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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.


Editor’s note: Want more help learning how to reframe and channel your overachiever tendencies? Check out my Overachiever’s Guide to Meaningful Success course. This comprehensive course teaches you how to redefine success for yourself and develop new metrics to keep you on track with a life of meaning.

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86 Responses to 5 Mistakes That Cause Overachievers To Fail

    • On
    • September 27, 2011 at 10:35 am
    • Raj
    • Said...

    I agree with all the five points you have mentioned. But the actual issue is timing our decisions. For example, should I quit now or one year later? What if the present format works better than I thought in the mean time? When there are no fixed boundaries, its difficult to base your judgments on a few parameters.

    As you say somewhere in the article, ‘You cannot fail if you don’t give up’! That’s exactly the dilemma. But I do admit, it was a nice read and a thought provoking post.

    • Raj,

      I think what Brian Clark is trying to say is that, you can quit any particular method of achieving your goals whenever it becomes clear it isn’t getting you where you want to go. In fact, Brian would probably argue most of us cling to an idea or tactic too long. On the other hand, the end goal, the dream: you don’t give up on it unless your priorities change and you no longer want it. Most over-achievers deny their real dreams, they give up on them before they ever start, because it takes too long and there’s too much risk to get there. As one commenter on Facebook said: “If you do something you don’t like and fail, you don’t care. If you follow your passion and fail, it would be devastating.”

        • On
        • September 29, 2011 at 8:19 am
        • Raj
        • Said...

        I agree with this – ‘Most over-achievers deny their real dreams’

          • On
          • November 20, 2015 at 3:55 am
          • Alex
          • Said...

          I want to do music… mainly, and on the side (unless I get famous doing what I love) teaching English (because that is fun). I’ve been creating electronic music since I was 18 and am now 21. I know the saying talking about the 10,000 hours makes you a master at whatever you strive to do. And that makes me 1/10 of a master because I average about 5hrs per track. However, I go to college and my parents are always pushing me away. I can’t get a bachelors in music but that will never stop me. I will keep chasing my other dream on the side of my history degree.

        • On
        • January 13, 2012 at 12:34 pm
        • Albert0
        • Said...

        re: “If you do something you don’t like and fail, you don’t care. If you follow your passion and fail, it would be devastating…”

        I don’t know — maybe if you REALLY don’t like what you’re doing, then NO outcome should be classified as a failure. If do you have some criterion that says you failed, wouldn’t that criterion measure something you DO like — and thus make ANY failure painful?

        It just feels to me like the definition (or at least my internal definition) of failure doesn’t allow not caring about it.

        • Albert,
          I think it depends a lot on whether you view failure as necessarily a bad thing. There are certainly times I try things with a very experimental mindset. If they don’t work out (or “fail”), it doesn’t bother me much. I wasn’t terribly invested in the outcome, I was simply curious. But I think your emphasis on personal definitions of all of these terms is right on. But it’s also good to evaluate if your current definition might be holding you back.

  1. Overachieving is parenting residue. It is a milder form of domestic violence, if not child abuse. It’s for parents to selfishly feel they have done a good job raising their offspring at the detriment of the latter’s happiness. Dr. Pat Allen called it “Conversational Rape” in her free ebook. In a word, it’s conditional love many of us have been breastfed that, eventually, leads to silent suicide of the soul.

    Such maltreatment is the story of my life. I haven’t just jumped; I flew and soared. In school, I excelled in fields I’m not predisposed for. At work, I sacrificed my well-being to bring my boss millions. Yet, nothing was enough. The cyborg I had become started showing signs of humanity, most important of which was emotional fatigue. Then, a guy broke my heart and, with that, pressed “pause” on my downward spiral.

    A sabbatical imposed itself. Two years later, I’m beginning to reemerge from my inner scuba diving. My brain had to compartmentalize trauma for too long not to make me an easy prey for selfless accomplishments. But, I succeeded to deprogram myself.

    For once, I feel free of expectation, unable to repress my self-expression however it manifests and, finally, growing aware of my inborn potential, i.e. refusing to become a clone manufactured by copy-pasted societal norms. We cannot be poor copies of an original that exists not. We’re perfectly imperfect. And so what? :)

    • I agree that over-achieving is a result of parents wanting validation through the actions of their children (though I can’t go so far as “conversational rape”). And unfortunately, it drives many people to the brink of emotional and mental collapse, and all for reasons few would consciously support. So I’m glad to hear that you’ve managed to free yourself from those expectations. So few do. Now you can enjoy whatever altitude you happen to be at, whatever destination you choose to explore. Excited for you!

      • Conversational Rape is how parents verbalize their conditional love for their children (If you don’t do this, mommy will not love you).

        By threatening to take their love back, parents unconsciously program kids to equate success with fear of losing love/validation. Overachieving and gradual misery, usually, ensue.

        It’s hard for parents to hear this when they do their best to raise a healthy family, but such subtleties make or break a child. And parents must grow aware of that.

        Your post if a gift coinciding with my healing process’s culmination’s inception. Thank you, Jen!

  2. Love this one, Jen.
    I am SO guilty of these mistakes (sometimes individually and sometimes – gasp! – simultaneously).

    In a recent conversation with my coach and friend Michele Lisenbury-Christensen, I had one of those a-ha moments that nearly knocked me off my chair. We were talking about dealing with failure and I realized that, apart from the end of my 14-year marriage, there were few major failures I could list in my life.

