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And What About "Overachieving"?
Whose standards are people being measured against when they’re considered “over-___”?
Not long after I sent off a post criticizing the concept of “overthinking,” I saw an article about “overachieving” and had a similar reaction. Even the dictionary definition of this concept makes clear that it involves outliers who diverge from the norm. Merriam-Webster says an overachiever is “one who achieves success over and above the standard or expected level.” And doesn’t the word “overachieve” almost always carry a tinge of disdain? After all, if we intend to praise someone who’s diligently successful, we would call them a “high achiever” or “amazing” or “a star.”
As with “overthinking,” the disparagement related to “overachieving” seems much more likely to affect introverts. We’re the ones who spend eons of time and oodles of energy on small-group or solitary pursuits. We’re the ones labeled nerds, wonks, grinds and so on. When our outsized effort results in societal recognition of achievements, some non-outstanding people want to cut us down to size. Out of envy or resentment, they blow monster dust at the quiet, behind-the-scenes types who come out ahead.
Also implicit in the idea of “overachieving” is the idea that hard work takes someone beyond where their intelligence or talent would otherwise take them. Somehow that’s viewed as unfair. Perhaps hard work takes people beyond where they’re presumed to have a right to be, in the light of racial, gender or class hierarchies. Asian Americans in particular who stand out in high school as accomplished musicians, students and volunteers often get labeled “overachievers.” Ditto for women who can be depended on to get everything done very well on time. And when disadvantaged lower-class people succeed, they might be said to have “overachieved” because expectations for them were low.
Similar dynamics come up with yet another “over-” word, “overqualified.” Here too a disparaging word puts people in boxes because they don’t match average expectations and goals. Someone who’s deemed “overqualified” may feel perfectly fine about an unconventional tradeoff, but others decide that for them – predicting that they wouldn’t be happy with that option, wouldn’t perform well and wouldn’t stay. The middling person gets preferred.
From my perspective, assumptions have too much power when the words “overthinking,” “overachieving” and “overqualified” get tossed into the ring. On behalf of introverts susceptible to many kinds of negative labels, watch out for this type of derogatory language.