To Achieve Or Not To Achieve — That Is The Question

photo courtesy of Juan Ramos, Unsplash, CC
photo courtesy of Juan Ramos, Unsplash, CC

What does it mean to achieve or to be successful?

You’re smart, so you’re a high achiever, right?

Maybe. Not necessarily.

And what is a high achiever anyway?

And then. More questions:

What is a reasonable expectation for your particular abilities and interests? Where can you find adequate feedback? If you’re proud of something you achieve does that make you arrogant? How do you deal with accolades when something was easy for you to achieve; do you feel guilty or undeserving? Does praise for your achievements feel empty? Are you always expected to achieve but the pressure makes your brain turn to jello? Have you decided that it’s easier to go underground rather than risk achievement or risk not meeting expectations? How do you help your kids find a real achievement experience in school if their academic needs aren’t being met? Where do you even begin when there’s so much suffering everywhere you look?

To achieve or not to achieve.

It’s a good thing that you’re smart so you can manage living in this jungle. It’s intense. So many mosquitoes  questions.

Here’s a place to start: You’re asking these questions because your ability to think, understand and process complex ideas is fast, deep and wide. You are not being too dramatic or too sensitive or too obsessive or too self-absorbed. These are real concerns. And the answers will require thinking time, research, chocolate and conversations with others who understand what it means to have a rainforest mind.

Here are some places to look for answers: — an online resource for gifted adults; classes, Facebook group, coaching

Paula Wilkes Coaching and Consulting — a coach with many years of experience in gifted education and in working with gifted children and adults, including 2e issues

GHF Press and GHF bloggers — an organization supporting parents of gifted/2e children (particularly homeschoolers) and gifted adults, the publisher of my book — an online website with a gazillion articles and resources, blog hops from parents and professionals — an organization supporting the social-emotional needs of gifted kids and adults through articles, webinars and conferences

Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth available now to order at and your favorite independent bookstore by Paula Prober (that would be me)

The Gifted Adult by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen

And, of course, inside your own compassionate intuitive heart.


To my bloggEEs: This is such a complicated topic. What are your thoughts and questions about achievement and success? What other resources are you aware of? Your comments make my blog so much richer! Thank you for sharing. (And if you’re feeling distressed about recent events, my post on sensitivity and compassion is here. Sending you love.)



Related Posts

Author: Paula Prober

I’m a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice based in Eugene, Oregon. I specialize in international consulting with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. I’ve been a teacher and an adjunct instructor at the University of Oregon and a frequent guest presenter at Oregon State University and Pacific University. I’ve written articles on giftedness for the Eugene Register-Guard, the Psychotherapy Networker, Advanced Development Journal and online for psychotherapy dot net, Rebelle Society, Thrive, Introvert Dear, and Highly Sensitive Refuge. My first book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, is a collection of case studies of gifted clients along with many strategies and resources for gifted adults and teens. My second book, Journey Into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists is a collection of my most popular blog posts along with writing exercises for self-exploration and insight.

32 responses to “To Achieve Or Not To Achieve — That Is The Question”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Giftedness, Achievement, and Guilt | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] you don’t fit into the high achiever category, your teachers, relatives, therapists, and pets may not think that you’re gifted. […]

  2. Jonathan Heredia Avatar
    Jonathan Heredia

    It’s so much easier to think about achieving than actually achieving… unless of course I count my ability to think about achieving as an achievment on my own… But then can achievment be something completely based on a personality trait? I’m guessing that it’s an achievment just me being where I am and being open to criticism.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I think it makes a lot of sense to measure achievement in multiple ways. (I’m not sure what you mean by a personality trait.) If, for example, someone has been through a lot in their life, it could be considered an achievement to be able to remain compassionate and open. It could be an achievement to be introspective and willing to work on oneself in a therapy process. There are many ways a person can achieve.