    On the one hand, someone might look at that fact and think, “Well – good for you!” But I was horrified. I instantly realized that a big part of what has been holding me back on new projects is a fear of failure … AND that the power of that fear was largely a result of having never had to deal with failure and being unsure how I’d handle it.

    Over-achievers may seem to have the advantage, but they also feel (consciously and subconsciously) that they are at greater risk. They have a record to uphold, a reputation to live up to. It comes off sounding a little snobby, but it’s true. If people expect you to do well (yourself included) and then you screw up, that hurts more than if people gave you a 50/50 shot and you flubbed it.

    ANYway … great food for thought (again).
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Yes, exactly, Jamie. When I went through my career change journey, it was much the same. It especially came out when I looked at my moments of self-pride, and realized over half of them happened when I was a little kid. Egads! The good news is: you can consciously choose to do it differently. One of my core values is now courage. I describe it as: willfully walk the plank. I remind myself of it often, and do it whenever I feel my fear of failure pulling me back. My only caution is that such a choice can sometimes be exhausting. It’s a balance I’m willing to live with, but thought you should be forewarned!

      • Thanks for the warning! :)
        Balance – got it.

    • On
    • September 27, 2011 at 11:47 am
    • ayngelina
    • Said...

    Jen once again I feel like you are speaking directly to me – I am currently feeling overwhelmed with my next step knowing I have so many options but not knowing which one to take.

    Also FYI if you see I unsubscribed from your email RSS it’s just because I’m moving you over to Google Reader. I remain a faithful reader :)

    • But Ayngelina, I was speaking directly to you! LOL No, it’s only because you and I are so similar. My best advice is to pick whichever one seems like fun, not which seems the best. Whatever option you choose will end up being “the best,” because you’re an over-achiever. See, so easy! :)

      (Thanks for the note on the subscription–I prefer RSS myself, so I never take it personally)

    • On
    • September 27, 2011 at 11:51 am
    • Atif
    • Said...

    I am going to read this article again. I love it. It feels like you have given words to my situation. I am not in a very good place but I am holding up, I am not disappointed. Hopefully I will find my peace somewhere as well. It is so hard to find a coach, or a true friend. My quest took me to zenhabits and I have changed my life in many ways. Your blog seems to be the next step and my next goal i.e. to work on my career, to find the right career. I am so glad I came across you. In the emotional turmoil, it is so easy to become a misfit amongst the overwhelming crowd..fingers crossed..

    • Atif,
      Hopefully this blog will help you see there are many of us misfits trying to find our way to the life we always imagined for ourselves. I like the idea of misfits in terms of “being in the wrong place,” which is a much easier problem to solve than being “where no one else is or goes.” Don’t despair and keep up the humor you display on the Facebook page. You are not alone!

    • On
    • September 27, 2011 at 11:58 am
    • Chapin
    • Said...

    Wow. Amazing post. I have only skirted on the issue of taking on the identity of being an overachiever, but especially after reading this post, I have realized I really need to take it on in order to move forward in my life. I have recently moved, started graduate school, and started a new job, all at once. While they are all good things, combined they are making me crazy. My overachieving self is in overdrive. I really need to learn to get at the crux at what makes me an overachiever and change my focus to making me happy.

    Thank you so much for this post.

    • Sounds like an epiphany right there, Chapin. I mean, some of that stress will diffuse on its own (moving and a new job). Of course, there’s always another stressor to take their place…but only if you let it. Be strong!

  3. You described me perfectly. I considered myself an ‘overachiever’ and it was a lot easier to deal with when in high school. Now, I just stuggle with others expectations. I think I wil try using the ‘reframes’ from your post.

    • Let me know how it goes, Deborah. I mean that. If this doesn’t help, I’ll give it some more thought and give some other suggestions. I think the easiest way to approach it is to come up with a new and personal definition of success. That changed everything for me, and is primarily how I channeled my over-achieving tendencies instead of trying to overcome them.

    • On
    • September 27, 2011 at 12:51 pm
    • Srinivas
    • Said...

    Hey Jen,

    It’s interesting for me to read this because I come from a culture of hardcore overachievers and it starts at a very early age. I was one of those people who got absolutely terrible grades in college after getting straight A’s most of my life. It was fairly demoralizing and because I was so concerned with my grades I didn’t learn a thing in college. The rare exception was the classes that I really liked and didn’t worry much about my grades in. Ironically I got A’s in those classes with virtually no effort. As a student of the Skool of Life, I always wonder about how much we limit the potential of people by labeling them with grades. A thought the provokiing post to say the least.

    • It’s a good point, Srini, that some cultures promote this more than others. Your observations about school, and the long-lasting effect it can have on confidence and potential, is why we’re investing a lot of money in a private school for our 4 year old (!), where the emphasis is on exploration over outcomes. We were sold when they told us that while they would introduce the children to reading, they couldn’t guarantee that all the children would be reading by the end of the year. It depended on the child’s development and interest. And in the end, that’s apparently worth a lot to me. :)

    • On
    • September 27, 2011 at 1:07 pm
    • Vanessa
    • Said...

    I was just in a coaching session last night that highlighted my already known need for achievement / gold stars, which more or less is tied to a need for validation. It is partly why I feel “inadeqaute” or like there is something wrong with me, since I’ve been single for 2 years (no gold stars from “him”). We are who we are in the workplace and outside.

