5 Mistakes That Cause Overachievers To Fail

by | Sep 27, 2011 | Building Courage | 81 comments

I never got it as a student.

It wasn’t until I became a teacher of college chemistry that I understood how meaningless (or misleading) grades were.

College is a shock to many.  Students who found high school easy often have to work a lot harder to get the same grades.  And many of them don’t like it one bit.

My teaching experience was my first insight into the idea that intelligence and innate talents weren’t always the gifts we portray them to be.  For some, intelligence becomes a crutch and challenge something to be avoided.  Others wrapped their entire self-worth around their grades, which meant their self-confidence was much more fragile than anyone realized.

It wasn’t until I got into career coaching that I saw how a pattern of overachieving might negatively influence one’s career choices.  In fact, my bio used to say I’m a “recovering Type A.”  I had to take it out because I realized I never “recovered” from my Type A personality, but I have learned how to channel it.

So when Everyday Bright reader Kelly Seiler asked me about my experience coaching perfectionists (we had a good discussion about it on Facebook), I thought this might be a good topic.  Then, when the NY Times published an article discussing research that proves your character is as important (or more so) than your smarts, I had to weigh in.

Here are the 5 biggest mistakes I see overachievers making, and how to overcome them.

1. The need to please

My parents gave me money for getting A’s in school, not for studying hard.  In fact, while my SAT scores were good enough to get me into some of the top colleges in the US, they were a terrible disappointment to my father, who’d been training me for a specifically higher score.

In his book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, Po Bronson discusses the research that shows one of the biggest parenting mistakes is telling kids how smart they are.  It’s called “the inverse power of praise.”  The result is a generation (or two) of people who are scared to death to take on any challenge which involves a remote chance of failure.  They not only have a reputation as a smart and talented person to maintain, but the love, affection and admiration they are addicted to seems directly related to their ability to achieve.

Among my traditionally successful clients, many of them struggle with what their boss or colleagues or parents will think about changing careers.  And too often, they imagine a response that’s not real.  It’s true that I had no less than 10 former bosses and colleagues call me when I decided to leave the Air Force, in an effort to talk me out of it.  But it was, in some regards, self-serving.  They all worked for the Air Force, and thought my departure was a loss for the service, not necessarily a loss of personal mental stability.

Reframe: We tend to think the only way to impress people is through the traditional measures of success: wealth, fame, or power.  But happiness can be much more impressive due to its scarcity, especially among those who have sought the traditional success indicators themselves.

2. Afraid of failure

Of course, the need to please also translates into a fear of failure more generally, leading to risk-adverse decision making.  As Everyday Bright reader Tricia Best-Hurtubise says in the Facebook discussion

As an ex-perfectionist, I would also take the “safe” job, the “sure” bet… the things I knew that I could do. The only way I would try something different is if I could reconcile it to something I already knew–that would give me the confidence to try it.

It’s important to recognize that the term “over-achiever” is a negative trait, a strength turned weakness.  Achieving turns those dreamers into doers, but over-achieving is haunted by the necessary trial-and-error involved in any big endeavor.  And this, as Tricia points out, leads wonderfully talented people to underestimate their abilities and choose the safer bet.

Reframe: Stop praising yourself for achievements and start focusing on your ability to work hard and take risk.  This goes for conversations with friends and family as well as your internal monologue.  The truth is, people love a struggle.  Get them involved in your efforts, and you’ll replace the congratulations with honestly peppy cheerleaders.

3. Inability to take a step backwards

As I said in my post Want to Change Your Life? Let Go of Your Old One, you may have to take a step back in order to take make progress towards the right destination.  Too often, over-achievers are so focused on the implications of taking a step back, they’d rather keep moving toward something they don’t want or no longer care about than do what’s necessary to change course.

This is especially true in career change, where there’s some unwritten code about what jobs constitute a step back in the first place.  Again, the real issue is an image problem, not one of momentum.

Reframe: Remember that the truly exceptional people in nearly any field are the ones who’ve been willing to tear down what they first created to build something better based on all their lessons learned.  Tiger Woods had to completely overhaul his golf swing.  Steve Jobs had to re-evaluate the early concepts of the Mac before he could completely dominate personal computing with handheld devices.  Think reinvention, which still incorporates all your previous accomplishments, instead of wasted effort.

4. Too many options

When you’re smart and talented, a lot of offers come your way.  The luxury of choice must be a good thing, right?  But too many seemingly good options can be agonizing.  For one, over-achievers try to optimize a problem that doesn’t have just one optimal answer, resulting in analysis paralysis.

But there’s another problem.  If you turn down a prestigious offer, you must be turning it down for something equally if not more prestigious.  But what if it isn’t?  How do you convince yourself to pursue the dreams that aren’t in line with society’s traditional definitions of success?

Reframe: You can’t control how many offers you get, but you can try to change the nature of them and certainly how you respond to them.  For one thing: be honest about what you want.  Tell people what motivates you and then let them try to come up with offers that match it.

5. Too impatient

The real secret is that over-achievers have trained themselves for efficiency rather than results.  When faced with a true challenge, they say “It can’t be done” instead of “it takes too long.”  A number of clients told me they felt they’d never get hired in a new career field because it was too different from their current work.

Reframe: The question usually isn’t whether or not something can be done, but how long it will take and how hard you’re willing to work at it.

In an interview I did with Copyblogger founder and online mogul Brain Clark, I asked him how he knew when to cut his losses.  What he said might well be the singular piece of advice over-achievers need to hear

There is a difference between general passion of what you want to do which could be a general field of subject matter or even broader. What you’re actually executing on at a project level is some very specific sliver of that. So just don’t be committed to one idea. Be willing to give that up, but don’t give up your broader passion. I think sometimes people don’t see the difference between. Failing at one execution within that realm is not the same as failing in general.

First you have to know what you want, then you find a way to get it.  It’s that simple.

The person you need to please is yourself.  And there’s no risk of failure when you never give up.  Nor are there too many options: most won’t even be relevant.

As I’ve said many times, we’re most proud of overcoming challenge, not avoiding it.

It’s inviting trouble into your life, and I can’t promise it will always be easy.  In fact, I can guarantee it won’t.

But you’ll be happier, and maybe for the first time in your life, you’ll have yourself to thank.

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