On the underperformance of overachievers

Feb 22, 2011

Overachievers make for worrisome business leaders, and they’re doubly dangerous as CEOs. Why? Because their desire to achieve blinds them from the vital need to perform. ‘Achieve‘ comes from an old French word meaning ‘bring to a head’ – and that’s exactly what overachievers do: they bring things to a head. Sometimes it’s pretty to watch, sometimes not, but one way or other, Goddamit, they’re going to Get. It. Done. Whatever the cost.

Perform‘, although it also originates from a French word, is something else entirely. It means in essence to complete something through alteration. The art of performance is not just to bring something to a head (achievement), but to complete it, to make it whole, to transform it for the better.

Performing – making something complete through transformation – is considerably more nuanced than mere achievement. You can bring something to a head (if you want to) by sheer brute force, but it takes subtlety, patience and precision to perform, to transform something into what it truly can be.

None of this is to say that overachievers cannot make great CEO’s. They can, but it’s very difficult, mostly because what they are doing (achieving, achieving, achieving) looks like CEO-ing, even though it isn’t that at all.

An overachiever can ram through a new marketing strategy. They can wear down a recalcitrant team member. They will outlast a recession, explode past their competition, annihilate technical constraints. This all looks good from a distance, but up close, internally, it’s tearing muscle from bone, weakening the business.

Tomorrow I’ll share the three ways in which performers differ most clearly from achievers, but for today, ask yourself this:

Am I trying to achieve, or perform?”