    It also probably has a lot to do with my procrastination on the new venture of screenwriting. In fact everytime I try to write I second guess everything I write down. I think it isn’t special enough, or real enough. I don’t know where to start, there is no manual, how do I make the grade,I’m going to fail at this and then I stop. Leaving the writing session unrewarded with the gold star of writing something good (or at all). I think it is true that overachievers have a lack of confidence and true understanding of self without the achievements.

    The impatience of wanting instant results and confirmation ongoing that you are doing a good job or good at this new venture (be it screenwriting) is almost needed to keep going. The reframing techniques will be helpful to be your own cheerleader and just focus on the end goal and journey of taking the risk.

    PS Jenn your posts inspire me to be a better writer/blogger. You are so focused on the reader and while all the posts are related they always offer a different angle/new twist.

    • Thanks, Vanessa. If this post can help just one talented and vibrant person overcome their fears to create and share their gifts with the world, it will be a huge achievement. And I say that because that’s exactly how I define success, and why I don’t worry too much about quantity of readers, but the quality of interaction we have here and the results any one person achieves. I mean, who can feel badly about positively affecting just one person’s life?!

      Use all that over-achieving energy to impress yourself, Vanessa. Find a screenwriting mentor and see feedback as a reward itself (whether it’s gold stars or a red pen). And remember, you’re using so little of your true potential now. Free yourself, and a lot more becomes possible. I swear it’s true!

      • On
      • September 29, 2011 at 3:33 pm
      • Kristin
      • Said...

      Vanessa – I so relate to your comments about procrastination and writing. I constantly feel the same way about my work as a management consultant and the writing necessary in this work. It’s a constant battle with the ever present and frequently overwhelming fear of failure.

      • Kristin,
        Is it just writing that induces that response, or is it the consulting itself?

          • On
          • October 3, 2011 at 6:26 pm
          • Kristin
          • Said...

          That’s a good question – frankly, it’s probably the whole experience. Writing is just the typical “output” of the consulting project in the form of the results, findings, recommendations.
          As Vanessa said “I don’t know where to start, there is no manual, how do I make the grade,I’m going to fail at this and then I stop.” This is my cycle throughout every project, at each stage – from the project plan through the interim work product and on to the final presentation. It’s exhausting and generally results in severe procrastination, a deadline driven race to the finish, and feeling like I have no idea what I’m doing. If it goes well, it feels like luck and if it’s not up to my standards, it becomes proof of my incompetence. Not helpful and not fun.
          As you can see, this post was really helpful to me. I have quite a lot of work to do to become an achiever, hold the “over”.

    • On
    • September 27, 2011 at 1:14 pm
    • Lisa
    • Said...

    Great post, Jen.
    Thank you!

    • On
    • September 27, 2011 at 2:08 pm
    • Barbara
    • Said...

    I’ve never been an over achiever myself, but this article brought up something I’ve been a bit concerned about with my grand children. It’s really more about being over scheduled that being overly rewarded for grades, in their case.

    I see this a lot now days and I think we all need empty segments in our day to just BE. I find my best ideas during those moments. As a child I had a lot of emptiness in my life, and now I wonder if that’s where my creativity came from. Building castles in the sky, so to speak.

    I look at my grandsons and sometimes feel sorry for their lack of down time. This may cause other anxiety issues down the road when they have no idea what to do when there’s no set schedule to follow.

    You always get me thinking!

    • Barbara,
      As the mother of a very busy, little 7 year-old girl, I can totally relate to this!

      I agree that there is HUGE value in downtime – for kids AND adults. My most valuable insights and creative ideas have all come to me in moments of respite, play, or aimless meandering. There is something about letting the mind choose its own path that brings power to the creative process.

      I try my best to make sure my daughter’s schedule includes some down time. It’s not always easy, but I love when I see her become immersed in some small task or activity, or I hear her out in the yard, singing to herself and just wandering around looking at things. Those are the moments that the mind and heart really spring to life!

      • Jamie,

        I’m guessing the pressure to participate in activities increases as the kids get older. My daughter is just starting school, but I love that she’s done at 3 o’clock and she and I spend the rest of the afternoon together. But it’s just next year that after school activities start at her school, many of which sound fun, even to me! My strategy now is to preserve weekends and evenings, but even then…at least they still have time to play outside!

    • I’ve been concerned about that too, Barbara, and agree whole-heartedly that down time is necessary and essential to peak performance. I think the over-scheduling is not just for kids though, it’s their parents too! I hear on Facebook a lot that people are overwhelmed and stressed. At some point, we need to realize we are the source of that stress, and we can turn it off. It’s something I remind myself of frequently (and if I don’t, my husband is more than happy to oblige!).

  4. We know great leaders share a trait, adaptability. Sometimes, as a Type A myself, I fear this is something I simply lack.

    But if you read between the lines in a book like Peter Sims’ “Little Bets” (see: http://petersims.com/2011/03/04/little-bets-qa/), terminal Type A-ers can learn to modify their “linear, procedural” thinking (and attendant fear of failure) by taking the little bets approach to life and business problems.

