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 Kenneth W. Christian Ph.D.

Performance Psychologist/Author

Kenneth's website: www.maxpotential.com

 


1. What made you write a book about the phenomenon of underachievement?

In 1990, when I launched the Maximum Potential Project, I had been in private practice as a psychologist for over 15 years in the San Francisco Bay Area suburb of Lafayette, seeing adults, couples, families, and adolescents in groups. Over that period, I estimated that probably 80% of the families who came to see me mentioned their children's school performance as a major concern. Many of these parents were tortured by seeing their children fail to take hold and make use of their talent.

In response to this my associates and I developed a radical new approach to dealing with underachievement that involved a group for the adolescents, therapy sessions for the family as a whole, and a skills group for parents. This combination of tools delivered in a structured four and a half month format reached these kids and their parents and turned them around. Word got out and during an interview on a local NPR affiliate an adult called in saying he was an underachieving kid who felt he never outgrew it. On the basis of that phone call my associates developed a program for adults.

Writing the book was a natural outgrowth of wanting a wider audience of people to know that the problem of underachieving could not only be understood but remedied. As you know, however, though the word underachievement is in the subtitle of the book, I do not use the term much. It is a judgmental term and I prefer the more descriptive Self-Limiting High Potential Person (SLHPP).

2. During the research and writing phase of  your book did you reflect upon your own struggles with underachievement?

I certainly did. I recognized  early on that though I had achieved a number of external markers of achievement, the challenges that underachievers acutely face were ones with which I not only had to wrestle, but likewise as did most other people I knew. Who doesn't from time to time take the easy way out, cut losses, settle for less? Who isn't tempted by shortcuts? Those who succeed keep these self-limiting choices at bay and prevent them from becoming habitual by developing a structure of habits that are just slightly different in terms of work orientation, promptness of action, follow through, and persistence. Cumulatively, these small differences make a huge difference.

3. In your opinion how does underachievement adversely affect those working in the creative arts industry?

In the creative arts, people's efforts are so completely exposed that fears of ridicule and failure are hugely magnified. Plus in the creative arts people are striving to say something new in fresh ways. Brain surgeons people who have to take risks with life and death matters do not try to be creative every time out,  and don't have an audience or critics watching their every move while they are them. Those in the creative arts really put themselves out there. It takes courage and it is by no means easy. Plus success is difficult to attain and maintain.

Therefore it is tempting to engage in behaviors designed to avoid defining moments and to sidestep challenges. In the process you can drastically limit yourself. If you repeat those behaviors they easily become habitual because in the immediate moment they work in the sense that they reduce anxiety. "Whew! I didn't have to fail." If you can come up with an explanation for not trying, you are perilously close to falling into making excuses. Then you are also well on your way to limiting your possibilities to achieve.

4. What’s the difference between underachievement and just plain laziness?

Underachievement is a whole complex of self-limiting habits and thinking patterns that certainly can involve laziness. However, very ambitious, hugely energetic people can achieve far less than they otherwise would by setting conflicting goals and engaging in self-handicapping and other self-defeating behaviors. Everyone has some proportion of laziness. Underachievement is usually something more than just that.

5. Do you have plans to write a book about overachievement?

I doubt it, but who knows? I don't much like the concept of overachievement. How can you achieve more than you are able to? I think the term suggests that you can achieve too much to make other people feel comfortable and you ought to keep a lid on it. Women have suffered through that one for centuries.

It is clearly true that some people bury themselves in doing at the expense of being, or embed themselves in career to avoid the vicissitudes of relationships. Overwork is often a way of dodging areas of your life where you question your abilities to succeed. If you succeed in career but it costs you in terms of relationships perhaps what appears to be achievement is really an avoidance of taking risks with intimacy.

6.  Any  tips for folks struggling to break out of the cycle of underachievement ?

1. You have to make a definitive, unequivocal, no turning back decision to permanently change your work orientation and your habits.
2. You have to find trustworthy support and get them to guarantee that they will insist that you stay on track.
3. You need to plug into a larger vision and sense of purpose.
4. You need a plan and a systematic approach.
5. You need to carefully choose which things to put effort into and to avoid dead ends that suck your energy.

My book contains 15 Tasks designed to replace self-limiting, self-defeating habits with new effective ones. It requires hard work for a time but only hard work and only for a time. Once you set up a structure of new habits you must work to maintain them but they actually make life easier in the long run. And much more satisfying.

www.maxpotential.com