Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Why You Might Feel Like an Underachiever

I've had a lot of inquiries lately to coach "underachievers" and some recent comments from well-educated, young professional friends (who I know have their stuff together) point to the fact that, despite external perceptions, not all of you identify with the term overachiever and actually see yourself more as an underachiever.

This is very common. You might find yourself in one of 4 camps -
  1. You never have and never will identify as an overachiever
  2. You used to be an overachiever and feel like you're currently underachieving
  3. You don't like the term overachiever, but are ambitious and driven to succeed
  4. It comes in waves - overachiever, underachiever then back again
If you're feeling like an underachiever, here are my thoughts as to why.

Why You Might Feel Like an Underachiever:
1. You feel like an underachiever because you know you can, and should be, doing more given your potential.

2. You haven't found "your thing" yet. You're probably not in a place professionally or personally where you're being fully engaged. Once you find something meaningful and plays to your strengths, you'll be far more motivated. This could be for a career, hobby, or area of study.

3. You feel guilty wasting too much time on non-essential things. Have the discipline to say NO to things that aren't a priority and set up "systems" to help keep you on a path toward achievement, taking one step at a time (sign up for a class, automatic savings plan, personal trainer, career coach, etc.).

I believe that a large number of underachievers are just "closet achievers" waiting to be engaged. Once you find a system or a purposeful direction that works for you, you'll naturally start feeling like you want to work harder and make changes.

Small achievements lead to bigger achievements and "systems" are a great way to get started onto a path of success. Start small, stick with it, and if you need help feel free to email me!


Rob said...

I agree. I certainly feel more like an underachiever than an overachiever. I think a lot of us who look good on paper nevertheless feel like we're not living up to our potential, that we're not making a difference where we want to, that we're getting to certain of life's landmarks (e.g., turning 30) without significant accomplishments to satisfy us.

And I think sometimes there's stress or unhappiness at the thought that time is running out to make the changes or take the risks to strive for accomplishments that would truly satisfy us, in part because growing older means taking on responsibilities (e.g., having kids or owning a house) that require stability of career and income.

So I think a lot of people who might appear to others as overachievers not only see themselves as underachievers but also see the window of opportunity to achieve rapidly closing on them.

Maybe some of us underachieve in our own minds because we overestimate our potential (everyone thinks they're above average, but not everyone can be), but maybe also we underestimate our ability to make a difference and achieve our potential in what appear to be commonplace or boring professions and therefore are afraid to commit to them and invest ourselves in them.

JLB said...

I think this is the post I have most identified with as of late...I would say "check" to all of those things - but agree that small steps and "systems" add up quickly!!

aha said...

there's also "imposter syndrome"-- you convince yourself for one reason or other that you didn't deserve or earn your own accomplishments, you were just lucky. You and I both know more than one person who is completely, totally convinced they only got into MIT because some poor shmuck in the admissions dept came to work sick or drunk that day and just randomly accepted/rejected people. And the fact that the student went on to get graduate degrees at Stanford and other high-ranking schools was equally a mistake. And so on.

So yes, sometimes we are underachievers who are overachieving just to try to believe we're normal.