NaNoWriMo / Novelcraft / Orphans / Writing

Everyone Hates Overachievers

For those of you who are here strictly for the writing tidbits, I promise they’re in this post. Don’t let the first part fool you.


Saying that you’re an overachiever often feels a bit like a humble brag.

Sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s honestly a problem. It’s a crippling desire to succeed, at the expense of all that is good in the world.

My name is Melanie Rio, and I’m an overachiever.

Personally I sort of blame my parents for instilling in me the desire for perfection from a very young age. Once upon a time when I was in fifth grade, I told my mother I got a 95% on a test. I was pretty pleased with that until she said, “Well, maybe if you had studied it would have been a hundred.”

Before you judge my mom (whom I love dearly) too harshly, let me say this: She was right. I rarely, if ever, studied for anything until I got to college. I’m fortunate in that I retain information very well and am generally a good test-taker and essay writer – which meant that I floated through elementary and middle school without having to try very hard (except in math. Dear Lord, mathematics ate my soul). My mother saw no reason to settle for a 95% if I could try a little harder and land a hundred – I think it irked her that I didn’t, and rightfully so.

In high school the desperate overachiever began to emerge, because education suddenly mattered. How you perform in high school determines where you go to college, which determines where you to go grad school, and how successful you’re bound to be later in life. At least, that’s how I perceived it. I took every AP and Honors class I could get into, took a few additional ones online, was a teaching cadet (our version of a TA), was on the board of directors for a non-profit theatre company, wrote and directed my own show and took the SAT while I had the flu. All in the name of being accepted to the only university that had become, for me, synonymous with academic success (it was Boston College if anybody’s wondering; I did get in but I didn’t end up there, because oh hey, $54,000 a year is A BOATLOAD OF MONEY). And now that I’m three years through my college education (holy crap, when did that happen?) I’m beginning to realize that being an overachiever may do more harm than good.

What brought this on?

Well, yesterday I was supposed to register for classes for my next semester at UNC. This process is notoriously difficult and almost nobody gets everything (or sometimes anything) they need on the first go. A few forward-thinking students have even invented a drinking game where you do a shot every time Connect Carolina crashes.

I had the perfect schedule all picked out an arranged. Five minutes before registration, all the classes I wanted were still open, and I was feeling pretty good.

T-minus thirty seconds to registration, they changed the time of the class my whole schedule was hinging on and all hell broke loose.

I spent the next hour and a half frantically scouring the Carolina website for other classes that could fill the suddenly enormous gap in my schedule for next semester. If this seems over-dramatic, it really wasn’t.

Here’s why: Yesterday I figured out that in order to fulfill of my requirements before graduation, I have to take twelve different classes in two semesters or less.

This is what happens when you have two demanding majors, a freakishly specific minor, and got Shanghaied into the honors program your freshman year.

Basically, academic death.

I’m currently having to apply to the dean for permission to enroll in more than the permissible number of classes so I don’t crash and burn next year.

This is a really long way of explaining that sometimes overachieving SUCKS.

Here’s where the writing part comes in.

If you’ve spent any time on the NaNo Facebook forum, you might have noticed that there are people WHO HAVE ALREADY FINISHED THEIR NOVELS. It’s day nine.

These people, though they probably don’t mean to, can pretty easily make everyone else feel like being on track isn’t quite good enough (this is also what the American education system does; if you don’t graduate high school with at least five college-level classes under your belt, you’re considered sort of sub-par. How messed up is that?).

Don’t get me wrong, having a cushion is nice. Once I’ve met the arbitrary 1,667 word quota for the day, I don’t just stop if I’m on a roll. I keep going until I get to a place where it feels natural to stop. So instead of the minimum 15,000 words required for today, I’m sitting on about 26,000.

Should that make you feel bad if you’re just over 15K, or even a little behind?

Listen up, children:


You’re a champ for even tackling this crazy thing called NaNoWriMo: you’re writing, you’re getting words on paper, so who cares what everybody else is doing?

It’s also good to bear in mind that quantity is no indication of quality – in fact, more often than not, the two have an inverse relationship. So don’t let somebody else’s staggering (and possibly exaggerated) numbers knock you off your high horse.

Being able to write a lot in a short space of time doesn’t prove anything – except that you have a lot of free time. So don’t let the overachievers get you down. Chances are, they’re losing sleep and pulling their hair out because they bit off more than they can chew.

Trust me. I speak from experience.

So keep trucking, and ignore everyone else’s wordcount. It’s not a race. You worry about you.

Keep up the good work.

116 thoughts on “Everyone Hates Overachievers

  1. I wrote a piece recently about being an underachiever, whereby I secretly wished I’d pushed myself a little bit more when I was younger. Having said that, I never disliked the overachievers, as I always felt they deserved the good grades because of all the hard work they put into it.

  2. Ha brings back memories of school for me. I didn’t have to study, either until university. Except in math. I also would act much the same when I scheduled my classes. Being an overachiever has its pros and cons.

