The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids
I was both a keener and a slacker in high school – a keener til the end of grade 10 and then a slacker the rest of the way. And while I have many regrets in adulthood about letting certain things slip away, wish I’d “applied” myself more dutifully, at the same time I also remember that at the time, at that age, though stupid, I was also blissfully stress-free academics/career-wise – i thought we were all stupidly oblivious then – which, of course, is something to be thankful for. There is enough heartache and heartbreak and headache as it is, to say nothing of “real life” realities that sink in in your 20s, and so looking back, I’m happy I was idiotically but blissfully living in the moment.
I’m also happy that was 20 years ago. Ouch. But if I had to do it again, in this day and age, I am convinced I would never have made it out of high school, convinced I would have never found a job, never would have risen beyond entry level if that.
The expectation, the pressure these kids are under these days is overwhelming. And overwhelming is an underwhelming word. They go to bed at 2:30am. They wake up at 6:30am. They have at least 3 extra curricular activities, they load up on advance placement courses, they tutor, they write for the school paper, and in between all that, they take their SATs two, three, or four times for an extra 5 or 10 points which of course make all the difference when applying to an Ivy League School.
In the process, these students – children essentially – are losing their minds and sometimes their hair. Alopecia brought on by stress, panic attacks, vomiting, fainting spells, the inability to spend time building meaningful friendships resulting in poor socialisation skills and communication deficiencies … these are kids not being kids. Made me sad.
The Overachievers reads like fiction – most of the time. Those are the best parts – when she tells the story of each student’s path to university, without the technical context that follows every vignette, the characters are completely engrossing. I cared. The problem is balancing the real lives with the facts and the stats. At the beginning, the supplementary information was riveting and relatable – suicide rates in Asia, a child (something like 8 or 9) leaping off a building and plunging to his/her death after an average (not failing, just average) test score, and the trend in North America to slowly model the education system to that which exists overseas. But as the stories progressed, the research began to sound like filler when all that mattered was finding out what happened to Sam and Julie and Audrey and whether or not AP Frank would finally lose his virginity.
Speaking of AP Frank – many with little experience with Asian culture found his relationship with his mother and her abusive relationship to his studies hard to believe. Hard to believe, perhaps. But definitely not even a small exaggeration of the truth. Asians can be sadists when it comes to failure.
And that I think was the crux for me – what’s become the modern definition of failure which, as corny as this sounds, has very little to do these days with happiness. When children are molded by consultants from kindergarten – consultants paid up to $35K to “coach” a kid into Harvard – when their whole lives are planned from which pre-school they’ll attend to who they’ll be friends with, enjoyment becomes less important than achievement.
These are perhaps extreme examples. But in looking at some members of the yummy mummy set or the sporty parent society, the Martha-fied standards applied to a home renovation or a set of silverware are more often than not manifesting themselves in the way we “design” our children. And the way we all judge how others are “designing” their children – comparisons that fuel a competitive drive to turn our children into achievement monsters with sometimes terrible and lasting consequences.
In bringing it back to celebrity, perhaps Britney is the most fitting analogy. Pushed as a toddler to be a performing machine, pushed as a teen to top the charts, pushed as a young adult to be an icon – she certainly passed all the early tests. She was the Pop Culture Overachiever…only to tap out before her time. An engine overheated, too many blown fuses, an overstimulated circuit system that may never be repaired. And above all things – totally and completely devoid of happiness. All for the Harvard of Hollywood.