Are You an Overachiever, or a High Performer?

Overachievers pay high price for their success, while high performers maintain a healthier balance

In our success-oriented society, many overachievers proudly wear their accomplishments—their job title, awards, and performance-based bonuses—like badges of honor.

If anyone asks, they can easily cite extra hours worked, bigger caseloads than others, fewer holidays, and how busy they are, to prove why they are deserving of their success.

But what if your achievements leave you feeling fearful, full of regrets, and empty inside? There is obviously a downside to this kind of success, but why is it?

A high performer also is getting a lot done, yet for this person success is measured by the number of problems solved, processes made more efficient, professional connections gained, and new skills learned.

Ask a high performer about their life, and they’re likely to talk about a new hobby they are trying out, or a course (or two) they are excited to take.

A high performer is okay with putting work on the back burner to go out with colleagues, or take a vacation, whereas an overachiever finds this very difficult to do.

Both types of people have impressive resumes, and both can be counted on to get the job done.

Both are achieving, yet their steps to success are wildly different.

In case you are wondering which is preferable in business—where success tends to matter the most—savvy companies actually prefer to hire high performers rather than overachievers.  

The reasons are very interesting. Hopefully, you can identify which personality type you are.

Why Companies Prefer High Performers

Experts in business leadership recommend companies hire high performers rather than overachievers. Why?

Les McKeown, a business growth expert with 30 years of experience, says it is because an overachievers’  “desire to achieve blinds them from the vital need to perform.”

McKeown explains the fundamental difference between the behaviors of overachievers versus high performers in an influential blog post:

“An overachiever can ram through a new marketing strategy. They can wear down a recalcitrant team member. They will outlast a recession, explode past their competition, annihilate technical constraints. This all looks good from a distance, but up close, internally, it’s tearing muscle from bone, weakening the business.”

A high performer, on the other hand, will deliver results while building up the business. They will make things happen, but with more patience, and while simultaneously making the organization stronger.

A Tendency to Sabotage  

According to McKeown, overachievers introduce the potential for unintended organizational sabotage, (as well as self-sabotage). There are two reasons for this.

The first stems from their inability to entertain failure. Overachievers will usually choose the winning solution over the optimal solution (which could involve risk), and this is no small thing.

The winning solution could involve hurting others, minimizing others, trampling on others—whatever it takes to get the job done.

And this behavior contributes to the second cause for sabotage: self-doubt.

That could be the result of an inner knowing the person has that their success came at the expense of others, McKeown postulates.

It causes overachievers to second-guess themselves, and constantly switch strategies while losing confidence along the way.

Further, psychologists who have analyzed the traits of overachievers have identified that overachievers are deeply afraid of criticism.

If someone can’t take any criticism, it would make managing an overachiever difficult, wouldn’t it?

Are You an Achiever or a Performer?

Which traits do you identify with the most?

  • You avoid failure at all costs
  • You see failure as an opportunity to learn
  • You strive for perfection
  • You strive for productivity
  • You never feel like you are good enough
  • You enjoy learning new things and developing your skills
  • You have a lot of regrets and disappointments
  • You are self-motivated and fearless when making decisions
  • You never feel satisfied
  • You take the initiative to learn outside of work, and you don’t mind taking on new projects
  • You feel empty inside
  • You are cool under pressure
  • You are a workaholic and tend to put friends and family second to work
  • You have good people skills and a wide network of friends and colleagues
  • You are highly focused on future outcomes
  • You are highly focused on the process (as well as the outcome)
  • You prioritize quality over simply “getting the job done”
  • You have zero tolerance to criticism
  • You enjoy getting feedback, and actively seek it out
  • You would rather stay in a bad relationship than admit failure
  • You are self-aware and look inside when problems arise


Overachievers Prone to Anxiety and Depression

Overachievers tend to gravitate to professional jobs, such as doctors, lawyers, dentists, and firefighters, where precision, detail, and performance are highly valued.

Commission-based jobs, such as real-estate agents, stock traders, and salespeople, are also attractive to them because these are positions where they can work hard and prove their individual successes.

Unfortunately, these are precisely the types of roles where the fear of failure is ever-present.

What are the consequences if a doctor makes a mistake? What if you don’t make the sale and you don’t get paid?

Overachievers tend to be highly focused on future outcomes, and it contributes to anxiety.

This is a recipe for stress and even depression. In extreme cases, suicidal thoughts and suicides can occur without anyone around the person knowing about their depression.

For an overachiever, admitting they are struggling with depression is seen as a failure, and they would rather work harder in hopes of achieving something bigger to crush the pain down.

Unfortunately, this mentality saps the joy out of life, because any success they do achieve gets overshadowed by “what’s next,” rather than serving as a fix for their negative thoughts.

How Do I Become a High Performer?

Most people would prefer to be a high performer than an overachiever, but changing one’s thinking and behavior takes a combination of awareness, effort, and support.

Particularly if you are suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts, you should seek help.

At our clinic, we support our clients to discover the root causes of disease in the physical, biochemical, energetic, and spiritual dimensions of the human body.

We specialize in integrative treatment for depression. In particular, we have discovered a few biochemical imbalances in the body that many overachievers have. For example, If you are under-methylated, it could be a factor in your depression, as well as in your overachiever traits.

We have had success in treating overachievers with depression using an entirely non-drug nutrient therapy, along with a specialized treatment plan that often includes acupuncture, neurofeedback, transcranial magnetic therapy (TMS), and lifestyle coaching.

Traditional treatment, including antidepressants, can also help overachievers suffering from depression, however, conventional treatments are unlikely to address the underlying biochemical imbalance.

Want to bring more high-performing traits into your life?

Read next week for our article “12 Tips to Turn An Overachiever Into a High Performer.”

Dr. Jingduan Yang is a leading physician, board-certified psychiatrist, foremost integrative medicine expert, and fifth-generation teacher and practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine. He is also the medical director of the eponymous Yang Institute of Integrative Medicine.


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Dr. Jingduan Yang is a faculty member at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine, former assistant professor of psychiatry, and director of the Oriental Medicine and Acupuncture Program at the Jefferson-Myrna Brind Center for Integrative Medicine at Thomas Jefferson University. He completed a research fellowship in clinical psychopharmacology at Oxford University, residency training in psychiatry at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, and a Bravewell Fellowship in integrative medicine at the University of Arizona. You can find out more about Dr. Yang at his website
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