11 Clear Signs You Are An Underachiever & Change Strategies (2024)

You’re smart and capable of accomplishing so much, but somewhere along the way, self-doubt crosses your path and you don’t quite get to where you know you could be.

This can lead to depression and anxiety, a lack of confidence and trust in yourself, and more.

Keep reading these 11 clear signs you are an underachiever and change strategies.

Let’s dive in.

1. Doing Just Enough To Get By

Maybe you were that kid in school who never studied or cared about homework, but still got good grades, you may be an underachiever.

Knowing you can put in a minimal amount of effort to survive is part of what’s holding you back. Doing the bare minimum to get by, may find you feeling stuck in the same place, never moving forward.

By putting in a little more effort and utilizing all of your skills, you could accomplish so much more and really be successful.

2. Making Lots Of Excuses

According to psychologist Linnus S. Pecaut, founder of the Institute for Motivational Development, an underachiever (especially as children) might make excuses for why they aren’t performing well and struggle to accept responsibility for their failures.

Recognizing that and creating a change of habit by catching yourself and choosing differently will help you dig yourself out of the pit of excuses.

3. Lacking Organizational and Time Management Skills

If the thought of keeping up with a planner or sticking to a schedule makes you cringe, you might be an underachiever.

Making a to-do list for each day and setting aside time to accomplish tasks is a good way to start getting better results with your work.

4. Procrastinating On Assignments Or Projects

You know you need to do something, yet you continue to push it off later and later until the last possible minute.

The result is a frenzy trying to accomplish a project or assignment before your deadline and often means you feel frustrated and won’t be turning in your best work.

5. Using Your Charm

After a while, you may have figured out how to get out of doing work just by sweet-talking others. This could look like more excuses or passing off work you don’t want to do onto someone else.

Or you could be asking for an extension or extra help, so you can focus on doing the bare minimum required. Either way, it’s definitely not helping you accomplish anything and is setting yourself up for being an underachiever.

6. Learning A Hard Lesson Makes You Scoff

Maybe you had been told you’d learn a hard lesson when you got to college. If you scoffed at that and didn’t prepare for it, then you may have set yourself up for disaster.

This is when you believe you’re too smart for that and prefer to effortlessly breeze through college. Your lesson may come when you’re trying to get into a saturated job market with no plan, aspiration or direction.

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7. You Feel Underappreciated

Perhaps the most satisfying feeling of this entire mindset is thinking you’re something of a “hidden genius.” You just may be too, although no one will ever know it if you remain an underachiever.

However, appreciation comes to you when you appreciate others first. Humble up, learn your lessons and put in the effort. The appreciation will come when you least expect it.

8. You’re Afraid Of Failure And Success

Fear of failure stops you from going out of your comfort zone. You want to reach a goal, but you’re afraid that the next step could lead to your downfall. 

In the same way, success frightens you, too. Success often means added responsibility and accountability, and you’re not sure whether that’s something you can handle.

In the end, you end up simply staying where you are —  yearning to be something bigger but afraid to move forward and achieve your full potential.

9. You’re Depressed

Depression usually zaps a person’s energy, leaving them unproductive.

If you’re taking antidepressant medications, certain side effects could further affect your mood. Consult with a medical professional and seek assistance if you’d like to address this directly. 

10. Commitment Issues

Success doesn’t happen overnight. Usually, it takes time, plenty of engagement and dedication. It also involves forming good relationships with others — be it at home, in school, or the workplace. 

However, if you are not keen on establishing ties, this could hinder you from achieving success. So, see if you have commitment or attachment problems and address them head-on. 

11. Lacking Focus

If you’re easily distracted while studying or working or find it hard to finish even simple tasks, this could be the issue.

If it takes you a long time to accomplish something that could be done quicker, then you could benefit from improving your focus and concentration skills.

What Makes A Person An Underachiever?

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary the definition of the word underachiever is, “one (such as a student) that fails to attain a predicted level of achievement or does not do as well as expected.”

According to Harold Cohen, Ph.D., “Underachievement is related to disappointment with ourselves.”

