The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.” Confucius
I learned how to read and write when I was four. By 16, I was starting university, and by 24 I was the youngest partner among other six in a 30 people company. Soon after that, I was managing people who were five years older than me*.
I don’t tell you this as a display of superiority. These are examples of overachieving, a behaviour that might create a big impression to people around you and get you to what a lot of us think of “success”. Nonetheless, a behaviour that will eat you inside.
What is an overachiever?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, overachiever is “one who achieves success over and above the standard or expected level especially at an early age.”
What differentiates an overachiever from a highly talented person or a high performer, for instance, is the intention behind their seek for greatness.
The overachiever believes their work will fill an emotional void and that they are defined by it. The high performer believes work is a great way of reaching a concrete goal in life (prosperity, making the world a better place) and that performing well is a great way of doing it. But their lives, their emotional well being, don’t depend on it.
The School of Life has a very enlightening 4-minute video about overachievers, narrated (and possibly written) by Alain de Bottom. He says:
[The overachievers]... labour principally, or primarily, not because they uniquely enjoy what they do or have more urgent material demands than the rest of us, but because they are subject to unusually intense internal psychological pressures. (The School of Life)
Growing up doing too much
For most of my life, I was used to being the youngest one in the room. As the youngest in the family, I aimed to reach my siblings’ intellectual level - ignoring the fact that they were about 10 years older than me and smart as they come.
This was never forced in me. It has been part of who I’ve been most of my life. My personality, my autopilot. My mother would tell me countless times that accomplishing so much at such a young age had its price. And she was right.
What I didn’t quite know earlier, though, is that it also had a name, a cause, and several side effects.
Until recently, being an overachiever was a good thing. You’d be praised. People would admire you, look up to you and maybe even envy you.
When I was 12, my best friends in school became my heaviest bullies because I had great grades. At the time, having good grades meant a lot more than it seems to do today, so that hurt their sense of worthiness. As a result, they would hurt me (physically and emotionally), and the only defence I knew was to get into even stronger overdrive of proving to others that I was good, smart, worthy.
For the following 18 years of my life, I would seek desperately for approval and love by accomplishing as much as humanly possible, even if it made me miserable (and it did). The world rewarded me handsomely: my achievements were admired and, as soon as I joined the workforce, my overachievement became a heavy but sparkling crown, one that I would wear with pride and pain. But mostly pride, status and a great paycheck.
The shadow behind the overachievement
What I did not realise, and neither did most people around me, at the time, was that my people pleasing, perfectionist and extremely hard work nature had deep, dark side effects.
As much as I accomplished, it was never good enough. I would procrastinate tasks as much as possible because, every single time, I didn’t believe I was any good at it. Instead of celebrating even the smallest accomplishments, I would quickly raise the bar again. The anxiety behind the drive of doing an amazing job every day, in every area, was unbearable. Even before my burnouts, I had so many breakdowns that almost nobody witnessed that I lost count. I would not forgive myself for them and jump back to work as soon as possible.
Behind their relentless activity, lies an emotional, rather than professional, burden. It may look as though they want to sell more books, accumulate more shares, or put their name in lights, but the overachievers are all the while trying to secure something for more tricky and unusual motivations. They are trying to work to correct an aspect of a troubled emotional past. (The School of Life)
What lies behind an overachievement is an insurmountable pressure fed by an understanding that only by excelling one can be loved. And what lies beyond an overachievement is exhaustion and a feeling that wasn’t enough yet.
A much-needed shift
It was only through years of therapy and after a burnout that got me incapable of accomplishing the simplest tasks (doing groceries, going for a walk, showering), that I realised where the root of most of my issues was.
It's likely that these gifted souls are paying an oddly elevated price for their extraordinary successes. So much so that once their full psychological profiles are reviewed we should start to feel a bit sorry for the trajectory of their lives.” (The School of Life)
We must stop praising and envying the overachievers around and in us. It is extremely convenient in a world dominated by ego that people end up overworking and doing the work of three or four people out of desperation for external approval. It is profitable for companies to squeeze the most vulnerable people into working relentlessly. It is comfortable for a manager to see their workers going above and beyond and ignore the consequences of that in their personal lives and mental health.
But the truth, this is making us sick. This is shifting the intention behind our actions and making us do whatever others expect from us.
Ultimately, it is becoming inconvenient even to people and companies that don’t actually care about well being, since at some point your overachiever worker will have to take sick leaves every now and then.
Better achieving, not over
Overachievers tend to know only two speeds: too fast or full stop. There is somewhere in-between, and that’s the sweet spot.
We need to address self-care as a priority. Resting is mandatory and a matter of survival for every human being. We need to discover ways to accomplish things while keeping our sanity.
The first step to shift from overachieving to better achieving (or however you may call it) is to uncover your intentions and shine light into the shadow of your overachievement.
The cure for overachieving involves stopping to address the psychological wounds that made hard work feel like the only defence against intolerable trauma. (The School of Life)
Why do you really do it? What wounds are you trying to heal? Do you do what you do out of love for it? Or out of fear you won’t be accepted if you don’t do it?
Be willing to accept any answer that may come. It may be ugly. But only that way you will face what’s keeping you in the hamster wheel of achievement.
I can’t wait to see you stepping out of it, too.
The Problem With Over-achievement, by The School of Life. 17 Signs You're An Overachiever, by Amanda L. Chan for the Huffington Post Leadership Run Amok: The Destructive Potential of Overachievers, by Scott Spreier, Mary H. Fontaine and Ruth Malloy for the Harvard Business Review. Are You a High-Performer or Just an Overachiever?, by Les McKeown for Inc.