    I’m all copywritten-out, so I’m just going to pull a quote from Sims here to explain what little bets are. “Little bets are a way to explore and develop new possibilities. Specifically, a little bet is a low-risk action taken to discover, develop, and test an idea…

    We’re taught from an early age to use certain procedures and rules to analyze and solve problems, such as for math or chemistry. There’s an emphasis on minimizing errors and avoiding failure. These skills serve us extremely well when we have enough information to put into a formula or plan. But what happens when we don’t even know what problems we’re trying to solve? In those kinds of situations, engaging in a process of discovery and making little bets complements more linear, procedural thinking.”

    Peter’s discoveries also complement research like that in the Times article. IQ and what I always called “book smarts” serve us only in terms of those linear problems, but real issue processing calls for something better and more flexible.

    The people Peter talks to view little bets as a way to test something. They accept that it may fail. Failing many times over a series of small tests is far better than failing at a very large, resource-heavy attempt at change.

    For people here trying to change their lives, this strategy may be just the ticket. Each small failure (a) becomes less traumatic and (b) gives us valuable insight into the nature of the problem or process we’re trying to improve.

    • Terrific points, Lindsey, and the link is much appreciated. I do think that little bets can only take one so far. I mean, as you know, when you finally decide to start your own business, there’s nothing little about it! But many of our decisions really do fall into that realm, and it’s those successes that convince we can tackle the larger ones.

    • On
    • September 27, 2011 at 3:27 pm
    • Devanshi
    • Said...

    Hi Jen,

    I was so glad to have read your post. You summarised all of my concerns perfectly. As an over-achiever, I am constantly plagued by these insecurities. Everyone around me keeps telling me that I am throwing my life away (as a lawyer) for something which I am yet to figure out. There is so much pressure to succeed on me when all I want is to be happy.

    Right now, I am terrified of failing simply because I am not used to it. My usual way of dealing with this is to just not try. However, I have recently decided that this time I need to go for it. I have to deal with my fear of failure and just keep trying. I believe I will be much happier that way.

    Thank you for this wonderful post. It really came at the right time.

    • The time is now, Devanshi. You can do it. As I said to Atif, you are not alone. As I like to say: you cannot fail in the company of friends. We’re here for you!

        • On
        • May 15, 2015 at 5:12 am
        • Ashni
        • Said...

        Dear Jen

        I have a daughter whom perform very well until matric, She has the fear of failing as a result she cannot cope with university, can you please assist me.

        Worried Mom

        • Hi Ashni,
          I’m so sorry your daughter is having a hard time at University. It’s a hard transition for most kids, and if she’s been struggling with issues of perfectionism, then I can completely understand why she might feel a bit paralyzed. Without talking to her, it’s impossible for me to know the true underlying causes of her fear. But there are a few things you can do to help: 1) make sure that she understands your love is unconditional–you won’t love her any less if she doesn’t follow the path everyone thought she would, 2) encourage her to see the bigger picture, and that the things she’s worried about today will likely have almost no effect on her life outcomes, regardless of what happens. Many kids mistakenly believe that if everything doesn’t go as planned, they can’t get where they need to go. But if you look at the lives of some of the most successful people, their path was not one success after another. Consider having her read some good biographies–like Steve Jobs or Nelson Mandela. Lastly, don’t underestimate the pain she may be experiencing. If she’s open to it, get her help as soon as possible, either in the form of a therapist or coach. I’d be happy to do a free consult to see if working with me would be of value. Just send me an email here if interested. Good luck!

    • On
    • September 27, 2011 at 3:40 pm
    • Amanda Granneman-Gunter
    • Said...

    Jen, amazing article. I got goosebumps just reading your intro. I’ve been saying for years that being successful is more about persistance and ambition than intelligence but people think I’m crazy. I’ve seen so many extremely intelligent people waste their potential because they’re scared to fail or they simply don’t have the drive and ambition to achieve their goals.

    I’m not saying this for sympathy, but I am by far the least intelligent out of my 3 siblings. For instance I am the only one that didn’t inherit a photographic memory, however I got the best grades in high school and college (although my brother is still in high school) but I wouldn’t trade my ambition for their intelligence any day of the week (no offence to my insanely smart siblings) because I have and continue to have goals that I’m working towards, whereas I don’t see that same ambition in my siblings (although my brother is still awefully young).

    One last point, I just finished “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” by Amy Chua and she stresses the importance of hard work and I think there’s something to be said for having to work a little harder than your siblings/peers/etc… It makes you appreciate achieving your goal (whatever it may be) all that much more.

    Thanks so much for the amazing article!

    • If you have people doubting your sanity, just hand them a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. He completely agrees with you, and has good data to prove it.

      I haven’t read “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” yet, though it’s on my list. Hard work is necessary, but it’s not a goal in and of itself either. I remember one client who was driving herself crazy because she felt all important decisions had to come from hard work. She assumed if the process was easy, she wasn’t approaching it correctly. So when we talk about balance, this is what I think we really mean. Hard work, but only when necessary. :)

  5. “The person you need to please is yourself. And there’s no risk of failure when you never give up.”
    Boom! What a great statement to carry away with me. This post was super-relevant & helpful for me. Thank you, Jen!

    • I like that added “boom!” Man, now I wish I’d thought to add that to the post! :)

    • On
    • September 27, 2011 at 6:22 pm
    • Mark Jordan
    • Said...

