What is an Underachiever, and 5 Easy Ways on How to Overcome Being One

What is an Underachiever

Have you ever been told that you’re a smart and talented person — full of potential – yet performing below expectations? 

Do you find yourself knowing that you could do more and be more… but you’re not sure where to start? 

Consider this: what if you’re just an underachiever who needs that little push to start accomplishing things. 

So, what is an underachiever, and how can you overcome it? 

What is an Underachiever? 

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, an underachiever is:

“A person whose performance is lower than you would expect, based on that person’s ability.” 

Similarly, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word underachiever as:

“one who fails to attain a predicted level of achievement or does not do as well as expected.” 

Both definitions apply in many situations in life. 

For example, a student who is believed to have a high IQ, but does not do well in school, is called an underachiever. The same goes for a talented person who is not reaching their full potential at work or a skilled athlete who performs poorly in sports events. 

All of them may be called “underachievers.”

Now that you know what an underachiever is, let us explore the different types of underachievers. Read on to learn more: 

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Types of Underachievers

types of underachievers

The concept of underachievement has been studied for several decades now, particularly in the field of psychology. In fact, experts have come up with different types of underachievers. 

In the book “The Psychology of Underachievement: Differential Diagnosis and Differential Treatment” (1988), psychologists Harvey Mandel and Sander Marcus discussed six main types of underachievers, with a particular focus on students/learners:

1. The “Coasting” Underachiever

As the term suggests, this type of underachiever is simply “coasting” through life. They are not so concerned about schoolwork or grades and tend to give up easily. The coasting underachiever also exhibits general satisfaction with life and is not too worried about the future.

2. The Anxious Underachiever

The anxious underachiever typically has low confidence, paired with a high level of self-doubt. They get stressed easily and are constantly worried about making mistakes, despite their potential. This type of underachiever also needs regular support and encouragement.

3. The Defiant Underachiever

This kind of underachiever tends to be the hot-tempered type. Underachievers in this category often get in trouble with authority figures. More common among pre-adolescent boys, defiant underachievers often annoy others and usually blame other people for their mistakes. 

4. The Sad/Depressed Underachiever

The sad/depressed underachiever has low self-esteem and is generally miserable most of the time. 

As students, they lack the energy to focus on their studies. This type of underachiever is often tired, lacking in energy, and appears lethargic. They also find it hard to make decisions.

5. The “Wheeler-Dealer” Underachiever

As the term implies, this type of underachiever is egoistic, impulsive, and manipulative. These are the kind of people who often seek instant reward or gratification and tend to lie, cheat, or even steal to get what they want. 

Wheeler-dealer underachievers usually exhibit an attractive personality.

6. The “Identity Search” Underachiever

You probably guessed it: “identity search” underachievers are those people who are constantly searching for their self-identity, so much so that they cannot focus on work and their studies. 

The Identity Search Underachiever is also notorious for having intense egotism. 

Signs of Underachievement

Signs of Underachievement

Do you think you are an underachiever? 

Aside from the different types mentioned above, there are signs indicating that you may not be accomplishing as much as you could or not living up to your full potential. 

Here are several signs of being an underachiever:

1. You are just getting by.

Similar to the “coasting” underachiever discussed earlier, you are simply getting by. 

Sure, you do just enough to pass your subjects in school or maintain a satisfactory performance at work — but that’s it. You are not motivated to do more and be more – even if you have the potential. 

“Bare minimum” appears to be your mantra; you are simply doing enough to “survive.”

2. You procrastinate a lot.

You know you have to finish that paper, study for an important test, or focus on a significant project. But you keep putting it off and would rather spend your time doing other things instead. 

“I’ll do it tomorrow” is something you may often say. However, tomorrow never really comes, does it? 

By the time you need to submit your work or take that exam — you scramble to finish the things you’re supposed to do. In other words, you end up “cramming.” The result may be okay or satisfactory, but then again, it’s not your best work. You know it could be so much better if you had given it more time.

3. You lack planning and time management skills.

Speaking of time, you could be an underachiever if you’re not very good at managing it. You’re not adept in planning or making schedules, either. 

But think about how much you could achieve by improving these skills. For example, making a simple “to-do list” can help as you prepare for school or work each day. You also get the satisfaction of ticking off each task as you finish!

4. You’re always making excuses.

You’re an underachiever if you make excuses for your faults. 

When you fail a subject or don’t perform well in a task, you always have an excuse. You find it hard to accept responsibility for your own failures and tend to blame the circumstances or other people instead.

5. You often “sweet talk” to get out of work.

Similar to the “wheeler-dealer” underachiever mentioned earlier, you use your “charm” to try to get out of work. You often try to pass off work to others, even if it should be your responsibility.

Top Reasons Why Underachievers ‘Underachieve’

Top Reasons Why Underachievers Underachieve

We’ve discussed the traits and signs — so now, let’s talk about the reasons. 

Why are you not reaching your full potential? What are the factors that could have led you to become an underachiever? 

Here are some possible reasons:

1. You’re afraid of failure, and success, too.

Fear of failure hinders you from going out of your comfort zone. You want to reach a goal, but you’re afraid that the next step could lead to your downfall. 

