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Opinion and Editorial

Why some people remain underachievers their whole life

Marty Nemko
Filed on February 4, 2020 | Last updated on February 4, 2020 at 07.32 pm

Major illness can, of course, militate against achievement.

A subset of people who did well in school and on standardised tests fail to live up to their potential.

Here are common causes and possible remedies.

Trauma: Some people are able to rebound from even horrific trauma while others remain stuck for years. Some of them find that psychotherapy helps them move forward while others do better by trying to suppress the retrospection and focus on taking baby steps forward. How about you?

Lack of role models: If parents and siblings weren't high achievers, it can rub off. Do you want to spend more time among high achievers at work, in after-work activities, and in choosing friends and relatives to spend time with?

A very high-achieving parent: This is the converse of the previous item. If your parent(s) or sibling(s) are very high achievers, you might feel it's not worth trying hard because you'll never achieve as much. Might you want to channel your competitive instincts to competing with yourself, being your best self, whether or not you turn out as high-achieving as is a family member?

Too indulgent parents: Parents who make it too easy on a child discourage him or her from working hard. A possible remedy is to take on a project that's doable only with best effort. You're more likely to stay with it if it is something you deeply believe in or, if you're money-oriented, which holds the promise of large financial reward.

You got in the habit of getting by on your smarts: You were smart enough to get 'A's with little work...until you couldn't, by which time slackerhood was ingrained. Again, is it time to take on a challenge?

Mental or physical illness: Major illness can, of course, militate against achievement. Are you doing all you can to address your condition?

Substance abuse: That can keep people from living up to their potential. For example, many of us know bright marijuana users who suffer from a motivational syndrome and memory impairment. Is it time for you to moderate or even stop abusing a substance?

Intrinsic laziness: That can create a vicious cycle. The person achieves less well in school than s/he could, ends up in a workplace with many lackluster coworkers and low expectations, which allows the person to get by with even less effort.

In earlier decades, I believed that most 'laziness' was merely a symptom of fear of failure, effects of trauma, lack of an exciting goal, etc. But in recent years, I've concluded that, independent of those factors, many such people are simply less driven than are others. If that sounds like you, it may be wise to accept yourself and direct self-improvement efforts to one or more of the above.

The takeaway

The underachiever often feels guilt and shame about not contributing as much as do people with less potential. Might one or more of the suggestions above help you to feel better about the life you're living? -Psychology Today

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, California, and author of 10 books


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