High-Achiever vs. High-PerformerI’ll bet you didn’t know there is a difference between overachieving and high-performing, did you?

There is a huge difference and though many of us are overachievers (I definitely am in that camp), it’s not necessarily good.

A few years ago, my friend, author, and entrepreneur, Les McKeown, wrote and published Predictable Success.

It quickly became one of my most favorite books and I keep a copy of it on my desk, mostly to remind myself to chill out—and that the growth challenges we experience are totally normal.

On my desk is also a copy of a series of articles he wrote in 2011.

Though he wrote it eons ago (2011), “On the Underperformance of Overachievers” is still highly relevant today.

And…I often need the reminder that overachieving isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Achieve vs. Perform

He describes it as such:

Overachievers make for worrisome business leaders, and they’re doubly dangerous as CEOs. Their desire to achieve blinds them from the vital need to perform.

Achieve comes from an old French word meaning ‘bring to a head’—and that’s exactly what overachievers do: they bring things to a head. Sometimes it’s pretty to watch, sometimes not, but one way or other, they’re going to Get. It. Done. Whatever the cost.

Perform is something else entirely. It means to complete something through alteration. The art of performance is not just to bring something to a head (achievement), but to complete it, to make it whole, to transform it for the better.

Think about the work you do every day—do you work through a task list, including busy work and things that could be delegated, or do you work only on the most important thing every day?

I will admit I fall into the former group—particularly when I’m overly tired or have had far too many meetings and need to feel productive.

It’s what comes naturally—and it’s something I have to fight against.

3 Ways High-Performance Differ from High-Achieving Leaders

Les went on to write about the topic for two more days—and the three articles are what I have stapled, dog eared, written on, circled, and doodled on.

He describes three ways high-performance leaders differ from high-achieving leaders:

  1. Benign neglect
  2. Collateral damage
  3. Self-doubt

But what do each of those mean?

Benign Neglect

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about how digital distraction hampers creativity—and where some of our best ideas come from.

There is a reason you have brilliant ideas in the shower. You have time to think in there, without distraction.

Likewise, sometimes when you have a challenge or an issue, the very best thing you can do is let it sit and simmer in your brain.

Just like it’s always advised to write an email when you’re angry and then let it sit overnight, time always gives us perspective.

Les says:

Performance-based leaders let problems ripen on the vine, but for the overachiever ,the idea of putting something on the back burner and letting it stew for a while is akin to Chinese water torture.

Not everything has to be solved today. And not everything has to be checked off your to-do list today.

Would you rather be a high-performer or a high-achiever?

Collateral Damage

Overachievers look for the winning solution. Performance-based leaders look for the optimal solution.

The difference between the two is usually one of collateral damage: the winning solution will often (metaphorically) involve taking some prisoners, or hurting someone in the process. The optimal solution accepts there is a playoff between result and the effect on people, and seeks to balance the two.

I see this a lot in the work we do with our clients and the Spin Sucks students and community members.

People are so focused on getting their things done, they don’t think about how it affects their colleagues—or the vision of the organization.

While it sure does feel nice to check things off your list each day, is it for the betterment of the whole?

As you go about your day, ask yourself would you rather be a high-performer or a high-achiever today?


The last thing Les says high-achievers do is counter-intuitive and weird, but true:

Achievement-based leaders suffer from self-doubt much more than performance-based leaders.

He says he’s not entirely sure why that is, but he thinks it’s because a high-achiever prioritizes achievement above everything else.

It also could be that high-achievers are typically self-competitive so they are constantly second-guessing themselves.

I can’t think of anyone like that (snort!).

Would you rather be a high-performer or a high-achiever?

Transitioning from High-Achiever to High-Performer

The good news is, even if you are a high-achiever, you can transition to a high-performer.

It’s not going to be easy and, like I said, you’ll easily go back to your old ways when you’re overly tired or stressed.

But it is possible.

Here are six steps to becoming a performance-based leader:

  1. Get a mentor. We believe very, very strongly in having a coach and getting professional development. Make it clear you want to become a high-performer and let someone hold you accountable.
  2. Get a safety word. Your colleagues have to be in on your transition and you have to give them permission to let you know when you’re falling back into a high-achiever. Give them a safety word to use and you’ll know you’re not reaching your goal of being a high-performer.
  3. Get an outlet. I know, I know. You don’t have time. But one of the very best things you can do for your mental and physical health is to get some exercise. It could be a walk around the block, a bike ride, a jog, yoga, or myriad other options. Find something you enjoy and give yourself permission to do it 30 minutes a day. Its benefits are far greater than staying in shape.
  4. Learn your point of endorphin release. Mine is checking something off the list. I have been known to write things on my list, just to check them off. The only way you can transition from a high-achiever to a high-performer is to know what that endorphin release is—and work past it.
  5. Substitute with a delayed reward. Les says, “Choose something simple that you really enjoy doing: eating chocolate, a hug, random internet browsing, a nap, the next move on Words With Friends—whatever works for you—and consciously substitute it for the old endorphin rush…but delay it.
  6. Optimize the decision in the gap you just created. As it turns out, you’ll get time back when you become a high-performer. And while we can’t duplicate time, we most certainly can get wasted hours back. That sound pretty good, doesn’t it?

High-Performers are More Important

The most interesting part of Les’s comparison between a high-achiever and a high-performer is it works for all of us.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve just graduated from college, run a one-person marketing department, or have 250 employees.

This is work we can all do, and it’s more important for the health of an organization to be a high-performer.

What will you start today to guide you on this journey?

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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