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The Overachievers

Performance psychologist John Eliot describes the characteristics found in overachievers. And timid or conservative behavior doesn't enter the discussion.

What does it mean to be successful? If you ask performance psychologist John Eliot, he'll tell you that what most people aim for and train for is mediocrity. They never really get to put their true potential into play.

They follow the rules. They buy the prescriptions: Relax. Set Goals. Visualize. Remember a time and place when you were calm and successful.

"Such self-improvement balderdash will do nothing but relegate you to a career in mediocrity," Eliot contends. "To see what you're really capable of you have to think abnormally," he says.

That state of exceptional performance is what he calls overachievement—and he believes it's possible to bring it about regularly. "Overachievers," he insists, "don't think reasonably, sensibly or rationally."

His advice is unconventional by definition. To ratchet up your performance to the exceptional range, you really have to BE an exception. You have to thrive under pressure—welcome pressure, enjoy it and make it work to your advantage.

Many people, he says, are victims of the false-god syndrome. They think everything goes smoothly for others. They don't realize that everyone else, including star performers, experience rejection and failure even on a daily basis. It's not rejection that distinguishes achievers from nonachievers—it's the way they handle failure.

"Most successful people can share their weaknesses," says Eliot. "They get excited about learning so they can turn weaknesses into strengths."

Here's some more of his counterintuitive advice, which he delivers in his book "Overachievement," published this month.

  • Hard work is overrated. Overachievers know when to stop working at their job and start playing at it. Too much practice can turn you into a classic case of what he calls the "over-motivated underachiever."
  • Setting goals is for couch potatoes. The longstanding practice of goal-setting is actually a major obstacle to sustained, vigorous motivation—and being great.
  • Using your head is stupid. In high-stakes performance, the real genius is someone like Yogi Berra. On his way to 10 World Series rings and a place in the Hall of Fame, Yogi was thinking about... nothing.
  • Arrogant S.O.B.s run the world. A performer can never have too much self-assurance. The best in every field are likely to strike most people as irrationally confident, but that's how they got to the top.
  • Legends never say they're sorry. Having a long or frequent memory for mistakes and a short or infrequent memory for successes is a guaranteed way to develop fear of failure. High achievers dwell on what they do well—and spend very little time evaluating themselves and their performances.
  • The best need stress. Classic breathing and relaxation tend to undermine most performances, eliminating the possibility of setting records. Stress is the high-level performer's Power Bar.
  • Do put all your eggs in one basket. Unlikely accomplishments are born out of single-minded purposefulness. Future superstars don't get there by keeping part of their heart in reserve.
  • Put the "I" in "team." By definition, striving to be exceptional puts you outside the team. If you're a maverick CEO, you're a colorful genius. But if you're a young rogue exec, you're gone ("not a team player" reads your evaluation). The best performers not only think exceptionally, they teach their colleagues to think that way too.
  • What limits? If you want to find out what you're capable of, you can't put limits on yourself, and you definitely can't be cautious.
  • Only wimps weight the risk. For exceptional people, risks equal rewards. The challenge of uncertainty is the fun of high-performance—and that's where overachievement lies.