  3. How Can Sensitive Souls Change the World? | Your Rainforest Mind

    […] all about love. Love and compassion. Love for yourself: your mistakes, your failures, your successes,  your disabilities, your persnicketiness, your idealism, your sensitivities, your intuitions, […]

  4. Ro Avatar

    In many ways, I feel like I’m still trying to reach the start line of life – or trek to the base of a mountain other people have already scaled. Even when/if I reach the starting point, I’m not likely to get far. As a teenager I was told by my psychiatrist that I had schizophrenia, and would never recover (turns out my PTSD had been misdiagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia). Heartbroken, I dropped out of the high-school I’d been struggling to attend for a couple of years under the cloud of very heavy doses of antipsychotic medication (I learned nothing during those years – but did become morbidly obese on the medication, for which I was verbally abused by fellow students).
    Was institutionalised at different stages, and forced to work in a sheltered factory fitting scrabble pieces in 10 x 10 templates etc. for $7 pay/day. Shortly after leaving the factory I joined Mensa in a desperate bid to get to know a different aspect of myself, and make some friends. It was immediately apparent I didn’t fit in there either.
    In short, what I’ve realised is that my experience as a person of high IQ has vastly less influence on my life and social prospects than my experiences as a severely abused child and teenager (and now uneducated, physically impaired adult headed towards midlife). It feels like a relief to acknowledge this. I don’t belong at IG – nor perhaps anywhere that moves beyond superficial exchange. I’m going to grant myself a break from seeking to fit in someplace; and will cease giving weight (or attributing any substantial meaning) to my measured intelligence. Clever is as clever does, and I’ve not done anything.
    My main goals in life now include things like ‘staying out of hospital for an extended period’, and ‘keeping my physical system stable enough that I can maintain the home environment’. Despite my best efforts, I cannot achieve all the daily basics of life. Each day I am faced with choices as to what fundamental aspects of living I can’t neglect any longer, and what I will opt to neglect for a day or two (or more, depending on unpredictable symptoms) so these other things can be attended to for a while. Fun stuff factors in as well — what is more important to me right now; singing a few songs, or being able to swallow my dinner? Which of my daughter’s upcoming recitals/events is ‘most important’ to attend? I experience physical repercussions for reading too long, the same as I do from moving about/sitting.

    Hope this goes a little way to explaining my perspective. It might sound like a bunch of whingeing excuse-making, but anybody who knows me knows what a driven and hard worker I am. I’m chuffed whenever my efforts amount to a tidy home, or making it through an entire school concert.
    Living up to my intellectual potential feels like a privilege beyond reach.
    Sending my best wishes Paula.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you, Ro, for explaining. It never feels like “excuse-making.” I don’t know if this will be helpful but sometimes I think that those humans abused as kids make a huge contribution to the web of life by stopping the abuse cycle in the ancestral line and doing the incredibly courageous work of healing.

      1. Ro Avatar

        Thank you Paula. That does mean something to me. Best wishes.

    2. Tanya Avatar

      I can relate to your comment below, Ro. I’m sorry you’re there. It is so draining, so damn tiring, to think of getting through each day like this. I can’t relate to everything you’ve written, but the daily struggle below, that I did for multiple years, was just flat-out hard. The daily stuff was hard, but a good chunk of the difficulty was feeling so very out of step with the rest of the world, and completely unable to even try to maintain my own beat. This is getting ramble-y, but this reminded me so clearly of those years and I just wanted to say that, at least in part, there are some of us out here who get it, at least a bit of your it.

      “Despite my best efforts, I cannot achieve all the daily basics of life. Each day I am faced with choices as to what fundamental aspects of living I can’t neglect any longer, and what I will opt to neglect for a day or two (or more, depending on unpredictable symptoms) so these other things can be attended to for a while. Fun stuff factors in as well — what is more important to me right now; singing a few songs, or being able to swallow my dinner? Which of my daughter’s upcoming recitals/events is ‘most important’ to attend?”