    Awesome post, Jen. In looking at it through my own lens, sometimes the reason people need to get laid off or go through some huge downward spiral is to get the ego and training out of the way so that we can make that left turn at Albuquerque, instead of going straight ahead. Getting the ego out of the way seems to be the key to making a successful career transition without a lot of pain.

    • Great point, Mark. I agree. Getting the ego out of the way (or seeing where your ego doesn’t need to be involved) is a big step in dealing with over-achieveritis. I think that may be another post idea by itself. Thanks!

        • On
        • September 29, 2011 at 8:43 am
        • Mark Jordan
        • Said...

        Jen, you might enjoy what Bill Thomas says about the problems of baby-boomer-induced adulthood at TEDx San Francisco. http://youtu.be/ijbgcX3vIWs

        • That was interesting, Mark. I wish he’d gone into more detail about what boomer-induced adulthood looked like (so people could better self-identify) and what GenX in particular could do about it.

  6. Wow – that one packs a punch. The greatest gift of this article for me is that it has helped me see how I can reframe the way I praise my kids. I know my daughter is already got her feet planted on the perfectionist path but we can work on this one together. Keep them coming Jennifer – powerful posts like this are such a gift.

    • I really recommend the Po Bronson book. The part on praise is just one chapter. And I’m with you. I realize my daughter is already struggling with this at 4 years old.

      Glad you liked the posts–I’ll keep them coming as long as I can!

    • On
    • September 28, 2011 at 2:16 am
    • Michela
    • Said...

    Thank you for sharing these thougths, Jen. I have just discovered Everyday Bright through Ze Habits and this is the first post I read here.
    My parents acted in two different ways when it came to school and university. My father thought me to accept everything, both good and bad marks without “rejecting” any bad one (where I live you can “reject a mark” and sit the exam again) while my mother pushed me into looking for something better if I wasn’t satisfied with the mark I had got.
    I think my behavior in life somehow reflects this. On the one hand I tend to look for something better in my life. I tend to “get a better mark” but it is all inside my head. On the other hand I accept my life in a passive way and I am “motionless”.
    This is not the true me. I can feel how meaningful are those thoughts inside of me and I have now started working hard to follow my passion, it’s getting too frustrating. It’s hard to deal with my fears but I am also determined to use the energy of the fear in order to create something good.

    • Very interesting how you melded the two approaches together. I can see where that would be confusing! I think each approach has its merits in certain situations, the trick is knowing when to use them and when to reject them. As you continue to follow your passions, I’m sure you’ll get better and better at selecting the tools from your emotional tool chest to advance on your goals.

      Thanks for the insight and welcome!

  7. Pingback: I Am an Overachiever « Nonprofit Chapin

  8. I felt like you wrote this post specifically for me! I am working on a nonfiction book that addresses this very question from this post: “How do you convince yourself to pursue the dreams that aren’t in line with society’s traditional definitions of success?” I use to teach high school students, and I was sadden to see that so many of them only were considering jobs that would bring money, fame, or power like you mentioned. I know that they are just kids. But at the same time, I also think that as a society we push the wrong dreams onto our youth which results in people like you, me, and your clients pursuing jobs they shouldn’t only to later have to make huge career shifts. At least getting in the right field should be the goal (related to what Brian Clark said). Thanks as always Jen for a great piece!

    • As a writer, you know that saying you thought this was written especially for you is just the nicest compliment, right?

      No one teaches us how to define success for ourselves. Our parents don’t know it, our teachers don’t know it. It’s like the big gaping hole in our education system, maybe because we all think it’s obvious. It’s an interesting point, Shawndra. I may not be able to coach the world on career choice, but it would be interesting to think about how to get the message about defining success out to a wider (and younger) audience.

    • On
    • September 29, 2011 at 1:26 pm
    • Rob @notactuallyahero
    • Said...

    One of the hardest things to learn was to set small, immediate deadlines. Sometimes you need to forget the actual goal and break it down into little bite-sized pieces to make sure you’re feeling progress all the way through.

    Plus, it’s harder to be scared of failing at seemingly minor tasks, right?

      • On
      • September 30, 2011 at 5:12 pm
      • Albert0
      • Said...

      So true!
      As a wise person once said, “How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”

    • I’d say yes and no. In fact, that’s part of what my Everyday Courage series is based on. I was puzzled when I discovered that I was able to take on some obviously fear inducing challenges (like sign up for boot camp) and yet shied away from moments that really weren’t that scary on the face of it (talking to my boss’ boss at a function). I remember hearing that the secret to the success of the book Chicken Soup for the Soul was the authors cold-calling media outlets for publicity every single day. A small task, but very scary for most! So I think it depends on what those small tasks are and how willing you are to step up to them.

        • On
        • October 2, 2011 at 2:36 am
        • Rob @notactuallyahero
        • Said...

        You know, you’re absolutely right. My statement was overly simplified, I suppose.

        But when you talk about cold-calling media outlets as being a small task, I think you forget that “learning to cold-call” isn’t a very small task.

        For someone seasoned it’s practically nothing. But deciding to learn a brand new skill is slightly different.

        Even when deciding to undertake (sort of) monumental projects I break it all down step by step so that I have a series of minor tasks to complete. I suppose that’s just how I operate best.

    • On
    • September 30, 2011 at 1:08 am
    • Kelli
    • Said...

