Prove your humanity

So, I just finished my first semester of university, which means I’m feeling a whole range of emotions right now—as I’m sure many others in my situation can relate to. Did I do okay? Was it what I expected? Have I made the right choice about my degree? Maybe I shouldn’t have slacked off on those few assessments… Surely it’ll be fine, I’ve still got a few years to catch up. Right? Right?!

Although we can certainly agree that this semester has presented us all with a unique set of challenges—I’m looking at you, Covid-19—there’s been something else weighing on my mind. A personal struggle that I knew was going to come bite me eventually has finally caught up to me upon starting university. For the first time ever, I’m having to seriously grapple with the reality that, for my entire childhood and adolescence, I was a textbook overachiever.

Starting university has essentially forced me to confront my longstanding, overachieving nature. You see, being thrust into a new environment—one in which you are all of a sudden a tiny fish in a very large pond—is the kryptonite of the overachiever. Now in theory, I don’t have an issue with no longer being the high performance, success machine that I once was. I understand that everyone has their own talents, and that it doesn’t make sense for singular people to possess all the skills in the world whilst others are left with none. I recognise that collaborative work between diverse people of different skillsets is far more beneficial for the world at large than individual work for personal gain will ever be… It’s just that, growing up thinking that being the best was the only measure of success, I’m only now having to confront the reality that I’m not always going to be the sharpest tool in the box.

As I’m sure many of my fellow former overachievers would attest to, being an overachiever isn’t just a temporary state of mind: it’s a massive part of our identity. It can feel like our level of success in day-to-day life is the only thing that makes us valuable as a person. Now, of course, this is an incredibly unhealthy mindset to have, but I’ll be the first to admit that this viewpoint is both very real and all-consuming for the people stuck in its web—just as I was, growing up.

Coming to terms with life post being an overachiever is no easy feat, and although I am certainly nowhere near accomplishing this myself, there have been a few realisations I’ve had that aid me significantly along my journey to greater self-acceptance:

  • Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and this diversity of skills and interests is necessary for innovation and betterment of society.
  • There’s nothing wrong with not picking up a new skill immediately, just as there’s nothing wrong with asking for help when you need it. There are also going to be times when a task is just too difficult to complete in that moment, and that’s okay too.
  • What constitutes ‘success’ is a completely subjective thing. Striving to achieve other people’s idea of success will never quite fulfil you in the same way as finding and working for your own.

Once we realise the problematic nature of our behaviours, the real test becomes seeing how we cope with no longer having the sense of identity we got from being overachievers—lost along with the chance of attaining the promised high-stakes-high-rewards. I suppose this is a lesson, then, for all ex-overachievers; we don’t have to feel like our worth is made up solely of our academic accomplishments. It’ll be a tough journey towards self-acceptance, and there will definitely be bumps in the road, but we’ll get there eventually. We’ll continue chasing that slippery feeling of fulfilment, but this time find it in other areas of our lives—in passions, interests or loved ones—and realise that we don’t need an A grade paper, trophy or certificate to get there.

Being an overachiever is just fine, so long as you don’t let it define yourself entirely.