      1. Paula Prober Avatar
        Paula Prober

        Thank you, Tanya, for your empathy. I’m sorry to hear that you’re suffering. I’m glad you’re here with us.

      2. Ro Avatar

        “…a good chunk of the difficulty was feeling so very out of step with the rest of the world, and completely unable to even try to maintain my own beat.”

        Such a clear description of the experience. The ‘unable to maintain ones own beat’ part is the most apt (and difficult) for me personally. I’m sorry you understand though Tanya, and do hope you are living a life less restricted these days. You are right – there have to be many out there who get it, too.
        I’ve realised there seems to be another aspect of loss and grief I’ve overlooked. But finally noticing a new aspect after a long time of being blind to it is probably a sign of progress. So that’s hopeful.

        Thank you very much Tanya for writing, sharing. Sending best wishes 🙂

    3. Mark V Avatar
      Mark V

      I had a similar experience being misdiagnosed, prescribed anti-psychotics, had rapid weight gain etc. etc
      Psychiatry can really make a person feel like a fly trapped in a spider’s web. Once you’re stuck, good luck getting out. To many doctors, your struggles to avoid being labelled forever is merely confirmation that’s exactly where you should be.

      In retrospect there were red flags everywhere. Shortly after I first sought help for mild depression and moderate anxiety — yes, how I a doctor eventually prescribed anti-psychotics to a depressed person was a mystery even to my concerned pharmacist — I was in the hospital for “observation”. While there, to kill time I doodled a lot. I was really into skateboarding and thrash metal at the time so one day I doodled a bunch of skulls (what skateboarder doesn’t like skulls?)

      But my doctor walked in, furrowed his brow as he peeked a look at my art and asked me in a serious tone “what does it mean?”

      My answer SHOULD have been “It means my doctor is a fool. It also means I’m out of here. See ya!!” haha

      But sadly that was a realization that did not come for many years. That failure to see what danger I was in nearly destroyed me, several times.

      You see, I think people who don’t fit a certain mold such as the gifted, the talented, the creative, the highly sensitive, the free-spirited…these types of people are mysteries to many doctors. While doctors may be very intelligent, few can relate to a person whose mind is not as tamable as their own which has jumped through many, many hoops on their way to becoming a psychiatrist.

      Rather than accept they cannot understand some people, the anxiety that comes from facing the unknown prompts them to still try to put a label on everyone, no matter how much their limited labels do not fit, and that can have terrible, even tragic consequences. I finally managed to shake myself free from the web, but not before I lost 25 years, most of my friends and family, my youth and much of my confidence. But I guess things could be worse. 🙂

      Forgive me for rambling a bit, my hope is that if this resonates with you at all, that it can be of some help or comfort. An excellent book on the topic of misdiagnosis and “psychiatry survivors” is “The Spiritual Gift of Madness: The Failure of Psychiatry and the Rise of the Mad Pride Movement”by Seth Farber

      Within it there are several case studies that are similar to ours, people whose lives were nearly destroyed by psychiatry’s ignorance, reluctance to accept its own limitations, and the arrogance of many doctors that treat their patients like lab rats. I don’t think you have to be a spiritual person to get something out of a different point of view regarding psychiatry.

      Wishing you much strength to continue to fight your way back to a dignified, just existence. -Mark

      1. Ro Avatar

        What you have written is very relatable Mark. I’m sorry you too were once trapped in the spider’s web (exactly how I’ve also described it). There is so much I could write but won’t. You get it, anyway – that much is obvious. Thank you sincerely for sharing, and for the book recommendation too 🙂
        Best wishes for you. Here’s to freedom.

  5. Ibibo Ataisi Justin Avatar
    Ibibo Ataisi Justin

    Really complex… I love your command of your language…

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Thank you, Ibibo.

