Making Peace with Your Inner Overachiever

by | May 6, 2014 | Achieving Balance | 8 comments

Editor’s Note: Last year, I gave a free webinar on core values for my subscribers. One person who took me up on that offer was Wallace Montgomery.

B rave enough to allow the group to give a critique, I gave him some free coaching afterwards to refine the values he came up with. To my surprise, on his third draft, he listed Overachieving as one of his core values. I asked him to share his thinking behind this decision, and how he came to see overachieving as such a valuable part of his personality. I thought his answer was particularly insightful and I share it with you below.

For an overachiever, there are few better environments than grade school.

While I don’t miss sitting in a classroom all day, I do yearn for a time when concrete goals were laid in front of me – and the surest way to accomplish them was hard work. It was an all-you-can eat buffet, and studying to get straight A’s was just the first helping. You were encouraged to load your plate with after-school activities. And the more you could consume, the more impressed everyone appeared to be.

Needless to say, the post-college world shocked me.

Among the countless lessons learned over the years: hard work in and of itself doesn’t guarantee anything. To truly get better at something worthwhile, you generally have to fail at it again and again (after a lifetime of living in fear of the F!). And being an overachiever can be a serious liability – mostly because it’s a hard thing to shut off.

All my life I’d sprinted, unrelentingly, mercilessly, towards a goal. I would achieve it and keep going, barely slowing down, on to the next. That worked just fine in school, even in some jobs, but not so well in longer-term pursuits like changing careers.

My career change has been a long, exciting, frightening, unpredictable journey.

And as an overachiever, it’s been, at times, crushing. At the end of each day, what have I done? Some thinking? Self-reflection? Research? That’s not enough!

I started riding myself hard. I wanted results, and I knew they weren’t coming any time soon. The criticism became so frequent and harsh it endangered my ability to achieve anything.

I came to give this voice its own identity – ‘the beast.’

One day, after a stretch of extensive research and thought (but, of course, no lucrative new job lined up), the voice spewed forth its usual tirade, thoroughly depressing me. But gradually, I distanced myself from the beast.

I started to see myself not as an overachiever, but as a person with some serious overachieving tendencies.

I wasn’t an overachiever any more than Dr. Jekyll was Mr. Hyde. But unlike the good doctor, I was determined not to let Hyde run wild. Robert Louis Stevenson’s fictional masterpiece inspired me to further characterize this overachiever – this unrelenting, primal thing, full of energy, potentially very dangerous.

I decided to cut a deal with it: If you can behave, I promise I’ll let you run free when it would be productive to do so. If there is a task upon which I can unleash you, I will, gladly. I am grateful for your passion, your drive, and there is no greater force I could call upon when I need something done.

But there are going to be times when you’re just going to have to be quiet.

It’s not easy – Hyde breaks the contract from time to time – but overall, this way of looking at myself has allowed me to lead a much more balanced, enjoyable life – to channel my overachiever when I need it, but let it recede when I’m tackling longer-term pursuits that don’t produce immediate, easy-to-track success.

It’s a critical distinction: you are not an overachiever.

You just have the capacity to overachieve. Channel it, but don’t let it define you. Use it wisely, judiciously.

Make peace with your Hyde.