In the same way, success frightens you, too. Success often means added responsibility and accountability, and you’re not sure whether that’s something you can handle. In the end, you end up simply staying where you are —  yearning to be something bigger but afraid to move forward.

2. You’re depressed.

Have you ever been depressed or been diagnosed with depression? 

Depression usually zaps a person’s energy, rendering them unproductive. If you are taking antidepressant medications, this could further affect your mood since some medications may have certain side effects. In any case, be sure to consult with a medical professional if you’d like to address this directly. 

3. You have commitment problems.

Success doesn’t happen overnight. Usually, it takes time and lots of engagement and dedication. It also involves forming good relationships with others — be it at home, in school, or the workplace. 

However, if you are not keen on establishing ties, this could hinder you from achieving success. So, try to see if you have commitment or attachment problems and address them head-on. 

4. You don’t get along with most people.

How do other people see you? Have you ever been described as critical, negative, or demanding? 

As mentioned earlier, connecting with people is part of growth. Even if you are extremely good at what you do, it will be hard for you to succeed if you don’t get along with others

5. You lack focus.

Are you easily distracted while studying or working? Do you find it hard to finish even simple tasks? 

If it takes you a long time to accomplish something that could be done quicker, then you need to improve your focus and concentration skills.

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Parenting: An External Factor

parenting as an external factor to underachievement

You may not be aware of it, but your parents – and how they treated you — may have been a factor in you becoming an underachiever. In particular, they may have influenced you by:

1. Setting extremely high expectations.

Maybe your parents expected too much. They wanted you to succeed in school, in sports, in relationships, and in many other areas. 

Maybe, they experienced the same thing from their parents (your grandparents), and expect you to do the same. In any case, if your parents were too strict, authoritarian, and hard to please — these may have led you to “give up” or simply stop trying.

2. Having extremely low expectations.

On the other hand, maybe your parents had low expectations, which is not exactly healthy, either. When a child notices that people expect very little from him, he may respond accordingly and try not to make too much effort.

3. Lacking interest.

Perhaps your parents were too busy and preoccupied with their own concerns and problems that they rarely show interest in your achievements. Again, this may have been a factor in you becoming an underachiever.

4. Being overprotective.

Your parents may have been protective – but too protective. They may have “sheltered” you too much from failure, disappointment, or any other negative life experience. 

As a result, by the time you venture out on your own, you find it hard to face problems and challenges and lack problem-solving skills.

Advice for Parents of Underachievers

advice to parents of underachievers

If you are a parent yourself, be aware of how your actions and expectations are affecting your children. 

Here are some tips on how you can support and encourage your kids:

1. Teach them how to feel good about themselves.

Self-esteem is an integral part of one’s personality, especially in children. By being a good example, you can teach your kids how to feel good about themselves. In turn, this will help them in many areas of life, such as studies, careers, and relationships. 

2. Don’t equate self-worth with achievement.

Never make the mistake of associating your children’s self-worth with their achievements. If you only support them when they get good grades or do something outstanding, they might think that they always need to achieve something before they can get your attention. 

3. Love them for who they are.

Not all children are the same, and that’s what makes them so special! They will have different personalities, learning abilities, talents, and inclinations. Always be there to support and love them, no matter what!

How to Overcome Underachievement

How to Overcome Underachievement

So, you’ve observed the signs, determined the reasons, and confirmed that – indeed –you’re an underachiever. What’s next? How can you overcome it? Is it possible to stop being an underachiever? 

The answer is yes. You can overcome it by following these tips:

1. Set realistic goals.

You have goals, but perhaps they are not feasible or realistic. As a result, no matter how hard you try and how much you’ve achieved, you feel dissatisfied. 

Think about it! You may need to readjust your goals and expectations. This way, as you move gradually towards them, you will feel a greater sense of fulfillment and satisfaction every step of the way. 

2. Break big goals into smaller ones.

Do not attempt to achieve something big all at once. Remember that growth and success take time. Rather than trying to reach a big goal, consider breaking it into smaller ones instead. 

Take things one step at a time! As soon as you finish one small goal, take time to congratulate yourself before moving on to the next one.

3. Improve your planning skills.

Earlier, we discussed that lack of planning is a sign of being an underachiever. Fortunately, anybody can hone this skill. 

You can do this by reading books or attending workshops on planning, organizing, and time management. You can also seek advice from friends and colleagues who are good planners and organizers. This way, you can focus on improving these skills.

4. Be more positive.

This may be easier said than done, but then again – strive to develop a more positive way of thinking. Get in touch with family and friends who can help you have a brighter outlook in life. And if you are depressed, and don’t know what to do, do not hesitate to seek professional help.

5. Don’t stop dreaming.

Big things, small things — everything starts with a dream!

Dreams give us the desire and motivation to pursue greater things. Do not let problems, setbacks, other people – and yourself – stop you from dreaming!

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What is an underachiever, really? Are you indeed one? 

what is an underachiever really

Unfortunately, other than the tell-tale signs I shared earlier, there’s no straightforward answer for this. All I can say, that if you feel like you’re an underachiever, you have the power to make a change for the better. 

Only time can tell. Only YOU can tell. 

Do you know somebody who has the potential to be great but keeps underachieving? 

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below! 

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