    I guess I’m not alone! Growing up with two younger brothers I was always used as the “example”. That pushed me to be an uber over achiever as an adult! My husband hates it, but its a part of who I am!

    • Yes, first borns and only children in particular are vulnerable. And as the number of children per household decreases, I wonder what the effect will be.

    • On
    • September 30, 2011 at 5:08 pm
    • Albert0
    • Said...

    Thanks for another super post, Jenn!

    Have you read the great book relating to this is Carlos Castaneda’s _Journey to Ixtlan_? The book tells about the author’s journey to a new redlationship with life based on what his mentor calls “stopping the world.”

    Stopping the world is about leaving behind all those externally-driven and/or artificial influences that shape our view of the world and how we behave toward the world. An example — one of the techniques he uses is shedding personal history… not necessarily forgetting your name or home town so much as forgetting the little voice that critiques any accomplishment by saying how much better you could have done. The book tells an interesting story, but along the way it presents about a dozen techniques for helping you stop the world.

    It’s great stuff!

    • Oh my goodness, I read that book many, many years ago, when I was in high school. I remember loving it, but none of the details (such are the deficiencies of my memory). I’ll have to pick it up again now. Thanks!

    • On
    • September 30, 2011 at 10:16 pm
    • Daniel Wong
    • Said...

    Thank you for the heartfelt post, Jen. I completely agree that attaining success– as defined by society– can be a major obstacle that prevents you from finding real success.

    At some level, we all know that effort and attitude are more important than results. But in the “real world,” people care about the results you achieve, not the effort you put in. Sayings like “What gets measured gets done” highlight the fact that quantifiable results are what gets rewarded.

    It’s difficult to adopt a process-based approach in our lives when the outcome-based approach is so prevalent. But it really is essential if you want to find lasting fulfillment.

    As a reformed overachiever myself, I now understand that there’s great freedom that accompanies failure. When you’ve attained a significant amount of success, there’s a lot of pressure to keep on succeeding. But once you’ve failed enough, failure is no longer a big deal. “So what if I fail one more time? All it takes is one breakthrough!” you begin to think.

    Prominence doesn’t equate to significance. And isn’t significance one of the main things we’re looking for when we pursue achievements and success?

    • Totally agree–quantified results get rewarded. But those who learn the value of persistence or grit are, in my opinion, more likely to achieve them. That’s the rub. I’m still forming my ideas on the topic, so I know that answer is very satisfactory at the moment, but I do think there’s an unexpected correlation that you’re touching on. But yes to significance!

    • On
    • October 4, 2011 at 12:15 am
    • Vanessa
    • Said...

    I, like many others, came to this blog via Zen Habits after seeing your video on there today, and so far, I’m loving your perspective on things! I’m definitely an over-achiever, and am actually in college the second time, pursuing a tangental topic to what my first degree was in partially because I mucked it up the first time by concentrating too much on what my grades were and not enough on whether or not I was any good at it (both of my degrees are in art – illustration and graphic design – and only now, after years, am I getting good at it, but that’s because I learned to work at it for its own sake). Now, 26, in my second degree, I allow myself to get some bad grades (C’s! OH GOD!), and instead focus on squeezing every amount of knowledge, fun, skill, and pleasure that I can out of doing something I actually, really, truly, honest to goodness love to do. I have learned to stop letting the fear of failure (in terms of my teacher’s approval) control me, and I’m creating better work and have more confidence in my skills (and you know, still manage to get good grades most time, without the stress and esteem-torture). Now I just need to do that with actually putting my art out there for the world…but I suppose I have this and Zen Habits to help me with that. 😉

    A side note: It’s not just parents that create over-achievers. My parents quite frankly didn’t give two hoots what I did with my life, and never pressured me to succeed. Neither of them were in any way involved in my choice of career or in which schools I chose or any other major decision of my life. In fact, I think my over-achievingness (yes, I just made that up!), came from not having a good, solid group of peers/family members to like me regardless of my failures or successes. I think I’ve defined myself by my intelligence (and by extension my academic success), because I felt like it was the one good thing I had. It took me graduating, being unable to support myself, and working retail after a four year degree, to realize that grades are useless, but skills are invaluable.

      • On
      • November 4, 2012 at 6:21 pm
      • Fiona
      • Said...

      Vanessa, your last comment here about overachieving because you thought it was the only good thing about you really resonates with me. Thanks for giving me lots of food for thought. Also Jen, I have just found your blog and am finding it hugely helpful.

      • On
      • December 4, 2015 at 11:46 am
      • Kerri OBrien
      • Said...

      I can relate… I am 51 years old and just beginning to learn to enjoy my life and be proud of myself for my successes and for my intelligence level.

      • That’s wonderful Kerri. What have you found to be most helpful in that process? And what are your greatest challenges?

  9. Pingback: The over-achievers curse « Little Brown Dog Blog

    • On
    • October 31, 2011 at 12:00 pm
    • David Delp
    • Said...

    Boy do I know these well. I definitely struggle with Need to Please, Too Many Options, and Too Impatient. In my own practice I’ve noticed many of these have roots in emotional stuckness: <a href="http://pilotfire.com/to-hell-with-our-emotions/” To Hell with Our Emotions Thanks for posting this thoughtful and useful article! -David

    • I agree, David. Over-achieving is often the result of clinging to an image or emotion that isn’t serving us anymore. Hope this article provided some help for getting around it, in addition to the idea in your own post.

