This time of the year, around the anniversary of my immigrating to the States, I tend to do a little more naval gazing.
This year, I find myself reflecting on a term with which I have some issues, “high achiever.” The expression usually implies that someone has achieved more than … but what? It also connotes a high degree of competitiveness.
I hate competition. Competition makes sense in sports and in related environments where repetition or efficiency is the goal (link). In the Chinese/Taiwanese education system, we are expected to be competitive; we need to make our parents look good. Such a burden.
My mother, bless her soul, of course wanted all her children to do well (what parents wouldn’t?), but she would never brag about her children’s “accomplishments.” The high school I went to was the best (girls’) high school, and the atmosphere felt like the premed frenzy in this country, although I understood the comparison only after I came to the States.
In my high school, we all learned not to let on how hard we had to study for quizzes and tests, and some would actually beam or strut around, albeit subtly, after besting fellow students. Those three years of high school were the worst time in my life.
I don’t accumulate degrees or awards as badges of honor; I simply enjoy learning and exploration. If that means getting degrees and awards, so be it. I don’t regard them as having achieved anything special because for me, it’s all about finding something to be excited about … and the weirder it is, the more fascinating it is.
And I know plenty of people who are like that, regardless of their educational background. Some of the people I most admire have “only” high school diplomas, and some of the PhDs I have known are downright obnoxious.
Such superficial accolades are just that, superficial. Years ago, one of the entrepreneurs I met had a PhD in biology but eventually acknowledged and accepted that his true passion was – and still is — woodworking. When he and I compared notes, we discovered what “competition” meant to us both: It’s about competing against ourselves, against some amorphous standards we keep updating, based on everything around us.
The conventional “high achieving” environment is actually quite toxic because it’s based on zero-sum competition mode where my win would have to be at the expense of someone else’s loss. It’s a scarcity mode of being. In such an environment, most people lose by definition.
This attitude partly contributes to the ever-increasing stress levels on students, particularly during their high school years, and on employees who see the managerial ladder as the only success measurement (suggested readings here and here). After you achieve a 4.0 GPA – sorry, I mean, 4.75 – then what? After you become a VP, make tons of money, or build five casinos, then what? What will you have accomplished?
I don’t readily know how to make a distinction between “high achievers” and those who forever follow their curiosity and passion. I’d love to hear your take-on and suggestions. Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.