Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids (by Alexandra Robbins)

I don’t really know why I think of some non-fiction books as being weighty and serious tomes and some non-fiction books as being good, trashy fun. I mean, on the surface, there’s really nothing that stops The Overachievers: The Secret Lives Of Driven Kids from being a sincere polemic about the dangers facing our youths. But it’s not. It’s just not. It’s a screechy book filled with garish details from the lives of a bunch of privileged high school students, and it is compulsively readable.

Actually, I remember this book from when it first came out, because it hit kind of close to home. In order to study the lives of overworked overachievers in American high schools, Alexandra Robbins followed around a half-dozen juniors and seniors at Walt Whitman high school, which is a really nice public school in Bethesda, Maryland. If my parents’ house had been three or four miles north of where it was, I’d have gone to Walt Whitman (instead of a really tiny Catholic school in Washington, D.C.)

As I recall, when the book came out, it was fashionable for us former D.C. area schoolkids to declare how the kids in the book–at least as they were described–hadn’t really worked that hard at all; all of us had schedules much tougher than any of those kids.

But after reading the book, I can tell you that’s definitely not true. These kids are craaaaaaaaazy. They take so many classes that they don’t have a lunch period. And then they do varsity sports and then they are leaders in activities and then they intern at places in the summer and then they take SAT prep classes. And when they study, they study for three or four hours. They study until 1 or 2 AM. They’re really superhuman. I mean, seriously, corporate lawyers don’t work as hard as these kids.

I can’t help but think that a lot of their effort is wasted, though. I think that one reason Asians do so well in school is that we don’t bother with any of this sports nonsense. Playing sports is insanely time-consuming–it involves multiple hours of practice every single day–and it doesn’t really look particularly good on a college transcript: everybody plays sports.

Anyway, the kids in this book are absolutely destroyed by their workaholism. The kids go into triage mode. They get only four hours of sleep every day and live their lives with tunnel vision: life is a succession of assignments; it requires inhuman effort just to get everything done each day. They refuse to take sick days, because they know that taking a single day off school will make them fall behind. Families disintegrate under the relentless pressure to achieve. Kids ponder suicide and hurt themselves and go on powerful psychological medications.

It’s all very fun.

I went to school with these people. I mean, plenty of people at my high school worked very hard: it was not uncommon for people to do three or four hours of homework every night. But, man, in college…well, I went to college with every super-overachieving kid in the world. After awhile, it didn’t even cause comment. Everyone I knew had gotten straight As in high school and then also done some other outrageous thing: served on the county board of education; saved a man’s life; achieved one of the highest chess-rankings in an entire nation (yes, these are all true examples, and no, I, personally, don’t have an insane qualification like this).

How do people do it?

This book is all about the plight of the overworked overachiever–how they’re achievement-seeking robots who don’t know what they want, and how they’re just locked in on whatever is the highest status thing–the best award, the best internship, the best position on the newspaper, the best college–to present itself. But I kind of envied them. It’s a very useful thing to learn how to work very hard. If these kids every do discover the thing that they really want, then they’ll be well-prepared to go out and do everything they need in order to get that thing.

The only real danger is that they’ll be so successful that they’ll never be forced to look inside themselves. I think there’s a real possibility that kids like this will just move up into college, up into medical school, up into residency, up and up and up. Their lives will be so full of proximate challenges that they’ll never have time to look inside themselves and figure out what they want.

But the other kids–the slackers–face an equal challenge: when they finally find the thing that they want, and they might discover that they don’t have the work ethic and mental fortitude to pursue that thing.

Anyways, don’t read this book for that polemical stuff: read it in order to laugh at and feel superior to a bunch of stressed-out kids.

4 thoughts on “Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids (by Alexandra Robbins)

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Sad times. I feel like St. A’s had a not insignificant number of overachievers…but I feel like it didn’t work out that well for a significant fraction of them.

      1. Tristan

        It might be too early to say. But one thing I’ve learned from moving to Boston and marrying into a Harvard family is that, as much as any of us might have thought we were part of an overachiever community, there were and are certain social circles just stratospherically above us. High schools where anything less than 30% of the class going Ivy League (and 60% if you add Stanford, MIT, CalTech, etc.) is a really shitty year. And a kid going to a law or medical school that isn’t top 10 is cause for alarm.

        It adds a whole other dimension when you think about overachievers–there really is a class system, and there are levels of overachievers, some that can break in and some that can’t. And there are overachievers who become broken by it and have no personality, and there are some that flourish and remain creative, interesting, polite, and just smarter and more talented and better looking than you in every way. It’s not like it’s a yes/no proposition to work hard and be successful.

        1. R. H. Kanakia

          Oh, yeah, St. A’s is definitely not tops in overachieverdom even in the DC Area. Almost every person I met, at Stanford, who was from the DC area had gone to Sidwell or Thomas Jefferson. But part of that (at least in the case of Sidwell) is economic. Some people at St. A’s would certainly have done better in the college game if their parents were more important.

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