        • On
        • October 31, 2011 at 6:04 pm
        • David Delp
        • Said...

        The hardest part for me is actually Too Many Options. There are so many excellent things to get involved in. Once I choose what to focus on, I kick into gear so I have to watch out for spreading myself too thin. Thanks for your reply. It’s great to know there’s a kindred spirit out there.

    • On
    • December 15, 2011 at 1:21 am
    • sarah
    • Said...

    WOW! What an article! If only I saw this alot sooner, I was forced to resign from my job due to me making wrong decisions prone to my “overachieving” ways
    I’ve been working for the same company for over 3 years. I’m good at what I do, my bosses often call me a “star” Due to mysales performance. I often make half of my stores turnover by myself, and consistently have kept up with my high targets and expectations until now. Recently I have been promoted to Assistant Manager, and I’m finding myself exhausted from not only keeping up with my own personal targets, but also trying to lift my co worker’s performances.

    I feel like something needs to change as lately I have had depressive and emotional outbursts at work. I have recently struggled with personal home issues, and when this happens I tend to put my all into my working life, it’s like I feel that work identifies my success and self worth, only now I feel I have lifted the bar too high, I cant keep up with what is expected of me. Because of all this self doubt and internal struggles there have been clashes with me and my co workers, and my manager.

    I feel like they don’t understand how emotionally exhausting it is to be the company’s “topseller” and to be an asst manager at the same time, I love my job but recently i just don’t feel like I can cope with the pressures of sales and targets.

    I sometimes feel like it’s my fault I’m like this, that I cant relax, that I keep pushing, pushing, pushing myself to breaking point. I’m the only driven person in my store, so I feel like if the store suffers it is because of me.

    I would tell all of this to my boss and manager, but like I said I feel like they don’t understand my nature. I feel stuck, hopeless, lost and confused. I feel like i’m only good at my job because i put literally everything into it to the point where it effects my mental health. Unfortunately now that the results are there and the bar has been lifted i feel like i cant go anywhere but forward, i have to keep pushing to make the higher targets, to make more sales.

    The funny thing is I don’t even get paid well for what I do, I don’t know why I care so much, but I do.

    • Sarah,
      Yowza, that sounds like some serious pain. I wasn’t sure: are you still in the Assistant Manager position or is that the one you resigned? If the latter, it sounds like a blessing in disguise. If not, I’d say it’s time find your courage and step up to what you really want. Have you tried my Everyday Courage series? I really recommend it if you have something big like this you need to do, but don’t currently have the heart to do what you know you need to.

      Don’t let your own success sink you, mentally and emotionally. There are readers on this site who have been where you are and suffered emotional breakdowns that forced them to stop working for long periods of time. Truly–take care of yourself. If it’s an image problem you’re worried about, I assure you that having a breakdown is far worse than admitting what you really need and want.

      Good luck and feel free to come back for advice or encouragement. Hugs!

  10. Pingback: A Wish Come Clear » Little Known Ways To Face Your Fears & Wow The Crowds…Maybe.

    • On
    • August 15, 2012 at 10:55 pm
    • Joanna Plascencia
    • Said...

    I have learned so much about myself. I was always inclined to the arts. Writing is something that enthralled me. I loved the idea of writing scrips for movies and even acting in them. When I was 15 I was convinced that acting was something I wanted. So I went on search to book auditions. I would talk to my mother about it but she was a single mother working over time She never gave me support. Little by little I started forgetting my dreams. I took it as something impossible. Especially since I auditioned for a lead role in a school play (which by the way I can see how I didn’t get it. I wasn’t experienced enough. and being an “over achiever” I felt like I had definitely failed forever. So I literally gave up and never tried again) My mother always instilled in my head to be a strong and independent woman. So I thought grades were important but there came a point when not even grades were important to me and I stopped trying in school. When I was 17 about to graduate high school my mother pressured me into deciding what I wanted to be. She told me I should be a lawyer so I kind just went along with it. She would constantly say how appalled she was that I was 17 and still had not decided what I wanted to be yet. She also said that when she was 17 she already knew what she wanted. I don’t hate my mother. I love her very much. I understand that she has suffered a lot in life and want what is the best for me. However, I do realize that subconsciously I have been wanting to please her. I told her I didn’t want to be a lawyer but a medical doctor instead. She was very happy. Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been if I would have ended up pursuing a career as a writer or an actress.

    • That’s a fascinating story, Joanna. Thanks for sharing it with us. I’m curious, how did you decide you wanted to become a doctor? Are you working towards that goal now?

  11. Pingback: Rethinking achievement | Hans K.C.'s Journal

  12. Pingback: 18 Timeless Decisions You Will Never Regret

    • On
    • October 22, 2013 at 11:44 am
    • Laura shea
    • Said...

    All my adult life I have been accused of being an overachiever and I suppose rightfully so. Overachiever is never used as a compliment. Now I am retired and still pushing too hard, impatient with myself, unable to make choices, generating volume not quality. I have always wanted to be an artist but was afraid to try too hard and was too busy accomplishing other things. I always made my art look easy but never focused and risked what it took to be a real success, never actually defined what success was. In the last half of life I learned how rewarding it is to be a cheerleader for other’s success. But I have never really understood why I have almost no cheerleaders of my own. People seen to resent my accomplishments or ignore them as too much, too easy. Maybe I don’t seem humble enough, though I don’t brag or push myself forward. I know people with equal talent, more accomplishment that have huge teams of cheerleaders. I wonder what I do that I don’t feel the support and encouragement of others. I feel isolated except for a couple of intimates. I don’t think I am wanting too much. Then again may be I am not recognizing it or am discrediting it. Any suggestions for reframing?

