By Wilma Davidson, Ed.D. and Jack Dougherty
St. Martin’s Press
The Premise of the Book
High school is never over.
The workplace—whether a high-rise office building, factory floor, or
retail store—is really just an adult version of high school, though many of us pretend otherwise. Look around. The Class President is in the corner office. The Party Animal is out entertaining clients. The Class Clown is in the cafeteria doing a wicked imitation of the Class President. The Gossip is busy telling everyone within earshot the skinny on the controller’s divorce proceedings. And the Player just accepted the regional vice president’s invitation for drinks after work.
Whether we work on the assembly line or in the executive suite, adults in the workplace gossip, mock, backstab, envy, flatter, covet, cajole, charm, pass notes during meetings, and otherwise behave just as we did in high school. High school is simply a lab for the rest of our life. (Talk about a permanent record!)
We are who we were in high school, whether we realize it or not. During those years, a mini-adult version of us emerged. Many of our core traits on display then inform our personality and behavior at work today; our ability to make friends easily, or our love of clothes, or our competitive streak, or our willingness to pitch in, or possibly our persistent anger at not being taken seriously. We developed a communication style then—a way of presenting ourselves to the world—and that style is either working for us today or isn’t.
The Promise of This Book: How It can Help You
You were typecast in high school and probably are now at work. But, whether you’re the A Student, Underachiever, Geek, Activist, Complainer, or some combination of our two-dozen archetypes, it’s not too late to reinvent or reinvigorate yourself. Our goal is to help you downplay the traits that hurt you, pump up the skills that help you, and “round yourself out” by adopting the best traits from your class…er, workmates. Think of our book as the best friend who’ll tell you honestly how you’re coming across to others.
You don’t get a second chance at high school but there’s still plenty of time to improve your image and reputation at work, to make the most of your natural style, and to boost your chances for professional success. As the writer George Eliot said, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” So, let’s get started, class.
“IF YOU’RE COASTING, YOU’RE GOING DOWNHILL.”
- L.W. Pierson
The senior year English term paper on War and Peace was torture for everyone in Mr. Cekota’s class … except for the Underachiever, who read only the first and last chapters of the book, wrote the paper before school on the morning it was due, and was awarded a B.
The Underachiever was competent at everything and seemingly excellent at nothing. A master at “winging it.” The Underachiever could study Algebra for twenty hours and get an A+; or study for two hours, watch TV for 18, and get a B. The teachers’ comments on the report cards were always the same: “Works below potential.”
The Underachiever: A porche stuck in neutral
The Underachiever: a Porsche stuck in neutral.
Two decades later, the Underachiever is still coasting along. It’s June 1st—the day of dread at Gargantua, Inc., the world’s largest corporate conglomerate. Every year promotions are announced on this day. The Underachiever, an Office Manager in the Field Sales Division, has been checking hourly for the e-mail announcement from the CEO. At 3:30 p.m., it arrives. Frenzied clicking of the mouse. The hunt is under way. Scroll up. Scroll down. Eyes darting. “Where the hell am I?” asks the Underachiever. The list is double-checked, then triple-checked. The blood starts to boil. The pity party begins.
“Why do I keep getting passed over!” fumes the Underachiever … who has a point. Neophyte office managers from around the company are sent to Field Sales to learn the tricks of the trade from the master. “You’re as smart as people two or even three grades higher in this division,” said the VP at the holiday party, who admitted to slight tipsiness. “You could do anything you wanted if you set your mind to it,” the VP added. The Underachiever deletes the long-awaited promotions announcement memo from the inbox, huffs, and storms out moaning, “What do I have to do to get promoted around here!”
The answer: finish school.
The Underachiever is six credits shy of a bachelor’s degree. The VP has been saying for seven years that promotion to the next level requires a degree. The VP has also reminded the Underachiever that Gargantua, Inc. offers 100% tuition reimbursement. The VP has been rooting for the Underachiever all along. But at a certain point, the VP refuses to take responsibility for the Underachiever’s happiness or success—the Underachiever must do that.
