Are you an overachiever?

29 August 2017 | Focus | Thomas Peacock

For thousands of students across the country, A Level results day will be the first step on the path to independence. Some of you are the 'top dogs,' achieving the best results, outperforming your peers and being accepted into the top-rated universities. But being a “top dog” has its drawbacks if you can also be categorised as an “overachiever”. Chronic overachievers fall into two categories.

The first are those who naturally excel academically, achieving top marks without, on the face of it, having to put any more effort than their peers. The other describes those who are driven to succeed, either to live up to the expectations of others or out of an innate competitive streak. In this case the disadvantage can be particularly acute when your “best efforts” don't yield the results you expected.

While the term “overachiever” is usually positive, a lifetime of overachieving can have drawbacks. Failing to identify them can set you up for a lifetime of poor decisions and unnecessary stress. As you move into the next phase of your life it's important to be aware of the dark side of achievement.

You had help, and you’ll probably need more of it.

Before attending University you may have been in an environment where there is a strong teaching support network in a small classroom setting. This equips you well to deliver academically with little to no struggle. However, the problem with this system is that it doesn't necessarily teach you to “think outside the box”. The university system is set up, in part, to encourage students to “think outside the box”, to look at a problem from different perspectives. You may therefore find yourself struggling for the first time during your studies.

If University is the first time you have been allowed to explore your intellectual talents without the support, guidance, and intervention of parents, teachers, and tutors don’t be ashamed to admit when you need help.

Perfectionists rarely get anything done.

For those who fall into the second category, there is often a strong element of perfectionism. Perfectionism may look good on paper but is a major roadblock to productivity. You may have performed well before university due to working “hard” but not necessarily “smart.” In truth, the pursuit of perfection is an unrealistic expectation. Perfectionists not only over-work but have a hard time prioritising tasks. They link their worth to the results of their effort, and are often people pleasers; working hard to make sure that everything is “just so.” The result is often an overworked, self-underappreciated individual who has succeeded in fulfilling everybody’s dreams except their own.

The solution is to learn to think “progress”, not “perfection”. Schooling is about learning and learning how to learn. Learning is as much about recovering from failing as it is about perfecting new skills, understanding concepts, and remembering facts. On a practical level, prioritise your tasks according to urgency and the amount of time allocated.

Failure is not the end of the world; it just feels that way.

The first time I failed anything I was in total shock. I finally ran into a subject that I couldn’t understand with ease. It shook my confidence. I began to obsess about it. I allowed a minor setback to spiral into a full-blown crisis. OK, so I was 11 and it all seems silly now. If you have never tasted the bitterness of defeat by something you genuinely wanted to achieve, it’s a bit like chicken pox. The older you are when you get it the more dangerous it is.

The cure was a simple shift in perspective. Failure in an exam is not proof of anything other than you failed that exam. Maybe you needed more time. Maybe you needed a different study strategy. Maybe you didn’t pay close attention when you were being taught. Failure isn’t a prognosis; it’s a challenge to get up again and try harder, be smarter.

Being an overachiever can be tricky, within or beyond education. Do the disadvantages out weight the advantages? That is a personal decision that only you can make. For my part I agree with the British poet and playwright, Robert Browning, when he said, “Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?”

Craig Poku Alexander Partners

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