      • On
      • October 22, 2013 at 11:47 am
      • Laura Shea
      • Said...

      I just now sent an email to you but forgot to request notification of follow up comments

    • Actually, in my experience, the term overachiever can be either positive and negative, depending on a number of factors, including the relationship between speaker and receiver. Certainly you and I see the negative aspects of overachieving, but to others, it can appear all too tempting (you might like my most recent video on this topic).

      As for the cheerleaders, that’s a really interesting question. I don’t know that I can answer that without more information though–it probably depends on a number of things. If you’re interested, I’d be willing to explore that with you privately for free, in exchange for an interview that I might be able to use in an upcoming book on overachievers. I’ll send you an email.

      • On
      • December 4, 2015 at 9:55 am
      • Kerri OBrien
      • Said...

      OMG, I am so sorry that you are not encouraged. I know exactly what you are saying. I make things look easy and stay humble because my family makes me feel like crap because somehow my success makes them feel like I think I am better than them. It is so sad to not be able to share with the people who should be proudest of me. I do not compete with people, life is not a competition I like to see everyone succeed and encourage others. I am sick of dumbing myself down because if I actually feel good about myself and achievements I might offend someone. I will be you cheer leader… YOU GO GIRL lol : ) YAY to me and you!

    • On
    • December 4, 2015 at 9:47 am
    • Kerri OBrien
    • Said...

    Ditto Laura Shea I also always took the “safe” job, the “sure” bet… dumbed myself down in relationships and friendships. I dated and married men who were not nice, So if the job, relationship etc… ended I would be able to justify why, because it was easier to handle the rejection/failure if I took the safe route, instead of taking a chance at real love, a challenging career or taking chances and then failing. I could justify it by convincing myself I was better than the job, man etc… For me my overachieving did not start because I had parents who demanded it by telling me I was smart, it was the opposite for me, I was told that I was too smart for my own good, and that my C average was all I could do, that I was not smart and would never become a drummer, artist, scientist – or what ever other things I was interested in doing. When I started college at 18 years old my mother had a fit and could not understand that my goal was to get a job so I could not depend on welfare and food stamps, I wanted to get a job and raise my baby on my own.

    I agree that parents should not make their child dependent on getting good grades and prove they are smart to gain love, affection and admiration. But on the flip side being told I was stupid and could never achieve my goals because I had a baby and was only good enough to live on welfare turned me into a perfectionistic over achiever who was always trying to prove myself, my worth and that I was smart by seeking approval and trying to convince others that I was smart.

    In high school I learned that I was accepted by not getting good grades, I was told not to be hard on myself for getting c’s and d’s because that was all I was capable of – when I would get the courage to get A’s they were frowned on and I was mocked with statements like ‘who do you think you are’, ‘ how did You manage that’? and other demeaning things. High school was hard for me because I was told that it should be because I was not smart. When I started college I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to get good grades, taking a test was not scary and most if my instructors saw my worth and encouraged me to succeed. I did not share my success with my family, I kept my intelligence a secret. Once in a while I would fall back into the trap of trying to convince my family that I was doing well in school. Only to get berated with the same mean words as when I was in high school. ‘Who do you think your are?’, ‘you might have book smarts, but you have no common sense’, ‘don’t think you are better than so and so just because you have a degree’. Or they would roll their eyes and ignore me all together. I received my associate degree and bachelor degree always feeling like I was doing something wrong because I thought I was better than… It wasn’t until I received my Master’s degree that I started feeling proud of myself for my achievements. I learned to not share my success and education with the people in my life who were threatened by it, because it made them feel small. One time my brother was giving me crap about the fact that he thought that I thought that I was better than him. He had a management job at a shipyard and he did not have a degree. When I pointed that out he twisted my words and yelled at me for somehow cutting him down for being in a management role without a degree. I never will understand why the people in my life, who were suppose to be proud of me, were threatened and belittled my achievements. I have learned to be proud of myself without believing that I should be ashamed because I thought I was better than them. I was always humble and down played my receiving degrees so I would not offend someone. I have learned to be proud of my success in secret.

    I am ready to stop dumbing down my desire and ability to be an over achiever and start a career where I can be challenged and accepted for my hard work. I am done working in positions where co-workers are lazy and get offended by my hard work. The last straw of realization that I work in the wrong environment was when I was told that straitening out a freezer when I put groceries away, was being an overachiever – that makes no sense. Yes I am an overachiever, yes I take mission and vision statements seriously, yes I have three degrees.. It is about time for me to be proud of myself without having to convince people to recognize my achievements and prove that I don’t think I am better than them just because I want to learn. I love to learn and have a craving to learn and experience life. Nothing more nothing less.

    • Wow, Kerri. That’s an amazing (and sad) story. I’m sorry you had to go through that. But it sounds like you have a lot to look forward to. Investing in yourself and what matters to you is one that nearly always pays off. What’s the next step for you?