  6. Ro Avatar

    My lived experience does not align with my IQ test results & reports. I cannot ‘learn anything I wish to learn’; still struggle to read books. My memory works in fits and starts. I’ve never had a career, am a high school dropout and don’t fit in with established, academic types. I’m too scared to read your book Paula because there’s every likelihood it’ll leave me feeling more isolated than I currently do.
    I prefer to engage in physical labour, physical pursuits, and relate with people that way – but my neuro. condition seriously prohibits participation.
    I wish I’d never been told that all academic options were open to me – based on a mere IQ score. I wish I’d never convinced myself that I could find an appropriate social group – based on IQ. It seems to work for others, but not in my own case. And I’m apparently highly gifted. What a joke. There’s obviously something going on within me that has a much deeper influence on life experience than IQ does. In which case my continuing attempts to relate to others, to life, from a ‘high IQ’ standpoint are totally redundant.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh, Ro. I’m so sorry. It sounds so painful. Why would my book make you feel more isolated? It’s kind of like the blog only more in-depth and not as funny. (!) You’ll read about real gifted folks who’ve been in therapy for issues related to their giftedness and their often dysfunctional families of origin. It could help you feel more understood, although I don’t describe anyone with neuro conditions or other serious disabilities like yours. Have you gone to the intergifted site? Would you enjoy conversations with people on Facebook? You might make some online connections with people there that could help. Your comments here, Ro, are so helpful to others. I’m sending you love.

  7. Kristi Avatar

    I’m still struggling with these questions (at 48). I used to be an attorney — that was a certain kind of success (money/prestige) but not that fulfilling. I’m still looking for how to use my gifts to do meaningful work.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      I started by counseling career when I turned 41 and started blogging at 62 and my book was just released at 64. It’s never too late!

  8. Mark V Avatar
    Mark V

    Last weekend a woman in the pub came up to me and started telling me how she thought I was under-selling myself, running myself down etc.

    Was she making an astute observation or had she merely overheard me telling someone about my floundering business?

    Who knows. Drunk people say strange stuff like that to me all the time — I am a genuine “freak magnet” — so that is not especially noteworthy. What was however, is that similar things have happened to me quite a few times with people telling me they think a talented person should be more confident and less self-deprecating. (I don’t think I am so self-deprecating as being very honest that I have failed to fulfill my potential.)

    In my own drunken state I tried but failed to explain why gifted people (yes I dared to utter the G word) may not be so willing to sing their own praises, and are very critical of themselves and their work.

    While I appreciate the gestures to show that they care, it’s not so nice that they seem to get it so wrong all the time. So I wonder if I should be less polite and accommodating and maybe more offended when people offer their unsolicited, uneducated advice.

    Because people make uneducated assumptions all the time. Even my own family sees the discrepancy between my talent and success and assume that I am sandbagging or lazy. I always do my best to try to understand others, and I in turn want to be understood. So it is very frustrating to have people jump to conclusions about me, often because of the ubiquitous pop-psychology out there that is rarely about gifted people or their issues.

    I am sure others are frustrated with comments “from the peanut gallery” regarding their giftedness, talent, lack of success and mental health. Care to share?

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      So hard to be misunderstood, even by sober people! Thank you, Mark, for continuing to share your experiences.

      1. Mark V Avatar
        Mark V

        Thank you Paula. I’d tried something different here, attempting to communicate and work things out with a more storytelling approach. But I don’t know. I’ve lost a lot of my confidence with putting myself or my work out there, in large part because I am afraid that my mental state makes anything I write — or anything else I create for that matter — tediously self-absorbed.

        1. themonthebard Avatar


          Write anyway. 🙂

          And here’s a thought: what is self-absorbed for you, is other-absorbed for anyone else reading it.

          1. Mark V Avatar
            Mark V

            Thank you. That’s a good point that hadn’t occurred to me.

  9. themonthebard Avatar

    Real achievement is a tricky thing. I don’t know that I can speak to the abstract. All I know is my own experience.

