If you ever played The Sims 2, (or like me, grew up with it) you might recall a certain aspiration goal for your Sims to “Become an Overachiever”. I remember being so frustrated because I had no idea what that meant, and my oversight was costing my Sim’s overall mental happiness. It was so much easier when their aspirations involved “First WooHoo” or “Growing Up to Adult”, the first for which you just had to click a couple of command buttons, and the second was just a matter of time (and a lot of fast-forwarding). But to be an overachiever? What does that even mean? In the world of Sims, it means getting an A+ and reaching the top of your career path. Congratulations! Your aspiration bar is now glowing platinum! It’s too bad the real world doesn’t work that way.
The prefix over– implies excess and suggests that there was an agreed upon limit which has been transcended. Therefore, an overachiever has achieved something beyond expectation, and has surpassed the generally accepted standard. But see, that’s where it becomes icky, and where my dislike of the term stems from. Who is setting the bar for what is still considered average, and more importantly, who expects the overachiever to achieve less? To say that something is “over” suggests a point of view coming from under–it’s a preposition that describes one thing relative to another. So does that mean that between overachievers, they consider each other average-achievers? Does one need to underachieve in order to think someone else overachieves?
From a grammatical standpoint, the nature of overachieving is undoubtedly subjective. But from a social one, the very idea of comparing achievements is ludicrous without contextualization. Specific circumstances and environments have great impacts on the nurturing of one’s success, or lack thereof. To get straight A’s and to reach a certain salary level implies that your unique situation allowed you to do so, from the simplest fact that you even went to school and had a job in the first place. In other words, anything you attain was already within your range of possibility, which itself dismisses the very notion of overachieving. To do the impossible means that it was always possible in the first place. I like to think that everything I’ve accomplished was well within my reach, and not forced upon me by “excessive” behavior. That’s the other thing about overachieving–it’s almost always negative. No one wants to be the person who tries too hard. Instead, we like to act as though things come naturally and easily to us. We also like to say that maybe if we tried harder, we would be better (or higher achieving), almost as a self-justification as to why we aren’t where we could be. To call someone else an overachiever is like a slight pat on the back as for why we haven’t caught up–it’s because they’re overachieving, not because there’s anything wrong with what I’m doing.
If you think I’m completely off track, just ask yourself this: has anyone ever described themselves to you as an overachiever? That’s probably because no one likes to think of themselves as one–the word has somehow adopted negative connotations despite the fact that it means you’ve done something right. There are countless lists on the Internet of “Things Overachievers Do”, yet somehow they all seem to contradict each other. Some say they avoid criticism at all costs and are more likely to stay in unhappy marriages (holy generalizations), whereas another list will say that they embrace their weaknesses and don’t shy away from closing doors (or failed marriages, apparently) because they know that a window might open. The only difference here is that one article was clearly written by someone who is intimidated by those who are slightly more “successful”, while the other was written in shameless self-defense by someone who has been accused of overachieving.
The point is, you’re the only person qualified to judge your endeavours, no matter how big or small– so you might as well start doing things for yourself and be completely honest with what you know you’re capable of. If every time I call it a day I am genuinely contempt with what I’ve accomplished, and can send the day off with a seal of approval, then that’s really the best I can hope for. Some people might set different standards for what they expect of themselves, while others may not have direct access to the resources they need, and are doing the best with what they’ve got– maybe even better than they’d ever expected. One thing that The Sims 2 taught me (of the obviously many, many things) is that at some point in life, people stop praising your every little victory–your family and friends won’t always gather around with party blowers and confetti the way they do at birthday parties. In fact, the Sims’ fulfillment after reaching their aspirations is completely internalized and can only be traced through their maxed-out mood and exceptional performance. They walk around the house as if high on a euphoric sense of self-satisfaction. Only us players of the game can check their aspiration bar status and acknowledge that they finally achieved something they’ve been wanting for a long time. We feel like applauding, but it would almost take away from their triumph. It was no big deal, really; they always knew they were capable. There is no such thing as overachieving.
Illustration by Robert John Paterson