Recently a college friend of mine happened to ask his Facebook friend list for our least favorite words. Enamored as I am of all languages, I do have many. My submission for this particular question happened to be “literally”—primarily for its overuse to the point of absurdity. Other offerings from friends included “irregardless,” which I loathe, too, for the fact that it is not actually—literally!!!—a word. Someone else skewered “moist” which, coincidentally, a former student and now friend had mentioned with disdain a few days previously. I’ve never minded the word “moist” myself, although I do see why it might be problematic.

His was my favorite thread for days. A question like that stays with me for awhile. Probing our least favorite words, or our least favorite anything, reveals much about us. What seems like such a simple question evolves quickly to philosophical and psychological litmus testing.

In truth, one of my long-standing least favorite words is “overachiever” and it has been for many years. I saw it again just the other day, cast about in something I was reading online, and—of course—used incorrectly. I certainly have used it to describe myself, mostly in an effort to be humorously self-denigrating when I have thought it might serve a social situation well; although this is a practice I will not be likely to repeat. Whenever my husband has caught me using that about myself to brush off an accomplishment, he always speaks up for me and reminds me to celebrate what I do and who I am. “Overachiever” does, in fact, have a use, particularly in the field of education. In the strictest sense, an overachiever is one who is attaining better academic grades than would have been indicated by aptitude tests (sometimes given in relation to an IEP—and remember, an IEP can be written for GATE, too). Similarly, an underachiever is one who obtains lower academic grades than would have been indicated by an IQ test. It has to do with standard deviations and probability.

Very few students, strictly speaking, are either underachievers or overachievers. While “underachiever” may be an easier concept to understand (imagine that GATE student who is making all Fs—yes, that happens), finding a true “overachiever” is much more difficult to do. How is success measured? Are grades inflated, absolute, curved…or what? And the basic logical question: if a standard is set, and a student achieves it (even if they were predicted not to by some IQ test), who is to say that student “over” achieved? They just…achieved. I am sure there are many more people—people who actually study statistics and psychometrics—who could speak more comprehensively about this than I could. I just know that, as a teacher who taught all ranges and ability-levels, I witnessed some amazing moments in my classroom: the kind of moments in which young people realize that they may be capable of more than what they thought they were, triumphant moments. A teacher who believes in us can get things out of us that we might not ever have dreamed. (Yes, I am far and away much more schmaltzy/idealistic of a teacher in some ways than my husband, who probably just read that last sentence and thought, what the heck to himself—hi, honey!).

So “overachiever” is one of those words people like to throw around, usually in an effort to 1) minimize accomplishment or 2) explain away the need for hard work. Just as with the words “nerd” or “geek,” some people who have been categorized as “overachievers” don’t mind commandeering the word in order to transform it into a compliment of sorts. Yet—call me a curmudgeon—I don’t see “overachiever” as any kind of positive word. I am reminded, too, of a favorite teacher and mentor of mine who once shared her dislike of the word “tolerate.” Prior to her bringing it up, I always thought of “toleration” as an ideal; when she explained the way she saw it, however, I understood: when we tolerate someone, we might somehow be implying that we are so above that person. I still think about this, and to this day, I use that word very sparingly and only within a certain set of circumstances. Once you see a word for what it implies, it is difficult to unsee it.

If one person describes someone else as an “overachiever” it is the very opposite of celebrating accomplishment. That label, to me, implies: you did way more than you had to do or should have done, so your work was wasted and silly. My first question is, who sets the standard for how much work is enough? Should we ever be content to rest on our laurels, or not put every ounce of ourselves into a project, idea, or plan? Should we strive only for a so-so version of ourselves?

Note: I did not write, Should we strive only for the so-so? Achievement is never about comparing ourselves to anyone else; achievement is about comparing our personal best to our next personal best. Competition has specific places: sports, academic teams (Mock Trial, speech competitions, etc), the marketplace. We do not need to be worried about besting our neighbor, the mother at the park, the driver in the next lane, or the student in front of us in the lecture hall. As long as we’re doing our best, that is enough. We will never connect with others on an authentic level if we’re preoccupied with beating them at competitions that are not real. This is what Bill and I teach our children, and we try to live it, too. Someone once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I fully submit to this as my life philosophy. It is one of the reasons I have big wooden letters on my family room wall that spell out J-O-Y. Joy is something we make or absorb as life’s gift through hard work and being kind to others. Joy cannot be won. I think as soon as we compete for joy, we’ll never find it.

The word “overachiever” connotes comparisons, the very kind of comparisons I eschew. Underlying the use of that word is insecurity: if we use it about others, we are insecure about what they achieved and seek to make it less significant or useless; if we use that word about ourselves, it is at best a poor attempt at the humblebrag and at worst a sign of lack of personal confidence that our achievement means something.

I believe that achievement, whether in others or in myself, is always to be celebrated because most achievement comes only from hard work. Hard work is a beautiful ideal, and I love it in anyone. When I meet alchemists who manage to do 30 hours of work in a 24 hour day, I feel true admiration and inspiration.  I’d rather be known as a hard worker than known as just about anything else, except as being kind and fair-minded to others. I’d rather be hard working than beautiful, and I’d rather be hard working than genius. Hard work builds our families, our communities, our societies, our world.

But an overachiever? No, that’s not what I am. It is a word I wish writers and speakers thought about more carefully before employing. Think about what it implies, what the function of that word’s use is meant to be. I might use “nerd” and “geek” with relish, but not a word that looks down on hard work.

What do you think the worst word is?

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