Excellent raw ingredients and potential—no matter how fabulous—will not pay the rent. In the workplace, Underachievers who keep waiting for their potential to happen to them—instead of making it happen for them—are in big trouble. In short, the Underachiever may have amazing potential, but this type is in a serious race against the clock: Those that never quite manage to get their act together inevitably collapse, like a soufflé left in the oven too long.
There’s only one real distinction between the Overachiever and the Underachiever: discipline. The Underachiever is all about being clever, about getting by. The Overachiever is all about being talented and getting results. Being clever is easy; being talented takes discipline, focus, determination, and practice. The difference between the Overachiever and the Underachiever is the difference between lightening and the lightening bug, to paraphrase Mark Twain. It’s the difference between picking up the guitar and strumming a pop tune “by ear” versus taking classical guitar lessons and practicing every day for 90 minutes.
The Underachiever’s Communication Style
- Underachievers draw on their natural expertise and their personality—their charisma—as a source of power.
- Underachievers are notoriously good talkers, writers, and presenters.
- They are natural conversationalists. (They’ve got to be talented talkers when they didn’t read the material or do their homework.)
- When bored, which is often, Underachievers move about lethargically; their body language says to others that they are uninspired, that they are bored, that their batteries are running low.
What are the underachiever's strengths?
What are the Underachiever’s Strengths?
- Quick wittedness. Underachievers are naturally bright. After a lifetime of not doing the homework assignment, they had to learn to think quickly on their feet.
- Charm. They get away with what they get away with because teachers and bosses are seduced by the Underachiever’s innate intelligence, wit, and charm. The boss is often secretly rooting for the Underachiever to work up to potential.
- Self-deprecating. Underachievers manage other people’s expectations of them downward. This increases the Underachiever’s likeability and is a refreshing antidote to the self-promoting atmosphere of many workplaces. Additionally, competitors and critics often underestimate the Underachiever … but do so at their own risk.
- Limitless potential. In the right environment they will blossom. There was always one teacher who saw the Underachiever’s potential and cajoled excellence out of this student. Likewise, the boss who creates the right work environment will be awestruck when the moth Underachiever metamorphoses into the “A” Student butterfly.
What Undermines the Underachiever’s Success?
- Lack of discipline. Or, to be less charitable, good old fashioned laziness. Underachievers are always clever enough to get by. But, as they age, they’d find it’s easier to actually do the homework rather than bluff their way through one situation after another.
- Ducking responsibility. Underachievers condition people not to expect excellence from them, yet are disappointed when colleagues no longer demand it. They must take responsibility for their own happiness, and for the realization of their own potential. Underachievers often wait for opportunities when they have the skills to create opportunities to shine.
- Mischief-making. Underachievers sometimes become angry and frustrated because their songs get trapped in their throat. When bright people are bored, or underutilized, they can grow bitter. They often get cynical. Then they get into mischief.
- The Underachiever—Activist. These are the people we knew who had it in themselves all along. When this blend is thrust into an extraordinary situation, the Underachiever—Activist rises to the occasion. Vocational-school graduate Lech Walesa was an ordinary guy holding an ordinary job in the Gdansk shipyards until a clash between workers and the government became the spark that ignited his potential, compelling him to organize the Solidarity tradeunion movement in Poland.
- The Underachiever—Party Animal. This type has been in a constant state of networking—and doesn’t even realize it. Eminently likable, utterly nonthreatening, and supremely well-connected, this type has scores of friends. When the Underachiever-Party Animal wants to change jobs, or pitch new business, or show up at the grand opening, these valuable relationships can be leveraged for success.
- The Underachiever—Cheater. The Underachiever has a decision to make: He has an angel on one shoulder who dares him to be great. But on the other shoulder stands the Cheater, who dares him to take the easy way out. May he choose wisely. The Underachiever-Cheater is the ultimate tragedy, a shameful waste of talent.
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