two different things. There really are some (not that many) children who do very well in grade school, and who continue to work hard, but don’t do well in high school. Teachers do not assume that every hard worker will hit the wall, but some do. It’s usually over upper-level math, or any course where good analytical writing skills come into play.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I get those kids in college and they do just fine in my math classes after I get them over the math phobia some k-12 teacher gave them by telling them they just weren’t a “math person” whatever that means. Only very rarely do I get a kid who has been genuinely diagnosed with an actual math learning disability (and even they generally get through with accommodations but not usually with As). Hard work can actually accomplish a lot. I am willing to bet that there’s a lot of gender and race stuff going on with people who are told their hard work won’t be enough in the future (so might as well stop now!)

      • EB Says:

        No-one ever tells them that they won’t succeed in the future! What an idea! I’m just saying that the word overachiever has a specific meaning in K-6 education, which is not meant in a hostile or dismissive way. It simply means that the child achieves through extra work what another child might achieve from aptitude. I was an overachiever in math, and it got me though College Algebra, but it sure couldn’t get me through Calculus.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I think it’s terrible and explains a lot and has been replaced by the growth mindset curriculum.

        And you likely just didn’t have a great calculus teacher. Not that you were an overachiever. So much BS, and mostly borne by girls. I didn’t realize how harmful it was to normal kids or how connected with my students’ math phobias until today! You can get through calculus with a good teacher and some hard work.

      • EB Says:

        Overachieving IS a growth mindset. It’s the idea (within the child) that her brain is a muscle and is strenthened by working hard. And it turns out to be true. But growth is not unlimited, for anyone. So at some point we all hit our limits.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Except you’re saying it’s a bad thing and somehow you know what people’s limits are. And if they work hard as kids they’re going down some dark path where they don’t achieve later. Seems like a lot of BS and a stupid term.

  3. Nanani Says:

    I’m not sure I know what overachieving even means outside the specific context of kids in school – the overachiever kids get extra credit and do more projects, write more things, take more classes, etc.

    In the adult world, that sort of thing doesnt really apply. If you’re “overachieving” for your pay grade, you should apply for a promotion right? Or a new job entirely.
    Maybe I’m coming at it the wrong way.

    As a kid I got good grades without really studying because I can read really fast and had a good memory, so I think parents/teachers expected me to be an overachiver? But I actually just wanted to curl up with a book or something instead of do more homework. Which means I got told off for not achieving, while simultaneously having better grades than everyone around me.

  4. yetanotherpfblog Says:

    I feel like the term “overachievement” means you have some common agreement of what it means to achieve, and that an individual is one or more standard deviations above the mean on that scale. Mostly applied through things like grades or work ratings or whatever (e.g. the straight A student). This also kind of assumes that all kids and adults are focused on winning the school to college to moneyed work rat race. I don’t really hear “overachiever” applied to other domains like creative hobbies, where words like “gifted” still get bandied about.

    We’ll see how we feel once Little One is old enough to go to school, but I want to avoid being as grade-focused and keen on external validation with them as husband and I were growing up. We were both considered “overachievers” in schooling (sometimes I still think I am in terms of work promo tracks), but being so focused on fitting the mould and expectations of others… I’m not really sure I want that for my kid?

  5. xykademiqz Says:

    I’ve always thought it was an insult, basically. It means you’re not cool and laissez-faire but instead work way harder than absolutely necessary. These days, kids say (with an eyeroll) “You’re such a try-hard.”

    • undine Says:

      Exactly what xykademiqz says, and “try hard” is an insult. If you were truly smart, goes the idea, truly good, truly elite, you’d just achieve perfection effortlessly.

      My mother was of this persuasion: if you did anything like study for a test or turn in homework, you were not truly smart and should be treated with disdain. So did some of the people in my grad cohort: submit an abstract for a conference? Pfft! The conference organizers should recognize your greatness without your having to humiliate yourself with that kind of self-promotion. Why should you apply for a job? If you were really good–effortlessly good– advisor would make a few calls and you’d have one, easy peasy.

      Needless to say, I have both Feelings and Thoughts about this nonsensical view.

  6. Debbie M Says:

    Sorry if you get two versions of this; my first try could not be published and disappeared (or seemed to).

    I’m not sure I’ve dealt with the term overachievement. But I was told that my master’s thesis was “ambitious,” with the connotation that I was being a bit ridiculous. I took it as a compliment. (Now, looking back, I don’t know what they were talking about. It was just a survey and time diary. And the results were boring.)

    But I’ve also been discouraged from attempting things that were too ambitious. My professor for a class on teaching science to elementary students told me that my lesson plan for acting out the solar system would have been a disaster. I would move the chairs to the edges of the room. Then put one student in the center, turning around in place, as the sun. Then another student would walk around the sun, always facing the sun, as Mercury. And then I would just keep adding people until things got crazy. (Hmm, outside would be better–more space!). And yes, it would have gotten out of hand and not worked perfectly. But also, I think people would have learned a few things, while laughing at the mess. I still liked it. (And that guy was one of the most boring professors anyway.)

    My philosophy professor said that writing my paper in dialog was too ambitious. I should have asked if I could do it anyway instead of throwing away my draft and starting over, but I didn’t have my current personality then.

    So, if that term is used to put people down, I hate it. And especially if it’s used only toward certain people like women, minorities or other people who should know their place.

    On the other hand, if it means putting too much energy in one area in a way that affects their health, that’s different. My dad was a workaholic and so most of my parenting was done by my mom. I would never marry a workaholic because what’s the point?

  7. nicoleandmaggie Says:

    Confidential to delagar : Re: Walmart. We always order for pickup. Much much less unpleasant and I don’t think it costs anymore. You just go into the service desk and pick up.

  8. First Gen American Says:

    Everyone is talking about the academic version of this definition. In the corporate world, it’s usually defined as the person who takes on extra work that they aren’t directly measured on. Special projects, leading affinity groups, etc.

    Exceeding one’s metrics is another way to define it but there is a luck aspect to that sometimes. (Someone has a better sales territory than another, for example).

    Not sure what the lesson is here. Often overachievers are rewarded with more work and not always more money or promotions. When you are the person in the sidelines doing all the extra stuff in lieu of self promotion etc, it’s not always the fastest path to your goal.

    • EB Says:

      That’s a good point. And to return to two fields that I mentioned earlier, sports and music, they can shed light on what is meant on overachieving too. In the sense that doing extra practice — say in tennis or in trumpet playing — will get you to a higher performance level than the person who practices the recommended amount, which will be enough to stay in the game or band. But extra practice time, alone, cannot get you to the elite level of tennis or of music.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Ooh we call those “non-promotable tasks”— it’s a relatively new term by Linda Babcock et Al. In their new book The No Club.

      • First Gen American Says:

        And I’d bet women are asked to take on those non-promotable tasks more often than men. I can’t tell you how many big meetings or events I was asked to organize when there were no longer admins in place to do those jobs. I was only exempt when I’d push back and say I did the last one.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Oh yes! That’s what the book is about.

  9. middle_class Says:

    I don’t think there is such a thing as over achievement in the Asian community ( at least not in my high school where I was in a my bubble with Asian honors students ). There were definitely underachievers though

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