    In the spring of 2003, I was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Strange thoughts go through your mind at a moment like that. My very first thought was, “At least I don’t have to worry about that (unprintable) 401K any more.” The grief hit right after that — the idea that I wouldn’t be around to see my youngest son graduate high school. And I knew he needed me: it was a touchy time of life for him. Nothing I could do about it. I was on a curve of destiny, and it would work out as it would, for good or ill.

    I did the surgery, and while I was recovering, I decided to finish orchestrating the piano concerto I’d been working on for close to twenty years. I upgraded my music software, and started scoring it as I began chemo. I finished the music and cut a CD by mid-summer, sometimes working on it in thirty-minute sessions, since I couldn’t stay upright much longer than that. I couldn’t perform the piano parts at speed any more, so I had to pick them out and use the software to string it together.

    In late summer, at the nadir of the chemo, I would lie in bed, adrift somewhere between waking and sleeping, and I found myself reviewing my “achievements” in life. I wasn’t impressed. A master’s degree in a field that had stopped advancing about the time I was born. A few jobs with titles and salaries and business cards, working in an industry that — like all modern industries — enables both evil and good, perhaps with a tilt toward evil. An (unprintable) 401K, all but worthless after the tech bubble collapse, and probably never to be used anyway. A marriage, a mortgage, a divorce. Two sons, and a father’s worries and regrets — mostly that I had failed them.

    And then I would listen on my cheap little boom-box to the piano concerto I’d written. And I’d think, “If nothing else, I created that.” Something good. Something pure. Something beautiful.

    Perhaps a few hundred people have heard it by now, no more, as well as the music I’ve written since then. It’s almost inconceivable that it will “succeed” in the sense of making me famous, or infamous, or rich, or immortal. It’s classical music, and its time has passed: Camille Saint-Saens commented as much, a century ago.

    But it is something good. Pure. Beautiful. And it would not exist if I had not given it shape.

    I see that as my achievement.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Somehow this comment got past me and I just found it. So sorry I didn’t post it sooner, themonthebard. Thank you for this. It’s a wonderful example.

      1. themonthebard Avatar

        No problem. 🙂

  10. themonthebard Avatar

    I think the second step is decoupling “achievement” from “school.”

    Public schools in the US are, and have always been, a complete mess, owing to competing objectives.

    The public face of public education, and the reason most teachers go into teaching, is the “liberal arts” idea of improving the minds of the young. Teach them to read. Teach them to think. Teach them to appreciate the fruits of civilization.

    The FUNDING of public education has always been much grubbier. The goal of the funders (not the founders) is to make our elites wealthier. Various fads combined with marketplace needs have swept through the educational system from generation to generation. In the 1800’s, the need was for factory workers, so schools taught virtues associated with factory work. In the 1950’s, we were trying to turn wartime technology into peacetime prosperity — and win a Cold War against the Russians — so science education rose to the top. Now, it’s computer literacy. Each of these fads carries baggage from before, along with usually ill-conceived ideas about how to teach — say — computer science, and the result is a muddle. Why do we have bells and class periods in schools? Why is there a summer break? It’s all part of the muddle.

    A third function has crept in over the last two generations, which is basically extended child-care: schools as nannies, especially for families with two adults working five jobs just to keep food on the table. It’s been often pointed out that schools provide the only real meal that some children get. It’s often the only parenting they get, as well.

    A fourth function that doesn’t get nearly enough press — because it would require admitting things about our economy that can’t be admitted — is as a holding pen to keep the young out of a shrinking workplace that no longer has enough positions for the adults, much less new workers. Why do you need a college degree to work as a sales clerk in a department store? Or an office manager at a state DMV?

    A fifth (and contemptible) function is as profit-center, particularly for loan sharks making bank off of our children’s future through “educational loans.”

    Sixth, but hardly last, is education as political football. Anyone want to talk about presenting Creationism or Intelligent Design as an “alternative” to the theory of the evolution of species?

    The problem for the gifted student is that the muddle — if not the history that accounts for it — is so bloody obvious. It’s very hard to invest in such a mess, and yet all of the authority-figures, from parents to principals, are demanding academic achievement, and threatening the underachiever with a life under a bridge drinking Ripple. What are they supposed to do?