  3. Wow, as I finished reading the post, you reminded me of our daughter, also an overachiever and a perfectionist, who is in her third year at Stanford. She graduated from high school as a scholar athlete (having ranked fifth in the state of California in Pole Vault as a junior in high school) with a GPA of 4.65. I remember how stressed she would get if she earned anything near an A- (on the high side of the A-). To her an A- on any assignment was the same as an F and more than two years at Stanford and she hasn’t changed. From 3rd grade to high school graduation she earned only A’s.

    When she would wig out, I’d tell her an occasional B or even a C isn’t the end of the world but she refused to ever see one appear on an assignment or report card.

    Even in Pole Vault she was an overachiever and spent several hours after school each day in practice and on the weekends jumping over and over and over often coming home late in the evening limping with the strained muscles and bruises.

  4. It almost feels like you’re fighting an addiction. I’ve learned how to let things go now that I’m much older, but it’s still a struggle. You’re right. Having recognized that being an overachiever distracts you from everything good, you should find a balance. I think you are, in your writing. Great job!

  5. I didn’t write anything yesterday — so I’m trying to write more words to catch up, but I’m still behind for NaNoWriMo.
    I loved how you added something we can all relate to :)

  6. “I’m working on my perfectionism,” is a running joke among my friends and family. I’m a good 20 years your senior, and I can tell you that being a lifetime overachiever has certainly shaped my life the way it is. My darling husband – just weeks before our wedding – asked me to please limit my “projects” to just two. TWO. (I am currently at eight-ish, I think) I told him he was welcome to take over the wedding project. :) I’ve accomplished NaNo with a fully time job, and then accomplished the same feat a few more times for edits and re-writes. Writing is currently my “second job” because I write at home after work.

    Being a “lifer” in the overacheiver category, I’ve got to say that more than anything it’s about prioritization and REALLY knowing what matters. Focus that drive and energy and fire on something that is going to get you where you want to go. (that means you need to know where you want to go…)

    Liberal arts degree? Your major (and your minor) don’t really matter. Unless they are hard actual skills (like a language) that translate into real world job skills, it’s all just “where you’re spending your time” and if you poll most people more than 5 years out of school they are light-years from their major field. The education matters, the skills matter. But you could safely drop a major, graduate on time (with or without honors no one past your first employer will ever know), and no employer ANYWHERE would bat an eye. I promise.

    NaNo? While fun as all get out, and exhilarating to finish a novel, I’ve quit, dropped out and failed more times than I’ve won. (and I’m trying to get a novel published currently. One that I finished. In February. And then again in July. And again in October – edits are a bitch) NaNo is GREAT for people like us because it does get us past that inner editor. But honestly, I’ve learned more from the times I’ve quit and opted out of the frenzy.

    The biggest trick for me was to figure out how to overachieve at giving myself a break!

  7. My view of an overachiever are perfect athletes with perfect bodies, total rock stars in the workplace, live in perfect locations (a mountain home and city home), have wonderful housekeepers and talk about picking out heirloom tomatoes at the farmers market as a perfect weekend. That is not me. I’ve been accused of being an overachiever, but I really don’t think I am one. I have many interests in many areas, but I am not an expert in any of them. I have a big mouth and overwhelm myself easily on a daily basis and make a mess everywhere I go.

  8. OMG, so true. I was a perfectionist until it almost got me going bonkers. The moment we focus on achieving things that we think is best for us contrary to popular belief, we’ve kept a step towards battling this addiction.
    Competitiveness is vital for a successful life but perfection is boring…

    Love this post.

  9. At this point in your life, you really haven’t achieved anything. What you are doing, is just running around to get a degree that may not be helpful to your success. Or one day, you figure it out that what you majored in is not what you want to do in your life. Sigh.

    Keep grinding , achievement is far, far from where you are right now.

    • Well, that’s debatable. I think the idea that you aren’t a real person until you finish school is far too prevalent. I’ve accomplished quite a few things that I’m proud of; doesn’t matter if they come with a degree.

  10. I too am an overachiever. I freak out if I get less than an A on any assignment. Earning a B on a test or, worse yet, as a final grade is unthinkable. And yes, it is a problem. And yes, registration is a nightmare, especially the closer you get to graduation. I end up with schedules A, B, C and D all penned out in advance. And when one class fills up within the first hour of registration, I frantically start trying to compensate without hijacking my entire schedule. And god forbid I should have class on Fridays. Ha. Thanks for the laugh. ;)

  11. I can totally relate. I think one of the most valuable things for me about going to college was realizing that is is ok to make a mistake, to do badly in something. Also, I have friends at UNC-CH. I think I have heard the entire story about connect carolina so many times I’m starting to feel like maybe my college registration process wasn’t stressful enough. Stress guilt!!!

  12. I feel like I’m the opposite. I was an overachiever in high school, but now I’m more of an average student in college. Reading this post makes me want to apply myself more to my college classes.
    So you’re at UNC? I know a guy who goes to the Chapel Hill campus.I’m in Virginia, by the way. We’re almost neighbors.

