There have been articles published recently identifying a type of person called and insecure overachiever. The first appeared in the financial Times with the title “Insecure Overachiever? You are perfect for the Job.” by Andrew Hill. This was followed by a programme on Radio 4 by Laura Empson entitled “Are you an Insecure Overachiever?” Both articles indicate that the insecure overachiever mindset begins in childhood but can persist into adulthood to produce highly driven individuals sought after (some may say exploited by) big business.
Most people would claim that it’s good to be hard-working and motivated but the bad side of becoming an insecure overachiever is the stress, discomfort and distress that can be experienced over many years. With growing levels of depression and anxiety being seen in teenagers could the pursuit of top grades be driven by feelings of deep inadequacy?
What if you recognise the descriptions of insecure overachievers? Even gaining university a university degree, is unlikely to remove the burning need for more study and self-improvement. There are ways of thinking that can help manage the drive to over-achieve and one of these is the concept of over-engineering. This means creating extreme performance whether that is in terms of strength, number of features. Economics limits over engineering with reduction of material costs, transport costs etc providing a pressure against over engineering. What about extreme academic performance? What is the limiting pressure? It doesn’t cost more to work hard- well not in financial terms but in mental health terms it does. We all have a finite mental health budget, some larger than others but when this is disregarded, we push into the red where it is impossible to remain healthy.
Discussing with students their feelings and motivation is important as is appropriate target setting. If getting a grade A is the target then everything above the cutoff score can be described as “wasted effort” Of course students should never be chastised for excessively high test scores but the amount of “wasted effort” can be calculated and commented on. This can help with homework or project work too where thinking about it in terms of efficiency and the amount of improvement for the extra hours of effort can guide when to stop. Producing your very best work all of the time comes at a cost. Getting exactly on the grade for an A is not particularly comfortable and so like all good engineers we need a safety factor. If the mark for an A is 75% then a safety factor of say 10% would make 85% ok but more than that and we are into wasted effort territory.
Whilst discussing wasted effort with insecure overachievers may be a valuable exercise, they are likely to need some convincing. Sometimes the excessive work comes from a genuine belief that they may fail the test. This is where formative assessment is critical. Some students know what they know and what they don’t- we would say they have good metacognition. Other students don’t realise that they either know the topic or that they don’t know the topic. Formative assessment is testing that is of low risk to the student so is not a formal test, rather something quick like a self-marked test where feedback demonstrates that they know that thing or they don’t. Formative assessments give evidence to the student of their level of knowledge. Sometimes it’s enough to reassure the student that they know what they need to know and it’s time to relax.