You can imagine the scene—a group of friends chatting over coffee, talking about a mutual friend. She couldn’t be there because she is out of town for that thing she does. It’s one of many things she does well, and her life is full of adventures as her various talents and abilities take her here, there and everywhere, doing this, that and the other, meeting so and so and their friends. Finally, one of them says, “She’s such an overachiever.” And all the friends agree with admiring skepticism.
What is an overachiever? Is there really such a thing? Is being an overachiever good? bad? neutral? Let’s look at these questions in turn.
What is an overachiever?
Of course there is no formal benchmark for what an overachiever is. It’s an informal assessment of someone, usually as a way of acknowledging his or her outstanding achievements. Someone is usually called an overachiever because they stand out from the pack. The things they have done, or can do, their talents and abilities, and the extent of these things put the overachiever into their own category: the category of over-achievement.
But is there really such a thing?
An obvious problem for the category of the overachiever is: who says what the benchmark is? Achievement is always relative, so one person’s overachiever may be another’s sluggard, and vice versa.
More to the point: what does the “over” in overachiever refer to? Over what? Is there a standard level of achievement that is generally acceptable? Is an overachiever someone who goes beyond this status quo?
I think this is the real problem with the label “overachiever.” It implies that someone has broken the rules of expectation. Whether the label is meant positively or negatively (see next section), there is a judgment involved: the overachiever has bucked against the established norm. He or she has taken it further than normal people should. Something is wrong, somehow. The overachiever is not normal.
Is being an overachiever good? Bad? Neutral?
I think the term can be used in all three ways. Meant as a compliment, “overachiever” can affirm someone’s great abilities and accomplishments. It’s a way of saying, “wow” or “well done.” It can say, “you’re out of the box,” If Joseph’s story of “over-achievement” is anything to go by, we would do better to thank God for the things he brings about through people like that.“in a league of your own,” or whatever. It can be used as a term of genuine appreciation and praise.
But “overachiever” can also be a veiled criticism. It can be used to imply that someone has taken it all too far. They’re obsessed. A perfectionist. Maybe the overachiever neglects his family. Maybe she is full of vainglory. Maybe the overachiever is unfairly endowed with gift and opportunity. What about the rest of us?
The neutral use of “overachiever” can be meant simply as a shorthand expression. It’s a category that requires little further explanation when you’re trying to convey that a person is gifted and a proven achiever. Say, when considering a potential job candidate. A referee may say, “Well, of course, he’s an overachiever, you know.” And this is basically understood.
Overachievement and culture
In America, it seems that being called an overachiever is more often positive than negative. In this culture, achievement is regarded as an inherently good thing, usually without much qualification or caution. Therefore, an overachiever is seen as an outstanding example of one of the culture’s high values.
But in my native Australia, I would say that being called an overachiever is meant negatively more frequently than it is in the States. Perhaps it used as a veiled criticism, but a criticism nonetheless. A culture imbued by the tall poppy syndrome (see my first post, “Achievement: A Theological Exploration”) is naturally suspicious of the overachiever. Something is wrong with the overachiever. Maybe he has cheated somewhere. Maybe she works too hard. Or maybe he is just “stuck up” (he must be if he’s an overachiever, right?). Why rise above the group? Aren’t we good enough for you?
I don’t like the term “overachiever.” I don’t think it’s helpful. I can accept “high achiever,” which acknowledges the relativity of success and accomplishment. But I have a problem with the “over” in overachiever. Over what? Doesn’t that put a glass ceiling on achievement? What if God wants overachievers to do the things they’re doing? What if he has gifted them exactly for that purpose?
We would probably call someone like Joseph an overachiever (see my two part series on Joseph, part 1 and part 2). But we have no right to sit in judgment over him like that. We should not presume to speculate about his motives, or assume there’s something wrong in that picture. As we saw, Joseph’s achievements were entirely orchestrated by God for his purposes. If that story of “overachievement” is anything to go by, we would do better to thank God for the things he brings about through people like that.