Origin of an Overachiever

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I’ve worked with several different coaches over the years, and I always present them with some version of the same problem: I’ve got too much going on in my business and my life! I don’t have enough time to do it all! I feel like I’m running around in a million directions and trying to do a million things and failing at all of them, all the time! Help! Save me from myself!

Most coaches quickly launch into problem-solving mode: identify priorities, make a plan, stick to it. There’s nothing wrong with this. It works… for awhile. But it never really addresses the underlying problem…

WHY do I run my life like this in the first place? What’s driving me to continually repeat the self-sabotaging cycle of overcommit-overwhelm-defeat?

My current coach took a different approach. He listened to my “I’ve got too much going on and I can’t do it all but I can’t stop myself from doing it all!” story for awhile, and then asked me a perspective-altering question:

“Was there ever a time when you felt like you really let someone down?”

I was surprised by my immediate answer:


Then I told him this story.

I only remember one thing about 3rd grade. It involves spelling words. My teacher, Mrs. Farmer, assigned us to write our spelling words in complete sentences. A typical assignment. But on this particular day she let us work in partners. This is where the trouble began.

I chose to work with Alison, the girl who sat next to me. Something mischievous must’ve been in the air that day because we decided to get creative and write funny sentences. And when you’re in 3rd grade, “funny” means underwear and pee. I remember one sentence verbatim: “The boy had to pee, so he peed in the mom’s face.”

Yeah, a little disturbing, I know. But before you bust out a time machine to go back to 1990 and call Child Protective Services, let me give you some context: My little brother Paul was a baby at the time, and when my mom changed his diaper once, well this exact scenario had happened. Which I thought was hilarious. And Alison did, too.

The one person who didn’t? Mrs. Farmer. (By the way, if you’re wondering which word was the spelling word, it was “so.” Which also raises some red flags…. I mean, we were in 3rd grade! And our spelling word was “so”?)

The next day at school Mrs. Farmer asked to see me in the hall. I’d never been called out in the hall before. I was a quiet, smart kid. School was a place where I simultaneously excelled and flew under the radar. Kids like me didn’t get called out in the hall.  

As soon as the door closed, my stomach dropped. Mrs. Farmer, normally a kind, smiling woman, looked at me with a tight mouth and hard eyes, a photocopy of my spelling assignment gripped in her slightly shaking hand. In a low, angry whisper she began:

“I cannot believe what you and Alison wrote on this paper. The sentence about the boy peeing in the mom’s face? That’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever read from a student. You and Alison will not sit next to each other again and you’re going to take this paper home tonight and have your parents sign it. Bring it back tomorrow.”

She handed me the photocopy. I didn’t say a word. I put the paper in my backpack and felt dread spread through my body as I imagined what my parents would say.

After school, my mom picked me up, which was unusual. I normally rode the bus. But she was working for the US Census and had a meeting with her boss at one of the only public meeting spots in our small town—Hardees. It was a real treat for me to go to Hardees. My dad was a schoolteacher and my mom stayed home—except for this Census gig—so money was tight. There weren’t a lot of restaurants in my childhood.

On this day, my mom ordered me a treat: vanilla ice cream with M&Ms. I sat in the booth, stirring my melting ice cream, watching the candy tinge it different colors. I couldn’t eat, knowing I’d have to show my mom the shameful secret in my backpack when we got home. I imagined she’d never want to buy me ice cream again.

When we got home, I took my mom to our small, dark TV room—as far as I could get from the prying eyes of my siblings—and showed her the paper.

As she read, I sat on the couch, quietly ripping out my bangs, my 8-year-old way of punishing myself.

I don’t remember what my mom said. I know she signed the paper and I took it back to school the next day. My parents didn’t punish me, which surprised me at the time. But I now know they saw no need, as I clearly punished myself more than they ever could.

I was never friends with Alison again. Even in high school we moved in different circles, probably due to differences in personality. But every time I saw her I remembered 3rd grade, and I think that subconsciously caused me to avoid her.

Now, you’re probably thinking, Okay….you got in trouble once in elementary school and that affected your whole life? Shouldn’t you be, like, over that by now?

And that’s how I thought of it, too. It’s not like I relived this experience in nightmares or therapy. But lately I’ve realized that this experience—literally the only thing I remember from 3rd grade—has significantly shaped my approach to life.

You see, after 3rd grade, I silently resolved to never, ever be a disappointment to anyone, ever again. I doubled-down on my efforts to please my teachers and parents, consistently pulling all A’s in school. I ran for student government, captained the debate team, and starred in the school plays.

In college I studied hard, wrote meticulously-worded research papers, and met every deadline, on time, every time. Every perfect score I received, every compliment, every “Let me read you a good example…” before the professor read my paper aloud to the class, re-affirmed that I was worthwhile, that other people were proud of me. That I was no longer a source of shame.

My drive to achieve continued into adulthood, even after the report cards and transcripts were irrelevant. I arrived at work early and stayed late. When I needed a substitute teacher (on those rare occasions when I missed work, because I never, ever wanted to miss work), I spent days typing detailed lesson plans so everything would go perfectly in my absence.

Even when I had kids of my own, I couldn’t cease striving for approval. So I said “yes” to every volunteer opportunity and filled my “down time” with tasks, to-do’s, and busyness, all in an attempt to prove my value to everyone else.

It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but…

I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to outrun the shame of my 8-year-old self.

And at 38 years old, I think it’s time to stop. 

Now, at this point in the blog, you might expect me to launch into a neat list of “8 Ways to Slow Down” or “10 Life Hacks for Overachievers” but I’m not going to do that.

Lists like that don’t help me—or you—because they ignore the most important questions: 

WHY do we feel compelled to rush through our lives so much?
WHY do we always need to be busy, to achieve, to “do more”?

This post was an attempt to answer those questions for myself. And maybe, it’s encouraged you to ask those questions of yourself.

Because as I go on this journey of simplifying the internal aspects of my life—my mind, emotions, and time—it’s important to know where it all started. For me, it was one day in 3rd grade.

So I’m curious…

If you’re constantly rushing around, trying to prove yourself to others, where did this begin for you? Can you identify a moment or experience that launched you into busyness, into a need to constantly seek approval?

I’d love for you to email me personally at [email protected] and let me know. I promise, I won’t make a copy of it and make your parents sign it. But I will write you back and let you know that I’m with you, that I understand you, and that I’m right there beside you if you want to try to forge a different way of being in the world.

To less clutter in our heads… and understanding WHY it’s there in the first place,

PS Clutter doesn’t just happen in our heads… if you’ve got clutter in your physical space, check out my FREE Minimalism Starter Guide. It will help you start creating clear, open spaces in your home today. 🙂

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