Starting when we’re children in school, we’re often labelled based on how other people perceive our “achievement.” Some kids are dubbed “underachievers” if parents or educators don’t believe they’re “living up to their full potential” (whatever that means). On the flip side, others are deemed “overachievers,” if parents and educators think they “take on too much” and may be overextending themselves, or are concerned about children putting too much pressure on themselves in order to accomplish what they think adults expect of them. We rarely hear about general “achievers,” or even know how, precisely, one’s achievement is measured (other than by grades in school). Yet these are concepts that can follow us the rest of our lives.
As adults, most people feel “busy” all the time, and burnout is now an accepted part of our work culture and our day-to-day lives. But does that make all of us overachievers? To find out what, exactly, makes a person an overachiever, we spoke with several experts in the field. Here’s what they had to say.
What are the signs of being an overachiever?
Given that achievement can mean different things to different people ” relative to what they consider to be most important in life ” this isn’t an exhaustive checklist. Still, being familiar with some of these traits can be helpful.
You have a lot of goals (including some that are secret)
Sure, everyone probably has some sort of goal in life, but typically, overachievers have multiple. As David Robeck, the president and CEO of Bridge Counseling Associates, explains, the term “overachiever” is “often mockingly thrown at someone who has achieved goals beyond the norm, what others expect or even seems fair to peers. For those who are labelled overachievers, it simply means they met their goals.”
Some goals are public; for instance, all of your friends and family may know that you want to publish a book, or run a marathon, or overcome your fear of flying. But overachievers tend to have secret goals too. Robeck suggests that some keep these to themselves so others won’t talk them out of it or create additional obstacles for them (whether real or perceived) to overcome. “The overachiever spends hours evaluating unmet challenges, then devises new or unique ways to achieve them,” he tells Lifehacker.
One of the most visible examples of these dual public/private goals is in the world of sports. Here’s how Robeck explains it:
“We often see this in sports when the athlete wants to run faster, jump higher, and score more points than anyone else. They usually start by identifying a goal that appears unachievable by sports standards. They experiment with new equipment, new stances, or strengthen different sets of muscles. When they reach or exceed their goals they are often labelled an “˜overachiever,’ but for them, it’s simply a milestone and a new goal is quickly set. Others will then try to match the achieved goal now that the overachiever has proved it’s a possibility. Remember the unachievable four-minute mile, the triple or quadruple ice-skating jumps, or the ski-jumper that first turned his skis out instead of keeping them straight to achieve more aeronautical lift and blew competitors away? Yes, those were just overachievers who radically changed their sports.”
Once you achieve your goals, you make some more
Overachievers typically have multiple goals and projects going on at the same time ” including ones that aren’t necessarily related. Maybe you want to get a tenure-track position, and learn to swim, and to work through a difficult childhood in therapy and run for your local city council. In these cases, Dr. Leela R. Magavi, a psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry, says that an overachiever remains committed to strive for excellence in each aspect of their life where they’ve set a goal.
And once any of these goals are achieved, they typically jump into working toward new ones. “Their energy is their vision and belief or faith for something more or better to come,” Robeck explains. “Their achievement is realised as they consider and implement new strategies, engage and empower others or, if necessary, singularly consider an unachievable goal as something that is indeed achievable. Then identify, manage, and take the steps, adjusting along the way, until the latest unimaginable, unachievable goal is, in fact, achieved.”
You’re hard on yourself, but try to avoid the negative judgment of others
For many people, anxiety is a major component of their overachievement. This can manifest in different ways, Magavi explains. First of all, overachievers often blame themselves for failures and hold themselves to sometimes unrealistically high standards. “They are usually outcome-driven,” Magavi tells Lifehacker. “They may be perfectionists and rigid in thinking.” So, overachievers usually have high expectations for themselves (and sometimes others), and tend to be diligent and succeed under stress.
Then there’s the flip side of the coin: Overachievers may struggle with receiving constructive criticism, according to Magavi. Of course, there are few people out there who truly enjoy hearing about their flaws and ways they can improve, but overachievers take this one step further. In an attempt to preemptively avoid negative judgment from others, they may invest additional time and energy in countless tasks, some of which may be entirely unnecessary. The idea is that doing this extra work will provide some sort of cushion when it comes time for their work to be reviewed.
For instance, let’s say your boss asked you for a list of 20 organisations working in a particular space. You’re happy to accept the task, but immediately start questioning your methods and don’t want to disappoint anyone or make more work for them. So, “just to be safe,” you make a list of 50 organisations and include extra information that wasn’t part of the assignment to try to make sure that you not only complete the task, but go above and beyond, thereby avoiding criticism. Not surprisingly, Magavi says this could result in increased stress levels and anxiety ” not to mention frequently working long hours and disregarding other important things, like their own health, wellness and relationships.
You have certain body language
According to Alison Henderson, a body language expert, the way you move and carry yourself can be an indication you’re an overachiever. “Body language can indicate what is going on in the brain,” she tells Lifehacker. “People who seem to be larger-than-life with their presence and movement style become that way because their brains are working on many projects at once.”
Movement pattern analysts like Henderson observe subconscious behaviour to evaluate and predict how people think and will react to certain situations. “If someone is moving quickly with lots of pressure in focused movements, [then] their behaviour is layered ” showing us that multiple brain functions are firing at once,” she explains. “Tony Robbins bursting on stage is a good example. Often, big movers function best when they have many projects going at once ” setting themselves up for overachievement.”
An alternative approach for overachievers
Even if you recognise yourself in some (or all) of the traits discussed above, it can still be difficult to label yourself an overachiever. “For those of us that are overachievers, being called as such does not compute, because we often feel we are doing what should be done,” Dr. Lee Davenport, a real estate coach and author of books including Profit with Your Personality: How Top Producers Win at Lead Generation, and How You Can Too, tells Lifehacker. “It can be off-putting to be called “˜over,’ “˜extra’ or “˜too much’ of anything, which this term connotes.”
Instead, Davenport recommends that those of us who may fall into the overachiever category take a different approach: the neutral DISC personality profile. DISC stands for dominant, influencer, steady and conscientious. “There is no wrong way to be,” she explains. “All of the personalities have their strengths and are a needed part of our society, just like all of the types have areas that can be improved upon as well.”
If you have never taken the DISC test before, there are free options available online. According to Davenport, the “dominant” personality is what most people are referring to when they call someone an “overachiever.” Here’s how she explains it:
“As a D, your priorities may include getting immediate results (e.g. have you ever caught yourself saying, “˜Time is money!’), taking action while challenging/pushing yourself, and perhaps even others (do you coach yourself or others to do better?).
Also, as a D, you may be motivated by winning, success and just good old-fashioned competition. Others have noticed that you are confident, forceful/direct (which may have you mischaracterised as impatient, uncaring, or insensitive) and a risk-taker.”
If this resonates, then you may be of the dominant persuasion. In that case, Davenport says that it’s important to recognise your two greatest enemies: boredom and hand-holding. In order to “play to your strengths” and minimise your limitations of being stressed or insensitive, she suggests setting (realistic) goals and creating (friendly) competitions ” even if just with yourself ” to avoid boredom creeping in. Davenport also recommends that people in this category surround themselves with self-starters to minimise any hand-holding.