The Myth Of Under- (and Over-) Achievement


By David Albert

Each one of you is perfect as you are. And you all could use a little bit of improvement.” -- Zen Koan

We are all underachievers.

Or so it seems to me. That most of the time we could do better as individuals seems obvious. Psychometricians often claim we are smarter than ever. I don’t know – I tend to think that while as individuals we may be getting smarter (better nutrition and all, though make sure to supplement those Omega-3s), our collective intelligence, in our neighborhoods and in the world community, is increasingly impoverished, and, as a society, we get dumber all the time.

Maybe it just feels that way because we could do – we could be -- so much more. Scholars note that, despite increases in the world’s population, this is likely the first time in modern history that we have the resources to feed, clothe, house, provide for health care, and ensure a healthful environment for every individual on the planet. (You’ll notice I left out “educate” from the usual litany – “education” is at least partially what has gotten us into the mess in which we find ourselves.) That we are plagued by war, disease, pollution, hunger, and destitution is proof enough for me that we live on an underachieving planet.

I am far from the first to have had this thought. Some 2,800 years ago, in the first book of The Odyssey, Homer has Zeus berate humankind for holding the gods responsible for their own misfortunes. Recalling the miseries brought on by the Trojan War, Zeus exclaims:

Ah, how shameless—the way these mortals blame the gods.
From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes,
but they themselves, with their own reckless ways
compound their pains beyond their proper share.

Zeus reminds the other gods that the war and all the attendant suffering was caused by humans reaching beyond their rightful portion, though knowing full well that it would ultimately end in their own total ruin. Sound familiar?

Perhaps the gods themselves are underachievers.

* * * * *

Let’s begin with overachievement. It is obviously true that human beings regularly perform what might normally be thought to be phenomenal feats in all areas of endeavor. It is similarly evident that individuals regularly achieve more than others think them capable, and, perhaps equally often, more than they think capable of themselves.

What the notion of overachievement suggests is that we are often very poor judges of our own capabilities, let alone those of others. Perhaps we see this most often in sports, where we come to believe both that there are general physiological limits to human capabilities, and there are also limits beyond which we as individuals cannot achieve.

Track and field athletes and their coaches regularly devise stratagems to overachieve. The pole vault coach sets the bar six inches higher than normal and doesn’t tell the athlete, who has been clearing the lower bar by a foot every time. What the athlete thought was her maximum performance turns out not to have been at all. It was, to use a phrase coined by Dr. Bill Morgan at the University of Wisconsin, a “pseudo-maximum performance”.

Of course, at some point the general physiological limits – the ability of the heart to pump blood to the muscles, the ability of the muscles to utilize fuel, and their ability to contract and respond - kick in. There likely really is such a thing as maximum performance, but most of us most of the time never get close.

Getting close, whether in athletics or anything else, requires that we leave our comfort zones. We block out pain, we tell ourselves that we can keep going, and we push a little harder. In working on a writing project, or studying for an important test, we call on our inner resources, and we work ourselves almost sick. Almost is the key. Pain is a signal to us to slow down. There is only so much beyond the pain threshold – whether psychological of physiological – that we can go before performance suffers, and the quest for maximum performance begins to collapse.

We discover mental tricks that allow us to go the extra mile. We utilize means to act in ways which even we ourselves think we are incapable, and the courage to do so, and, under the right environmental and psychological conditions, courage becomes a habit, and we suddenly find ourselves more than we expected ourselves to be. We didn’t “overachieve” at all; we simply make more of capabilities we already possessed. And after awhile others come to expect this of us, and we come to expect it of ourselves.

However, ultimately, constantly reaching for maximum performance, especially when that level of performance is defined by someone else’s expectations, grows both stressful and tiresome, and we risk forgetting who we are in ourselves. Sooner or later, overachievement fatigue sets in. It no longer seems worthwhile to set one foot in front of another on the forced march, particular since at the end of this march there is every expectation that there is only another one.

