Right off the top, I want to make clear that this post is not intended to be a humble-brag. I’m hoping to use the observation in the title as a jumping-point for a meditation on my career and professional life.
I’m a busy guy. It’s often less of an issue of seeking achievement, and more the result of me absent-mindedly saying “yes” to obligations without regard to the impact it has on my time and calendar. I find it satisfying to be involved in all sorts of cool projects, but I also rationally know that “being busy” is a cop out.
Busy people are often flakey.
Busy people often use it as a status marker.
Busy people are often less effective than they believe.
That’s not to say that effective people aren’t busy. However, I bet that the ratio of effective people to the merely busy is skewed. But that’s besides the point.
The other day, a coworker and I were talking about career advancement and our track-records for interviewing for jobs and getting turned down. I commented to my coworker that they could invest more in themselves through courses at the College. They dismissed the idea as it didn’t fit their current career position (they are mid-career, so the investment in training has a lower return in their mind), but commented that it’s a good strategy for me. Then they dropped the line from the title:
“You’re an over-achiever.”
The comment was meant in the context of working at the College, working as a bouncer at a bar, teaching, taking a class, podcasting, etc., and it wasn’t meant to be dismissive or condescending.
The funny thing is that I don’t associate “over-achiever” with me. It’s not that I reject the idea being applied to me, but more that if I’m to associate words to describe me, it’s not one I would have thought of. My colleague also referred to me as “ambitious,” which I would agree is a closer description of me, except I would code that word to be synonymous with “foolishly hoping for a good outcome”.
The problem I have with the concept of being an “over-achiever” is I associate it more with outcomes instead of process. “Over-achievers,” to me, get results irrespective of how hard they may or may not work. I’m critical of my successes because I don’t think I achieve a lot (especially relative to the effort I put in – how busy I am).
That’s the disconnect for me. I often feel that for all my busyness, I’m not making a lot of headway. I’m not landing jobs that I interview for, I have a lot of projects that are idle or slow-moving, and I’m constantly filling up my evenings with stuff to do while also wishing I had more downtime.
This might not be a fair evaluation of my professional life, but it’s a reflection of the standards I have on myself. From a career perspective, I feel adrift and treading water. Each day slips by as more time I didn’t use wisely towards some further goal. Having these feelings hasn’t yet translated into action or a change of behaviour, and I don’t know if and when that might happen.
Other people I know (I won’t name names), whom I consider to have achieved something with their professional life, are also called under-achievers by people who know them best. When I heard that, I compared it to my own life, and felt bad. If they are under-achievers, what does that mean about me?
All is not lost. During orientation at the college, I joked with some engineering students that I have two philosophy degrees and three jobs, so clearly I’m beating the odds. I know that, rationally, I’m doing just fine; that I’m being too hard on myself, or I have unrealistic expectations on myself. Progression through one’s career is about building (skills, knowledge, connections, etc). It’s slow and methodical, not characterized by leaps forward. I need to keep reminding myself of this.