An underachiever is a person and especially a student who fails to achieve his or her potential or does not do as well as expected.

Of particular interest is academic underachievement. Current theories among academic scholars prefer to address underperformance problems with remedial help.

Academic underachievement can also be attributed to relatively intelligent or gifted students, who do not perform as expected either because they are bored or choose not to excel.

For example, the academically successful daughter of two college professors who drops out of university may be looked upon as an underachiever.

The term is also used more generally, for example a team that contains many star players but still loses games against teams with relatively little obvious talent would be termed underachieving.

A stock which achieves poor profit and/or capital gains despite sound underlying business and/or asset backing may be called underachieving.

Is Being An Underachiever Bad?

Your life is an enormously complex web of interacting variables, and it’s impossible to know how, when you focus on maximizing one or two of them, you’ll end up distorting the others.

Recognise where the limits lie and you’ll have room for maneuver. “In knowing how far you’ll be able to reach,” explains Bill Mason, a writer on Taoism, “you’ll have perfect freedom to choose just how far within that range to reach.”

In the words of Picasso: “You must always work not just within, but below your means. If you can handle three elements, handle only two… In that way, the ones you do handle, you handle with more ease, more mastery, and you create a feeling of strength in reserve.”

I don’t know about you, but being an underachiever in this way doesn’t sound like a bad thing at all.

How Do You Tell If You Are An Underachiever?

Underachievement is a stress indicator leaving you with physical problems and emotional discomfort. 

Here are several ways you can tell if you’re an underachiever:

  • You may have the perception that you’re not accomplishing things in your life as well as expected and, as a result, become very dissatisfied with yourself.

If this is you, you’ll benefit by learning how to steer yourself in more productive directions. Like all stress indicators, underachievement may be the result of faulty thinking.

  • Even a highly productive person can perceive themselves as being an underachiever. Underachievement is related to disappointment with yourself.
  • An underachiever doesn’t believe they are accomplishing what they’ve set out to do and consequently feel frustrated that they’re not achieving at their “ideal” level.

Some of these people may actually take a little more time to do things. Others may mistakenly feel that they take more time.

  • If you perceive yourself as frequently falling short of your goals, then you are likely to tell yourself to do more and more. An underachiever may actually accomplish much in their lives, but not realize it because of unrealistic standards.

How Do I Stop Being An Underachiever?

Learning to have a rational view of your life is an important step in conquering being an underachiever.

1. Steer Yourself In Productive Directions

You can start combating your underachiever mentality by making realistic goals for yourself. Many underachievers already know how to work hard, they just need to learn how to adjust expectations.

Don’t stress yourself out by taking on tasks you know you won’t be able to handle. Focus on one thing at a time, if need be. Trying to handle everything at once only leads to stress and disappointment, the number one cause of underachiever mentalities.

2. Find Good Mentors

Seek assistance from those who know how to plan and be organized.

  • Attend workshops and seminars on being more productive
  • Read books or listen to tapes on organization
  • Learn better time-management skills and develop a better organization for yourself, your office and home

Asking for assistance is a good thing and nothing to be ashamed of.

3. Take Responsibility For Your Own Negativity

Take all the negatives in your life and try to turn them around.

Remind yourself that you have sufficient intelligence to succeed at pretty much anything you diligently apply yourself to.

4. Change The Way You Look At Yourself

Moving away from underachievement requires you to change the way you look at yourself. So surround yourself with people you love and things you love. It will help you see the world through a more positive filter.

Underachiever Characteristics

This checklist can be a huge help. When observing students, there are some standard characteristics of the underachiever you can pay attention to.

Some of them are in the checklist, yet can’t be observed that easily. Best is to start a conversation with the student to find out what is bothering them.

Underachieving Students:

  • See themselves as inadequate
  • Expect academic and social failure
  • Feel helpless to control outcomes of effort
  • Don’t feel free to make choices
  • Set unrealistic goals
  • Are defensive toward authority
  • Feel rejected and isolated
  • Are not willing to risk failure
  • Show ineffective approaches to problems

Underachiever Psychology

Underachievement is a behavioral syndrome with underlying connections to a child’s emotional life. This syndrome consists of identifiable behavior patterns which result in a child performing below their ability.