Stress itself is not the enemy, but the lack of time and commitment to recovery and renewal is. In the long run, relentlessly stressful demands or environments never bring out the best in us; intermittently stressful ones that we can control and modulate ourselves, coupled with self-regulated renewal, can.

* * * * *

If we accept then that there is no such thing as overachievement, but only individuals working more closely to their hypothetical level of maximum performance, we can then reason that there is no true dichotomy between overachievement and underachievement. They exist entirely on the same continuum, with no fixed centerpoint, no objective position where achievement and potential are zero sum. Overachievement and underachievement are not two sides of the same true coin, but (as I hope to demonstrate later) the same side of a counterfeit one.

So why does our level of performance remain or fall further away from this hypothetical maximum level? Again, I think it is easier to start by looking at athletes because, with the exception of sports with somewhat subjective scoring (gymnastics and figure skating come to mind), achievement and performance are objectively measured.

Injury/trauma - The first and most obvious reason is trauma. Injuries simply make it more difficult for athletes to perform at the highest level of which they are capable.

Lack of rest can lead to poorer performance. Physical and/or mental fatigue can make it difficult to achieve. This fatigue does not have to be only a result of effort expended on the highlighted task, but may carry over from other phases of our lives. Similarly, while

stress itself is not an enemy of performance, constant stress and anxiety is. Athletes require planned and regular periods of lower stress.

Athletes can suffer from poor coaching, embodying techniques that do not work effectively with an individual’s strengths and weaknesses. A coach’s lack of understanding of the particular and unique needs, predilections, and psychology of an individual can retard an athlete’s performance, rather than enhancing it. What works for one athlete may not work for another, and the scaffolding necessary to reach toward goals is best constructed one individual at a time.

Not having enough training time can retard performance. This of course is a highly individual matter, with overtraining and undertraining being equally risky. What seems to be universally accepted is that too many competitive events – too much testing – can get in the way of focusing on maximum performance.

External distracting conditions – family illnesses or disarray, financial difficulties, etc. – can make it more difficult to focus or center on goals. Improper diet can impact performance as well. Especially damaging to achievement are less than optimal environmental conditions both for practice and performance, as are less than optimal tools and equipment.

Memory of past injury/trauma – It would be difficult to overestimate the impact of memory of past injury or trauma. At its simplest, an athlete may be “overly” careful based on a previous traumatic experience, or “favor” a particular body part because of fear of reinjury.

But the impact of traumatic memories go well beyond that, in that such memories may affect motivation in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Motivation is the key to performance and, more critically, lack of untrammeled motivation may result in suboptimal achievement. Motivation is complex, of course, and is related to the proper choice of goals. It may ebb and flow in the daily course of our lives, as competing aims and motivations come and go.

But even as motivation presupposes future goals and future efforts directed toward attaining them, motivation is equally impacted by past experience. Just as higher performance depends on our ability to step outside our comfort zone, lowered performance often results when we feel incapable of moving outside of it, or through thought processes that narrow our range of comfort to begin with. The memory of failure and the inability to psychologically mediate it may, for example, result in a fear of failure in the future, and a need to “play it safe”. Similarly, just as fear of failure can impact motivation, so can fear of success. Success can invite further and unwelcome pressures for future performance, unwanted and unappreciated attention in the present, or may even divert an individual from self-chosen goals. Athletes (and others) have been known to “self-sabotage” as a form of self-protection.

So just as past physical trauma can impact future achievement, so past psychological trauma can have equivalent impacts. Individuals may simply shy away from the discipline – in time, energy, and effort – necessary to achieve even self-chosen goals, because of post-traumatic stress. While such decisions might seem less than fully rational for an individual without such memories, they might be fully sensible in the light of past experience.

