Sunday, January 9, 2011


PTR used to be an engineer.

You're an overachiever, aren't you?

If you think that being an electrical engineer who knows nothing about electricity is an achievement, I suppose so.

Snappy comebacks aside, it really threw me that the nurse said that.  For a start, I wasn't entirely sure whether it was a compliment or a snarky insult..

The whole under/over-achiever label is a very strange one.  The under-achiever is the person with clear potential, obvious talents, who chooses deliberately to waste them, typically because he lacks the drive to pursue his gifts or because he is lazy and takes it all for granted and simply coasts through life.  Hmm, sound familiar?  So you'd think that perhaps an over-achiever would be a lumpen prole who somehow conquers all through his singular obsession and force of will.  And occasionally the label is used like that.  But more often, it's a not-too-subtle put-down aimed at a person perceived to have too many feathers in his cap and needing to be cut down to size, by implying that they are just doing this stuff in order to garner grudging admiration if not outright jealousy from the drab crowds left in their wake.  And every now and then the over-achiever tag is used as a short-hand simply for someone who is outstandingly successful.

I don't feel like any of those sorts of over-achievers.  Not because I can't see shadows of myself in at least one of those descriptors, but because I don't feel like I have actually achieved anything.  I have one of those tissue-paper C.V.'s that looks nice and full but if you hold it up to the light you can see straight through it.

When I was young - that is, at school - I used to feel like a high achiever.  I would take home shiny new report cards every few months which had nice things written on them and I felt like I was succeeding.  Hmm, actually that's not true.  I felt like I was a high achiever because I got good marks in tests.  I always flunked my assignments because I left them to the last minute.  So my report cards tended to have varying grades on them depending on how much assignment work was part of that subject, and the comments from my teachers looked superficially like praise but were packed full of dogwhistled alarms that indicated that I was goofing off and annoying the hell out of them.  So on a day-to-day basis I felt like an over-achiever of the third kind, but when my report card arrived I'd feel like an under-achiever.

That continues to this day.  My colleagues tend to view me as some kind of Smart Guy while my supervisors tend to view me as some kind of Smart Arse.  As a result, people seem to never quite know whether I'm under-achieving or over-achieving.  And it seems to drive them nuts.

In my most recent exams I was paranoid about running out of time, so I had a schedule for how many questions to do every fifteen minutes.  I'd glance up at the clock and think, "Okay, good, got those done in 12 minutes, it'll be okay", and I just seemed to get faster and faster.  During the reading time I knocked off a bunch of questions too, with the end result being that two hours into the three hour exam, I was finished.  And since I have a policy of never changing my answers, I picked up Yoda and walked out.

The reason I tell you this story is because a couple of weeks later, I was talking to one of my Esteemed Colleagues who said to me, "Someone told me you left the exam really early so you must have either smashed it or just crashed and burned".  It made me think of the under/over-achiever tightrope that I seem to spend my life walking.  I explained my exam strategy to my Esteemed Colleague and admitted to her that I had neither excelled nor failed, I simply did okay really fast. 

Which is pretty much me in a nutshell: top-speed adequacy.  No wonder it gives people the shits.


Anonymous said...

You're the kind of guy who delivers 'top-speed adequacy' in the bedroom, aren't you?

PTR said...

So's your face!