Sometimes, good enough is, well… good enough. Other times, it’s not. It helps to know the difference. Sadly, that’s not always the case.

As I reviewed the briefing packet on the desk in front of me, the civilian staff member who prepared it waited somewhat impatiently. It was too long. It lacked a coherent theme and just kind of wandered around the subject. And it was littered with mistakes.

“We’re going to need to work on this a little more. It’s not where it needs to be,” I offered.

“It’s good enough for government work,” he scoffed, smiling as if he’d made a clever joke.

I took a breath. Knowing that it was going to be presented to a group of 3- and 4-star senior leaders meant that it needed to be better than good enough, I explained, then provided the direct feedback necessary to ensure that the issues I’d noted were corrected. I handed the slides back to him as he slouched his way back to his cubicle.

He was a classic underachiever, always happy to do the bare minimum and nothing more.

Signs you are an Underachiever

Many people don’t realize that they’re perceived as underachievers, content and blissfully unaware of how others view them. Some people sense it, but maybe don’t quite see themselves clearly enough to recognize the signs. What are those signs? Not necessarily what you might think. In a 2020 article, Olivia Kelley described the five classic signs of an underachiever.

  1. You do just enough to get by. People who do this tend to do so because they’ve learned that good enough is what it takes to survive in the workplace. What they don’t always understand is that it also tends to strand them in place.
  2. You make a lot of excuses. Excuses are like… opinions. But, if you find yourself making them a lot of the time, you’re really just trying to duck responsibility for your own lack of effort and productivity.
  3. You lack organizational skills and proper time management. Ever find yourself chipping away at the low-hanging fruit but avoiding the difficult, time-consuming tasks? It’s because you’re trying to substitute any kind of progress you can muster for actual progress on something that matters.
  4. You find yourself procrastinating on assignments or projects. If you wait until the last minute to finish something, it’s only going to take you a minute. Right?
  5. You use charm to get out of doing work. A smile and a few empty compliments go a long way. Until they don’t. Eventually, people figure you out.

how to Flip the Switch

Assuming that you possess the capacity for self-reflection necessary to recognize yourself as the underachiever you are, what do you do about it? Most underachievers would simply slip into a state of acceptance and move on without giving it much more thought. Existence as an underachiever parallels the Kübler-Ross five-stage grief model: denial-anger-depression-bargaining-acceptance. However, just a modicum of self-awareness opens a world of possibilities when it comes to change.

All it takes to move beyond your underachieving ways is a little bit of energy and a vision of a better version of you. Grab a cup of coffee, find a white board, and get a few dry-erase markers out of your desk (note: leave the Sharpies behind). Along the way, pick up a copy of James Clear’s Atomic Habits. Once you get a little momentum behind you, it’s a great book for taking your vision to the next level.

1. Set your goals.

Goals are the most important step toward breaking the underachiever cycle. However, be realistic about them and limit yourself to just a few at first. Avoid goals that simply aren’t feasible or achievable. Those will only drive you back down again.

2. Break down your goals into sub-goals.

A good, achievable goal should build on sub-goals or milestones. Those are important to give you a sense of progress, help you build momentum, and fuel your self-confidence. One of the key steps in John Kotter’s 8-step organizational change model is to generate quick wins. You want your initial milestones to do that for you, to give you that boost of energy to keep working toward your goals.

3. Work your plan.

Once you’ve set your goals and broken them down, start thinking about resources you’ll need: time, people, money, or any other tangible – or intangible – resources necessary to achieve your goals. Keep in mind that you’ll never have all of the resources you need so you’ll need to balance and synchronize those appropriately. This is where things start to get interesting, so be smart about it.

4. Get your affirmations working.

The late Colin Powell often said that “perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” Maintaining a positive outlook is critical to change. But don’t go full Stuart Smalley. Stay grounded and realistic. You can do this.

5. Revisit and reassess your goals.

Do this right, and you’ll not only achieve your goals, you’ll surpass them. So, be sure that you have a timeline and process for updating your goals. I do it about once a year, as a matter of course. Where am I at? Where do I want to be? What will it take to get there? The cycle repeats, and so does the success.

Key to Motivation

There is one last aspect to this that you won’t find on any list. It’s surprising, really, because it’s a simple, proven way to motivate yourself and keep your head in the right place. Surround yourself with things that bring a positive focus to your mind. Maybe it’s motivational posters. Maybe it’s a to-do list that captures your progress. Maybe it’s playing “Eye of the Tiger” on repeat. Whatever it is, find it and put it to work for you.

Related News

Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and former board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.