* * * * *

What we have just demonstrated is that rather than thinking of individuals as “underachieving”, we have isolated a minimum of 16 conditions that may impact an individual’s ability to perform as well as might be otherwise expected. While examples of these conditions come from the world of athletics, there is no question in my mind that they apply equally to other avenues of human endeavor. Change any of these conditions - environmental, physical, mental, or emotional – change the constraints, be afforded a different psychological outlook, and the calculus changes, and the level of achievement along with it.

We know this so well as adults. Ever been in a group of people where you chose not to function at your highest level because you didn’t want to stick out in the crowd? Ever not volunteer for a task because you knew that, if you did so, you would perform it so well that you’d end up being volunteered again and again and again? Ever not do your best because you knew that doing so would make someone else feel bad? None of these are instances of underachievement, nor of “being lazy”, but simply calculations made (sometimes incorrectly) to optimize the pleasure/pain quotient, either for the individual or for the group.

Still, when it comes to learning, there is something unseemly about this entire exercise. Our children are not athletes, and education isn’t (or shouldn’t be) simply a matter of reaching for the brass ring. We’ve conflated “achievement” (or worse, production) with cognitive capacity, cognitive capacity with intelligence (as I’ve written elsewhere, cognitive capacity is only one of at least nine elements of intelligence, and not necessarily the most important*), intelligence with performance, and then so narrowly defined performance so as to forgot all the truths we really know about children – namely, that they have fears and dreams, wants and desires that do not conform to the bubble answer sheet.

Too many of us have lost any sense of what achievement even looks like. Occasionally, we find children who are precocious, they perform certain kinds of tasks before their peers. More rarely we find children who are prodigious, and are capable of performing tasks in a way we would expect of adults. Almost never do we find genius, performance that, if we witnessed it among adults, would be accorded the highest of value.

Except we do. We see genius in learning, not in performance. We witness language acquisition, mathematical understanding, competence in dealing with a widening world grow at a rate that would do Einstein proud, and at a clip that is never experienced among adults. In literate cultures, the kids learn to read; in cultures with shoes, the kids learn how to deal with the laces.

When it comes to learning, the genius of children is a well-oiled machine. Except it is not. Machines don’t have emotions or desires. They don’t consciously experience pasts or project futures. They don’t learn. They don’t become more competent or accomplished with time. They achieve and produce, and they are interchangeable, and can be replaced as needed, with the more poorly performing ones consigned to the trash heap. More and more, this is what “education” has come to look like.

And the big difference between children and machines? The latter don’t do better, or feel better, when you give them a big hug.

* * * * *

As a society, we have become overwhelmed by this focus on machines and production, so it is not all that surprising that our educational institutions reflect and reinforce this same thinking disorder. As I listen to debates about the so-called oil crisis, it is fascinating (and alarming, at least to me) to note that all the fixes, from virtually all sides of the political spectrum, focus on production – drill for more oil, build more refineries, create better cars, invent and manufacture new batteries, install sunlight-gathering or wind-harnessing machines, grow more corn, boil hot water (e.g., construct nuclear power plants). And I, working to outgrow this fixation and sensing a crisis of the spirit rather than an energy shortage, keep thinking: reorganize communities, support local producers and import less stuff, redefine work, share resources, enhance conviviality. A bit of “pseudo-maximum performance” in these areas and who knows what we might be able to achieve!

And promote life learning, the single best positive alternative to ecological devastation.


* Focus and centering; drive and perseverance; organization; analytical ability; intuition; creativity; capacity to learn from others; flexibility, humor, and a sense or proportion; courage.

David H. Albert is a homeschooling father, speaker, and featured columnist forHome Education Magazine and The Link Homeschooling Journal. He is also author of several homeschooling books, including And The Skylark Sings with Me,Homeschooling and the Voyage of of Self-Discovery and Have Fun. Learn Stuff. Grow. Homeschooling and the Curriculum of Love. He has offered Gifted Homeschoolers Forum members a $2.00 discount on signed copies -- just go to his web site at, order a copy, and write "GHF" on the comment line.

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