    And what are supportive parents supposed to do? I remember when I got a call from the school regarding my youngest son: this time, the math teacher complaining that my son wasn’t turning in his homework. He wanted me to “do something” about it. I sighed and asked, “So, what does he need to do to pass your class?” He said, “At this point, I don’t see how he can recover a passing grade.” So I said, “Well, then I guess we’re done talking, right?” He was, of course, flabbergasted that I could be so uncaring about my son’s math hygiene.

    A few years later, that same son consulted with an attorney about filing a provisional patent on some nanotech ideas he’d had. Turned out not to be worthwhile, because the industry wasn’t even close to ready to develop such an idea.

    This is tremendously difficult, especially for gifted parents of gifted students, because — at least this was my experience — it’s basically impossible to side with the school in good conscience. Which puts everyone under a lot of stress, since there’s almost nothing worse than an “uncaring parent” who doesn’t support the child’s education.

    So it’s an ordeal in the ancient sense of the word. A kind of rite of passage that must be endured. But I found it very helpful — necessary even — to decouple my children’s “academic achievement” from both their giftedness, and their worth, and they found it helpful as well that I supported them rather than criticizing.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      And then there’s more! A fascinating analysis. It ought to stimulate some good rainforest-y discussion.

  11. themonthebard Avatar

    A very complex topic. Or perhaps I should say “complexed” in the Jungian sense? 🙂

    A first and necessary step is unpacking this freighted word “achievement.”

    “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” was the put-down of the generation before me, and a little bit into mine. Rich has almost nothing to do with smart. It never has. The same holds for nearly any publicly-recognized level of “achievement.” Even in arcane matters such as theoretical physics, or writing novels, or performing music, or acting, the outcome is often-as-not a matter of pure fortune: you were in the right place at the right time, and it all worked out.

    The Bill Gates story is instructive. As I heard it, when a rogue division of IBM produced the first IBM PC, they went looking for an operating system to run on it. Their first call was to the company that made the best micro-kernel of that day — it was CP/M, created by a company named Digital Research. The CEO, Gary Kildall, was out of the office that day, so IBM went to the next name on the list. Bill Gates answered that call, and the rest is history.

    Was Bill more “gifted” than Gary? It obviously didn’t make one bit of difference.

    The Dutch even have a saying that translates as, “If you were born a dime, you will never be a quarter.” Contrast that to the US American, “You can be anything you want to be.” The Dutch sentiment is much closer to the truth; if there was ever a time in the US “land of opportunity” where the American sentiment was more true than the Dutch, it’s long past.

    This is very hard to accept if you’ve been indoctrinated all your life with the idea that “gifts” == “success,” and that “you can be anything you want to be,” as I and my generation were taught.

    But when you do accept it — as 99% of us eventually must, regardless of our giftedness or lack thereof, because we will reach the end of life largely unknown and comfortably broke — life gets quite a lot less complicated, and much more interesting.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Oh, I like that “complexed.” Ha! You always give us lots to think about! Thank you.

  12. Virginia Kochis Avatar
    Virginia Kochis

    Oh, Paula. I’m a high school teacher by trade and a homeschooling mother to a 2e 9 year old by God’s grace. She’s brilliant. But she’s also absolutely not interested in the stereotypical high achievement model. She does what she wants, when she wants. And I worry about how much to push her, how much to stand back, etc. I think her definition of success will be becoming the person she longs to be. Whether that means she really does end up owning 40 acres and running a wolf sanctuary likes she dreams of now or immersing herself in scientific research (or writing novels or programming computers or making pizzas or…..) I’m going to do my best to love and support her.

    Thanks for the resources.

    1. Paula Prober Avatar
      Paula Prober

      Your daughter sounds wonderful, Virginia. “…becoming the person she longs to be.” Sounds good to me!