  13. “In high school the desperate overachiever began to emerge, because education suddenly mattered. How you perform in high school determines where you go to college, which determines where you to go grad school, and how successful you’re bound to be later in life. At least, that’s how I perceived it.”
    – – – –
    I agree with you completely! I consider myself – or at least I think I am – an over achiever and yes, it is very daunting at times. But there are times when it works out amazingly well too!
    The reason I quoted you up there, is because those words probably jumped out at me the most.
    I recently wrote an essay for my English Language class in which we had to discuss whether students are more interested in studying or earning money nowadays. I agreed with the latter. Although I haven’t gotten my grade yet – the teacher made it quite clear – right after we handed up our papers – her opinion on the matter, which was (of course!) opposed to mine.
    Long story short – she didn’t change my mind. But what she did do was make me extremely insecure of my opinion. But seeing this blog post of yours, and reading those lines – I think I can safely say that I wasn’t completely wrong.
    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed! Loved this! :)

  14. I really sympathize with you! My parents definitely pushed me to do my best, but there is also a drive in me to achieve that I sometimes wish was controllable or could be switched off. I go to UVA just enrolled in my courses. Luckily as a senior I did not need to worry so much about enrolling in the ones I wanted. I hope that happens at UNC too!

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  16. So true! I used to never ever revise and was still top of the class now I have to work my butt off to get anywhere near the top!

  17. Haha! I love your blog! fantastic outlook on how to pace yourself sometimes pays off, your right it’s so way to watch others to think how we should be x

  18. I can relate, being in high school and all…. I think it’s more common among teenagers. It reminds me of a leadership course I went to: Our group’s name was the ‘overachievers’, “the sky isn’t the limit”

  19. Wow, I really enjoyed reading this, it brightened my mood a bit. I am known to be an over-achiever and recently it had been driving me nuts- that is, my obsession of doing things well and in perfect time. At this time of year, I’m at my peak of stress, as it is not yet exam time yet, however there are many preparations all teachers are forcing upon high school students. I’ve been carrying all my textbooks and work binders home every night and frankly I felt burdened by all the work I had to complete… Basically I’m just thanking you for this post… I will try my best to take it easy! Best of luck! (:

  20. Thoughtful post. I too breezed through high school. When I began college I had little idea how to actually study. This deficit of skill made the first quarter quite challenging.

    To achieve: To successfully accomplish a goal or task.

    To me, the key is not the “accomplish” component, but rather, the “successfully” component. In our society, money and titles and awards are all too often the benchmarks of success. Don’t forget to love, to give, to live. Never stop learning, be curious and (perhaps most importantly) don’t allow others to define your success.

    BTW, I think your blog title is genius.

    Best of luck in your studies.

  21. I’m an overachiever in some regards. I’m 19, three days away from graduating college, and I was one of those blasted people who posted in the NaNoWriMo forum that I finished on Day 8.

    Writing like a madwoman during those eight days was probably one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself, like, ever. Writing 13K in one day was one of the few times where I felt like I set out to do the impossible and accomplished it, and that was a crazy-good feeling. Surprisingly, the stuff I wrote during those eight days isn’t half bad, and I think that’s because of how involved in my story I became from all those blocks of concentrated writing. Anyway, I was DEFINITELY sleep deprived and had a “bubble head” thing going on as a result of staring at the screen for so long, but it was totally worth it. Oh, and this:

    (Helpful tip: Buy an AlphaSmart NEO! I was able to get a lot of writing in during those moments where whipping out a laptop would be awkward, i.e. on the bus, at the bike on the gym, waiting in line for a movie, etc)

  22. I loved this post and could absolutely relate to your mother’s comment about getting “only” a 95% on your exam! My mother would even say this to me when I got 103% (on an exam with 5 points extra credit)! Only it didn’t do me good. It made me need therapy when I grew up!
    There is a clinical name for perfectionism internalized. It is called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Nearly all “perfectionists” have it. It’s not always a bad thing, as many successful people have it to some degree. It’s only bad when present to such a disabling degree that you can NEVER stop trying to make things better.
    Once you leave the college setting, you will need to tame this beast since OCD can begin to overtake your life. Hard work is good. Not taking the time to smell the roses is not.

  23. Sorry, I just had to comment and say congrats on getting into BC and having the balls to go somewhere else to save money. I didn’t and I’m about $70k in debt right now (graduated 2011). Not that BC wasn’t a fantastic place and I wish it had been feasible for you to go there, but super props for thinking about your future.

    BTW, which UNC do you go to? I applied to Chapel Hill but got rejected :( but I’m out of state so I didn’t really think I’d get in anyway.

      • It was–I met my fiance there–but I still wish sometimes I had gotten into UNC. My older cousin went there and I would have liked sharing that with him. Oh well. Good luck with all your overachieving :)

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