High achievers are motivated by pleasurable outcomes. Underachievers are motivated by pleasurable methods.Tommy Newberry
Happy ADHD Awareness Month! Many people celebrate it as ADHD Appreciation Month and, honestly, I think we need both so I hope that you are enjoying this beautiful month of October. It is, by far, my favorite month of the year and I have so many reasons to celebrate.
One thing I’ve noticed in the ADHD community is a lot of talk about the overachievers. The “gifted” kids. The perfectionists. The kids that were often bullied into becoming the perfect versions of themselves. I wasn’t one of those kids. No. In fact, while not the complete opposite of these kids, I was…mediocre.
Today I want to talk about the underachievers. The kids who flew under the radar by reveling in their mediocrity. I’m looking at the steady C students. The kids who tried every sport, only to find they weren’t very good at any of them. The kids who spent the afternoon in their bedroom reading instead of participating in student government or the FHA.
I am one of those kids. Despite being outwardly curious and smart, I did poorly on tests and struggled to complete homework. My grades were always mostly just C’s; the stray B or (Zeus forbid) D would grace the page. But mostly, I was just middle of the road.
My report cards were always filled with phrases like, “Amber is smart, but she talks too much,” and, “She is so smart, if only she would [filling desired behavior here].” Honestly, they weren’t wrong about my potential. I have, and have always had, an abundance of potential. I’ve spent my entire life chasing this so-called potential.
They were supposed to be teaching me how to apply my potential, but they didn’t know how. They didn’t even know there was anything different about me. They saw what they needed to see; a bright, young girl who was smart and capable who was choosing not to live up to her potential. An underachiever.
I was average at home too, the classic underachiever. I was always behind on chores, I forgot things regularly (which the adults in my life bafflingly called “lying”), and I couldn’t seem to follow even the most basic rules laid out for me. I was always in trouble; always being told what a disappointment I was.
I graduated from high school a C student with a messy room. I went to college for 2 semesters, got all C’s, and quit. A couple of years later, I tried again. I stayed for 2 semesters, got all C’s, and quit. By this time, I was also fighting all of my other mental disorders as an added bonus.
I’ve had big dreams for as long as I can remember. They’ve only ever stayed just that…dreams. Not goals, not accomplishments; just daydreams that I use to keep hope alive that, some day, I will live up to all this potential. The hope that someday I’ll show everyone that I’m much more than average.
As an adult, I’ve had many jobs. Guess how many of them I excelled at? Yep, that’s right. Zero. Even the job I’m in now, 14 years into it and I literally barely get by. My boss is constantly asking me why I can’t “do what everyone else on the team is doing.” My answer is the same as when my parents used to ask, “I don’t know.”
Only, I do know now. I know that ADHD is partly, mostly, to blame for my basking in averageness. There are many reasons for this; inability to set long-term goals (time blindness), inability to complete tasks (overwhelm/boredom/distractibility), and my propensity to only see the big picture and nothing in between.
I’ve fallen in and out of careers, relationships, and obligations; no real direction spurring me on. I’ve pretty much let life happen to me, instead of creating my own way. Living on autopilot; the underachiever’s way. Just settling for whatever came my way because that’s what I thought was supposed to happen.
I remember one of the many times that I sat in my therapist’s office and exclaimed, “What is wrong with me? Why am I like this? Why can’t I go after my dreams?” It was never a question of want. I wanted it so bad I could taste it. It wasn’t a matter of ability. I knew that I was well capable of achieving great things.
Because of that, I kept trying. When one dream would fizzle out, a new one would pop up in it’s place. Commonplace was never a place I ever intended on staying, so my brain and my heart never stopped reaching for something more. Always on a chase for this ever-elusive potential I kept hearing about.
Then I got my diagnosis. Like a puzzle piece, it completed the picture for me. Suddenly I understood this pattern of wanting something with all of my might, but never moving toward it, no matter how important it seem. It was crystal clear why long-term goal setting never worked for me.
I had already started my passion project by then and now I suddenly had a purpose. I found a way to start harnessing all that unbridled potential; how to focus it toward goals. Real goals. I found a goals process that works for me and I am in the process of teaching that process to others. I started seeing progress and growth and I’ve used the momentum to propel me forward ever further.
An Ode To The Underachievers
So, to you,
Underachiever. The thesaurus had all sorts of choice words for us;
and (my personal favorite) born loser.
This one is for you.
I see you. Your teachers may not have and your parents probably didn’t. Not really. Your peers may have never really seen you. But I do.
I see you every time I look in the mirror. When I reach back into the depths of my memory and find myself fumbling through visions of rejection and misunderstanding, I see you.
We were the kids who got the average grades; not bad enough to be in trouble, but not good enough to be special. We weren’t the “troubled” kids, though we were in trouble enough because we couldn’t stop talking or fidgeting or staring out the window.
“Amber has so much potential, if only she could apply herself.”
I see you.
We weren’t gifted. We weren’t troubled. We were…largely ignored. Written off as lazy, precocious, or even manipulative. Our struggles written down as character flaws; things we could somehow fixed if we just. tried. harder.
Our attempts to explain ourselves and how we felt were taken as excuses. Like the quadriplegic who refuses to walk.
To the underachievers in friendship, I see you too. Always on the outside. You were never one of the cool kids, but you weren’t one of the uncool kids either. You were, as always, somewhere in the middle.
You were ever aware that you were seen as the “weird” friend and, should the notion take the group to turn their backs on someone, it was probably going to be you. The disposable underachiever.
I see you.
If you are an attentive, loving, kind, and empathetic friend in person, but forget that people exist when they are out of your line of sight, I see you.
To all the people who talked too much and too loud.
To everyone who skated by with mediocre grades, mediocre looks, and mediocre abilities…
For all the people who are flying under the radar at work, doing just enough to stay out of trouble, and not nearly enough to stand out…
For all the folks who can’t keep house, no matter how much their spouses club them over the head with it…
For every person who was called a liar as a kid for saying, “I don’t know…” and “I don’t remember.”
To all the ADHD underachievers, I see you.
We weren’t seen, as kids. Not as teenagers and a lot of us not as adults. People looked at us and saw laziness, petulance, and carelessness. They made us believe that these things invalidated our creativity, empathy, and out-of-the-box thinking. The made us think we were made wrong.
Our diagnoses were missed or ignored and we were told to just try harder…focus harder…just be better. We were told we were broken; that our brokenness was somehow our fault. A flaw in our humanness. We were taught we were hard to love.
My message to you was that they were right about one thing: the potential. I have yet to meet an ADHD person who wasn’t brilliant, deep down inside. No matter how messy their apartment or how low their credit score, their brains are always a force to be reckoned with.
We are not hard to love. We’re not even that hard to understand. We are beautiful. We are valid. We are so much more than ordinary test scores and our ability to produce at work.
Anyway, I see you.