The Price Of Being An Overachiever


I am a product of the Gifted and Talented program.

I’m a bundle of neuroses. I’m a perfectionist. I’m an elitist. I have a 3.9 GPA at my honors college, three years in, and when I got that B, you’d best believe I castigated myself so hard that any Opus Dei worth his salt would have flinched. 

I’m the president of an honor society. I’m in two choirs. I work for a living. I’m interning under a professor, on top of a 22-hour course load. I’m that dick that never misses class, always has the homework done ahead of schedule, always shows up ready for the exams, and has time to tutor less-adept students. You envy my work ethic. I envy your ability to stop.

Recently, a friend sent me a message over Facebook about how “together” I always seem. I responded that it takes work—which wasn’t a lie, but wasn’t quite the truth, either.

The price of being an overachiever (something people call me a lot) is not just the old “blood, sweat, and tears” yarn that they spin at your pre-college talks and in your handbooks. I’ve cried for my As, melted down for my As, sat in my bedroom shaking on the floor, gripped by a full-blown panic attack for my As—but, as much as I’m confessing here, no one who actually knows me could say they suspected a thing. I got up, washed my face, ate a cookie, and finished my homework. When my classmates asked if I’d been crying, I blamed allergies, or the sharp wind, or my family. 

I received an email from my professor about a few typos in a spreadsheet I submitted to her. Those could have been my fault, or they could have been the faults of any combination of the people who submitted the information to me. I accidentally omitted one paper out of 99 from a list, too. 

Looking at it like that, two minor mistakes in a sea of work, they seem trivial. To me, the consummate honor student, they were tragic. I’m not talking the dramatic, made-for-TV tragic, but the earth-shattering tragedy of knowing that you, the one person they picked to do this work, who received their letter from the university’s president that same day congratulating you on your GPA, you screwed up. Someone else had to fix something you messed up. My boss (the professor I work for) told me, “Don’t stress. This is hard work.” 

I’ve been doing hard work for two years now, and every time something like this happens—I miss a note in a song, I misidentify the form of some obscure Latin verb, I forget just how many words are in the average 12-page paper—my world shatters again. That, friends and followers, is the true price of being told for twelve years, “You’re smart, you’ve got this.” Any time you don’t “got this,” it’s cause to stop everything, sit down somewhere quiet, and wonder if you should just quit. 

Here’s another little anecdote, since this is getting heavy. One night (because I take night classes), in the student lounge, a few of us got onto the topic of grades. I’ve learned over the years that no one wants to hear about your As, so I stayed quiet until I was addressed directly. At my college, anything above a 3.75 after your first semester is considered next to godliness, so when I answered that I had a 3.9, the question was, “How do you do it?”

I answered honestly. I sacrifice friends for grades—I was taught, my whole life, that networking is more important than friendship. I sacrifice health for grades—“I can’t sleep until my homework is done,” I said, “or I just kind of…lie awake in bed, thinking, I could be doing my homework.” I legitimately forget to eat for a day, a day and a half—I’m too busy working on three essays at once and attending rehearsals for the big show next week. 

These guys were appalled. They’d barely scratched the surface of the fabled “honor student,” and they’d had enough; they were content to take their Bs (something I only wish I could do), because they’re well-adjusted, middle-of-the-road type guys. My life of endless work isn’t for them. It isn’t for me, either, but I can’t help it.

Being told I’m capable of everything—because I’m Gifted and Talented—from an early age has left me a socially-crippled pile of anxiety and unreasonable expectations for both myself and others; after all, if I can do it, why the hell can’t you? This is the real product of the GT program—not senators or presidents or endocrinological oncologists, but perfectionists and elitists who can’t be told they’re wrong, because, well, they’re smart. They’ve got this.

The best papers on topics like this do two things: one, they address the problem, and two, they offer a solution. Honestly, though, I don’t know what that solution is. I’ve been under this thing for so long that I lack perspective; I can’t say for sure whether support and assistance when I was a young’un would have helped, or that I just needed to be told the pressure was off, because being especially smart isn’t synonymous with being always right. 

I can say, however, that GT kids of my generation mostly feel pretty much the same. By all accounts, being gifted and talented should feel like positive things—but by the time we’re trying to become functional adults, they’re not. They’re just the way we make the grades.