Some time back I wrote a book review on Alexandra Robbins’ The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids. I mentioned at that time that I one of my own daughter’s is an overachiever. Driven by a force unknown to me, she believes that she must achieve “perfection” in nearly everything she attempts. Only after her overachieving attitudes caused her to develop physical symptoms of stress (gasteoparesis and acid reflux) did she begin to understand the toll that her overachieving nature could take on her body and her life if she did not get it under control.
I spent this past week with 30 overachieving teens from various states in the Southeast. I assist with a summer program designed to introduce high-achieving high school students to the various areas of business and to spark an interest in them to attend business school. All of these students have exceptionally high SAT scores, amazing GPAs and place in the top 5 percent of their class. They have outstanding lists of academic awards, extracurricular activities and unbelievable goals. They are, for the most part, polite and well-mannered. They come from various socioeconomic backgrounds, but the two things they have in common are that all of them have the support of their families…and that they are all driven by some force in their lives to be an overachiever. The program allows them to attend a few business classes, experience activities on and around campus, and work on a project as teams for cash awards. Additionally, those who complete the program may apply for scholarships funded by the program.
I watched them this past week to see how they handled that overachieving nature that has afforded them the rewards they have accumulated thus far. Some of them have their overachieving natures well controlled. I watched as a young gentleman used meditation every time he felt he was losing control over his situation. He would stop, meditate, and return to a calm and controlled individual, ready to face challenges. I watched a young woman use humor to achieve balance for herself. When her team became too intense, she would crack a joke or make fun of herself in order to put the situation back into perspective. These are the ones that have learned that their success must be tempered with moments of sheer pleasure in life. These are the ones that will not only overachieve, but will enjoy life while they do it.
Others are not as fortunate. While they are definitely overachievers and definitely succeed in their tasks, they have not yet learned to balance their drive for success with the pleasures of life. These are the ones for which I worry. One young lady was emphatic that three days was not enough time to manage the assigned project. She complained when she had to cease work on her project to attend a fun-oriented thirty minute session designed to give them a break from their project and earn some cash. When I reminded her team that they were supposed to be having fun, she rolled her eyes and mumbled under her breath something to the effect that I was unrealistic. She even made a suggestion for improvement to the program: Cut out the “fun” events so they could be more serious about their project.
The driving forces behind these teens as they strive for overachievement are many. Some are their parents – for various reasons including being the first to graduate college, family pride (or shame), and the need to prove that their offspring are better than the Jones’. For some, it the shadow of a sibling, cousin, or parent that “failed” that they are trying to escape. For others, the force is internal and of their own making. Regardless of the source, they must learn to control it so that their life does not become only about the successes (or failures) they accumulate. Life is not only about the accolades, but also about the journey. If you are so busy attempting to get from point A to point B successfully, you miss out on a thousand amazing, fascinating, rewarding experiences along with way. Sometimes the side-trip is more influential than the destination.
As you study your own children and teens, remember that while there is nothing wrong with drive, ambition and success, it is not the only aspect of life that is important and rewarding. Teach them how to unwind, enjoy the simple things in life, and embrace the pleasures of simply living.