10 Signs of a High Achiever

by | Jan 3, 2020 | High Achievers

You Know You’re a High Achiever When…

Do you wonder whether you’re a high achiever? You’re not alone. It’s a term that gets thrown around quite often and you’re not quite sure if it’s a compliment or a curse. And how is a high achiever different from an overachiever or high performer. I was talking to a close friend, Cheryl, recently about the definition of a high achiever. I suspect Cheryl was curious for at least two reasons. One reason is that as an executive coach, she undoubtedly encounters leaders in her practice who are high achievers or even overachievers, and she was interested in validating the characteristics or behaviors she encounters with her clients. Another reason might be that Cheryl was trying to evaluate where she saw herself along the achiever continuum. After I ran through some common qualities and behaviors of high achievers, Cheryl felt comfortable that she did not quite fit all of the qualities of the high achiever, especially the encumbrances often associated with them. Cheryl’s question made me think more about the qualities of a high achiever and how they differ from those of an overachiever and a high performer. Often these terms are used interchangeably, but they are not the same. In this article, I will try to parse out the differences in achievers from what I’ve read and from my experience.


We think of the underachiever as someone who performs below his potential, and that is often the case. However, I’d add that underachievers still get things done, even though they could do more based on their capabilities. The underachiever is simply not motivated by or preoccupied with achieving. Their lack of commitment to achieving could be temporary or ongoing. They may do what is required of them, nothing more or less. It’s also likely that a person can be an underachiever in some areas of their life and a high achiever in others based on their interests and commitment to the task.

That was easy. Now, to the people who are motivated by achievement.

High Performer

The high performer is goal-oriented, but process matters just as much as the outcome – sometimes more. Just looking at accomplishments alone, one could conclude that the high performer is also a high achiever. My friend, Cheryl, is definitely a high performer. She has achieved a lot in her lifetime. Cheryl had a successful career in corporate America for many years before becoming an entrepreneur. She has a Doctor of Philosophy degree, which less than two percent of Americans have achieved. Cheryl appreciates achievement, but her life is not governed by it, meaning she keeps a healthy perspective that her achievements do not define her worth. In 11 Signs You Might Be an Overachiever (www.verywellmind.com, August 2019), Kendra Cherry stated, “High performers are focused on reaching their goals, but they care much more about how well they perform.” There’s a quality aspect to the high performer that is more pronounced than seen in the high achiever or overachiever. The high performer is not driven by the completion of tasks, but by doing something and doing it well. The high performer may have fewer goals or achievements, but higher quality and impact. We should all aspire to be high performers.

Now to the two remaining achievers that are most often confused one for the other.


On the other end of the spectrum is the overachiever. This is reflective of all the good traits of the high achiever and higher performer taken to the extreme. Overachievers are smart, hardworking, focused, and usually have a trail of success to their credit. However, they are often experienced as only being interested in the outcome (meaning did they get it done), and they achieve it by any means necessary. They not only have unreasonably high expectations for themselves, but they have it for others as well. They will judge unfavorably anyone they perceive as lacking the same high standards and dedication to the work that they have. Other qualities observed in the overachiever are their attachment to the work as a reflection of who they are and their value, perfectionism, insatiable appetite to take on more and achieve more, and resistance to feedback they perceive to be critical of them. Less observable are their motivations, which are largely fueled by fear. Fear of failure, fear of shame, fear of losing status, and fear of being “found out” are among the list. All of the fears constitute an underlying insecurity of not being good enough. The overachiever measures their success by the quantity of achievements, not necessarily the quality of those achievements. They are less interested in how those achievements will be sustained over time, usually because they’ve already moved on to achieve the next goal on their list. Their mantra might be “achieve and move on.”

Now, are you a high achiever?

High Achiever

The high achiever measures success by the quantity and the quality of their achievements. They want both to be high and will work tirelessly in pursuit of their goals. The high achiever sees their achievements as a reflection of their brand and will do what is necessary to ensure they are successful. The high achiever sits somewhere between the high performer and the overachiever. At any time the high achiever can tip the scales toward one more than the other. Obviously, to move in the direction of the high performer is positive movement, while moving closer to the overachiever can result in more goals achieved, but at a cost that might be too high to pay. Brené Brown, in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, mentioned a term that I believe is worth sharing here. She distinguishes perfectionism from healthy achievement and growth. Healthy striving, she asserts is self-focused, as in “How can I improve?” Perfectionism is other-focused and concerned with “What will they think?”

So, how do you know if you’re a high achiever? Here are 10 signs that might help you to answer that question.

High Achievers:

  1. Associate achievement with positive feelings and achievement striving is personally satisfying.
  2. Are intrinsically and extrinsically motivated, but the internal drive for action is stronger and more gratifying.
  3. Desire to take on challenging assignments and learn new things so they can apply what they learn to increasingly more complex goals
  4. Become singularly-focused and are willing to expend intense effort over long periods of time to achieve goals that are important and of interest
  5. Have effective goal-setting abilities and organizational and time management skills to facilitate achievement
  6. Are more willing to take risks and have no patience for stagnation
  7. Seek feedback and financial rewards not as ends, but as measures of their success
  8. Constantly work toward self-improvement and doing things better
  9. Have a consistent concern with setting and meeting high standards of achievement
  10. Associate their success with taking initiative, effort and persistence in overcoming obstacles

In my work, I meet many high achievers who are concerned with keeping a healthy achievement orientation. When the scales tip toward overachievement the result is often increased stress, anxiety and depression. If you find yourself leaning toward overachievement, you can consider taking a break to give yourself time to reflect and put your goals in the proper perspective, rewarding yourself for small wins instead of waiting to achieve the larger goal, spending time with family and friends to reconnect through social enjoyment and fun, and engaging in physical exercise and meditation practices to de-stress.

In summary, to remember the achiever orientations, consider how they answer this question: I feel successful when…

Underachiever: I get done what is required of me, though I could probably do more.

High Performer: I get the right things done with quality and a positive impact.

Overachiever: I get more done than others because it’s who I am.

High Achiever: I get a lot of things done with quality and a positive impact.


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