Ambition and motivation are certainly admirable qualities – for the most part, that is. At times and in certain circumstances, being highly competitive and willing to take however much time is needed to do a job right is the only way to succeed.
There is, unfortunately, a caveat to this kind of attitude, informally referred to as over-achieving. The fact is that, if you have one of these personalities, probably no one cares about the quality of your work as much as you do.
“Overachievers generally have impressive resumes because they overextend themselves and do not know how to succeed without overachieving,” said Bridgett Ross, PsyD.
And if nobody appreciates it enough, what do you do? Well… keep reading below, or consider talking with a professional that has experience resolving these types of concerns.
Even smart people have huge mental blind spots, for example when it comes to the relationship between effort and reward. After a certain point, whether you’re training for a marathon or trying to boost your calculus grade, returns not only start to diminish but can actually become negative. This may happen in a number of ways, but those of us who refuse to accept second best are especially prone to falling into depression when they fail to realize that perfection, being an abstract concept, isn’t always achievable.
It’s important to realize that the world isn’t divided simply into those with high standards and those who don’t care: the ways in which people define achievement vary too much for this. For some, every detail has to be just so, while others will focus on what seems most important to them, even to the point of neglecting side issues. Certain individuals want to see good results, fast; while others are more concerned with maintaining personal relationships and following a defined process. Neither attitude is necessarily superior.
Setting Reasonable Goals
For the perfectionist, anything short of a 100% outcome can seem like a minor catastrophe. Here’s the heart of the problem with this outlook: this is a form of negative motivation, meaning that, instead of pursuing success, the goal is to avoid failure. When “failure” is defined as anything less than stratospheric accomplishment, disappointment is bound to occur.
“Pursuing perfection — a goal that is intangible, fleeting and rare — may result in a higher rate of failures and a lower rate of successes that leaves perfectionists more likely to neurotically stew about their imperfections and less likely to conscientiously pursue their goals,” wrote Simon Sherry, PhD.
Making the transition from high school to university can be particularly challenging. Coursework is suddenly more demanding, while a new degree of independence is required from every student. New day-to-day pressures also make their appearance, from having to do your own laundry to forming new friendships in a sea of unfamiliar faces.
Acknowledging these challenges, and consciously defining realistic goals, can have a huge effect on a student’s long-term academic success and happiness. It may be helpful to make a distinction between what you have to do, and what you’d like to achieve in addition. When you’ve achieved the minimum, or are well on your way to doing so, you have the right to feel good about yourself. These little ego boosts are not irrational and can give you some extra energy to keep working.
Make Realistic Comparisons
A large number of overachievers would like to be the next Niels Bohr or Elon Musk, without realizing that they have to be themselves, first. Not everyone ends up contributing to society in the same way, and there’s no set timetable for success. It’s worthwhile recognizing that some hugely influential people, such as Julian Assange, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg all dropped out of college altogether.
Although it’s a little less restricted than high school, college is still a microcosm, a kind of academic petri dish that doesn’t reflect the real world all that much. Before you aim to be among the top three in your class, take a moment to consider that those three individuals will probably never meet again after graduation – and there’s no point in competing with someone who will end up working on the opposite side of the world from you.
It’s important for a perfectionist to remember that what matters, in the end, is often not brilliance and near-obsessive dedication, but consistency and persistence.
“Making and expecting to make mistakes is a critical part of the path toward mastery and excellence,” wrote Monique Thompson, PsyD.
People, including lecturers and employers, will approve of thoroughly good work being done on any one assignment, but completing all assignments on time and reasonably well is always going to be more important.
Perfection has a certain siren’s call: there’s always the temptation to proofread a text one more time, find one more source or figure out a derivation that just doesn’t seem to work out. This would have been great if we all had unlimited time and energy, but we don’t. Cs get degrees, and while doing the minimum possible is not recommended, making sure that all the basics are covered before trying to excel definitely is.