My Turn: From Overdrive To Coasting

What happens to overachievers as we age? Let's face it, the spirit is still willing, but it's the flesh that's weak. While we hate to admit it, we run out of energy sooner than we run out of ideas. And it is certainly not in our nature to just fade away. We may burn up, burn out or just annoy the hell out of family and friends (who would never even want to measure up to our high standards). I've talked with many aging overachievers who tell whispered tales of diminished capacity for pushing themselves beyond all reason. We feel guilty even discussing what we see as our "infirmities." After all, we are profoundly uncomfortable even having things like bad backs, the stirrings of arthritis or that strong desire to just take a nap. That's the entire point of being an overachiever. We refuse to see ourselves as simply human. That would be settling, and we don't ever settle.

I remember working until 5 at my job and then, once home, getting up on a ladder and working on my house until 9. In the past two decades I have remodeled, with my own two hands, more houses than most people will ever own in a lifetime. As I got through with the settlement for property No. 10, I speculated that this would be my final purchase. Two years later, I bought an apartment building. After all, what is life without several major projects?

When I was in my 40s, I decided to go to law school full time while running my own business, raising three kids by myself and remodeling yet another house. I learned constitutional law and tiling in the same year. While most friends asked how I was handling it all, I was asking myself if I should go out for moot court. A longtime friend became weary of her job because of all the overtime. Her solution? Quit, buy a 5,000-square-foot building, go into debt, hire staff and start her own company. Only a terminal overachiever would see this as a solution. It made perfect sense to me.

Overachievers make long to-do lists, do most of what's on the list and then agonize over what doesn't get done. They are the homeroom mom who makes cookies from scratch even though she works full time and does seven loads of laundry a week. They are the hardworking dad who brings a change of clothing to work so he can coach his son's soccer team every day after school while he sets up business appointments for the next day. They are the people at the gym at 6 in the morning. And they often have multiple degrees. After all, one of anything is seldom enough. If you consider red lights a great opportunity to check phone messages, then consider yourself a hopeless case.

What creates a good overachiever? In my case, it was always trying to please my dad. Whenever I came to him with my latest achievement, he would parrot his favorite saying: "What do you want—the congressional medal of honor?" I didn't know what it was or how one qualified, but I strongly suspected that, if awarded, he would simply raise the stakes. And, worse still, winning the award would be a tough act to follow. That's the curse of overachievers. We can never rest on our laurels. If you're resting, then you're not achieving.

I fear we are creating an entire generation of overachievers. Kids can no longer just play ball on the weekends or do a science project at the kitchen table. Instead, they go to out-of-state astronaut camp or join sports teams that practice five days a week and travel two to three hours on the weekends for away games. They don't have childhoods. They're too busy training for the Olympics.

But in the end, we all get old. Although we kill ourselves exercising and counting carbs, age carries with it diminished capacity. We don't think as succinctly, react as quickly or hold up as well. Energy wanes way before drive. And, in the end, we are left to find a way to age gracefully in a body that just wants to spend the weekends reading the newspaper. The generation who wanted it all now can't stay up past 10:30. So in this age of conspicuous consumption and hyperambition, we must rethink how we will define ourselves and what constitutes enough. I will try to forgive myself for not rereading "War and Peace" or learning Chinese. I will consider throwing out my recipe for homemade ketchup. And I will try to focus on my past achievements instead of the crown molding that screams at me from the floor of my bedroom. If it's possible for an overachiever to feel contentment, this will be my new goal … the week after next. That's the soonest I could possibly fit it in.