It’s very important to distinguish achieving students from underachieving students. Although both can be equally talented, underachieving students have different characteristics than achieving ones:

  • Lack of integration of goals & self-direction
  • Lack of self-confidence
  • Inability to persevere
  • Inferiority feelings
  • Social immaturity
  • Emotional problems
  • Antisocial behavior
  • Low self-concept
  • An unstable family environment

Underachiever Syndrome

In order to understand the dynamics and issues resulting in a pattern of the underachiever, a comprehensive evaluation including intellectual, academic, and psychological measurement is necessary. Seek professional help for this evaluation.

According to Dr. Diane Heacox, there are 6 underachiever profiles a student can take. I’m sure teachers will find them rather familiar.

  • The rebel: “Why should I play the school game?”
  • The conformist: “Please, don’t notice that I am smart.”
  • The stressed learner: “It’s not good enough.”
  • The struggling students: “I just don’t get it.”
  • The victim: “It’s not my fault”.
  • The bored students “There’s nothing new to learn.”

Underachiever Synonyms

Unfortunately, the synonyms for the word underachiever are all very negative sounding. This may speak to the fact that the underachiever generally has a negative view of themselves and the cycle keeps them underachieving.

Here are some synonyms:

  • disappointment
  • bum
  • deadbeat
  • defaulter
  • derelict
  • dud
  • good-for-nothing
  • has-been
  • incompetent
  • loafer
  • loser
  • might-have-been
  • moocher
  • nobody
  • prodigal
  • washout
  • born loser
  • no-good
  • nonperformer

Underachiever Examples

The patterns that have come to be understood with underachievers are repetitive and ubiquitous.

Here are several examples:

  • Parents report hearing excuses and seeing patterns of avoidance from their child week after week, day after day.

In response, parents tend to lecture “You have to bring your books home to get your work done”, “Don’t you understand you’re hurting your future?”, “We can’t help you if you don’t tell us the truth”.

In response, parents hear “In a minute”, “I’ll do it later”, or most predominantly, “I don’t know” or “I don’t care”. Parents consistently report that nothing seems to change this pattern despite lectures, grounding, or other punishment. 

  • You know your child has apparent potential, yet something is blocking your child from achieving their full potential. On standardized tests at school, your child scores extremely well. 

Teachers tell you consistently, “He or she is smart, but is just not doing the work”. In many cases, medication has been tried for an attention problem or depression. Yet, the underachiever continues to struggle with educational problems.

Tutoring may have been helpful for a short time, but the effects do not carry over for an underachiever. Many parents have lost hope and concluded their child is lazy.

  • Parents consistently identify that their child has low self-confidence.

However, it’s less understood that specific fears block the underachiever from their potential. The Underachievement Syndrome is triggered by basic emotional fears. 

It’s been estimated that the majority of underachievers are chronically seeking approval and experience ongoing fear of failure.

  • Another significant portion of underachieving children experience a persistent fear of success.

Regardless, the underachiever is always driven toward avoidant coping systems. In fact, it is this avoidant coping system which perpetuates being the underachiever.

  • Finally, the underachiever vehemently denies they have a problem. They cannot acknowledge their fears and behavior problems because they aren’t aware of them.

Avoidance of these issues is actually the main reinforcer of these fears and behaviors. Furthermore, this pattern is what creates such intense frustration for parents.

When you realize you’ve been cheating yourself from a fulfilling life and truly believe there is greatness within you, then what the hell are you waiting for in conquering underachievement? 

Change your mindset, start believing in yourself ✅ and in the power you possess to change your path and reach your full potential. And with that, everything will change.

Related: Achievement Oriented Leadership – A Complete Guide

About The Author

Bijan Kholghi is a certified life coach with the Milton Erickson Institute Heidelberg (Germany). He helps clients and couples reach breakthroughs in their lives by changing subconscious patterns. His solution-oriented approach is based on Systemic- and Hypnotherapy.