Chronic Underachievement


There’s always that one student who, despite everything, just doesn’t seem to care. He’s uninterested and laidback or removed and quiet. He doesn’t seem all that concerned with school, and he certainly doesn’t care about what you think of him. Is he just some kind of aloof jerk? No. Actually, he’s me. And I’m just another chronic underachiever, doing the bare minimum to get by.

So, what makes me appear to be so damn lazy, and what the heck is chronic academic underachievement – if not just an excuse for being slothful? As you might know, underachievement, generally speaking, is when an individual performs below what is expected. Underachievement can be found in countless areas of life. School is no exception, but chronic academic underachievement is a different beast entirely.

Dr. Sander Marcus, author of “Personality Styles of Chronic Academic Underachievers,” tells us that “[n]ot all academic underachievers are alike. The problem of underachievement is a symptom – like a stomachache – that can have many different causes, each of which requires a different solution.”

All right then, that makes underachievers lazy people with stomach aches. Got it.

Illustration By: Erick Torres

In all seriousness, according to Dr. Steven Reiss, author of “Why Students Underachieve,” “[v]irtually all psychologically important human motives and goals reduce to combinations of 16 universal life motives. Everybody embraces these life motives, but individuals prioritize them differently. How an individual prioritizes the 16 life motives has implications for how the person behaves in many natural environments. Our work on life motives, for example, has identified six common motivational causes of poor grades in schools. Any individual student doing poorly in school may have one or more these six motives.”

These six motives, which help categorize various types of academic underachievers, actually illuminate something potentially curious: maybe I’m not lazy at all. Maybe.

People Who Are Afraid Of Failure

The first type of underachiever is Mr. or Ms. “Holy-Crap-I-Can’t-Do-This.”

For some, underachievement is caused by the bone-chilling fear of failure. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase: “Failure is not an option?” Well we’re not talking about the Ethan Hunt kind of failure not being an option (I’ll save some of you the trouble of Googling it, it’s Tom Cruise’s character from “Mission Impossible”). To a chronic underachiever, not trying makes failure, quite literally, not an option.

“Since failure hurts less when they do not try, students who are devastated by failure tend to underachieve because they hold back efforts,” says Reiss.

I had the pleasure of speaking to an underachiever who was afraid of failure.

“If I try and I fail, I let myself down,” says Steve Harbaugh, a Cal State Northridge student. “If I do what it takes to get a C, the teacher isn’t going to think twice about me, and I go on my merry way. If I do what I think it takes to get an A, and I still get a C, well that’s not a great motivator. I’d rather just be able to relax with a C than spaz-out with a C.”

Chronic underachievement generally leads to … underachievement. So, in order to motivate these underachievers, Reiss suggests a gentle prodding from both teachers and parents. OK, that doesn’t sound so bad. In fact, it sounds like a bit of parental tough-love and encouragement could repair this fear induced conundrum rather easily.

People Who Don’t Care About School

But what about students who just don’t care about good ol’-fashioned book learnin’?

“Students vary enormously on how long they can sustain thought before they scream in frustration,” says Reiss. ”Students who hate to think are naturally incurious with regard to book learning.”

Don’t quite understand, yet?

“These students are typically described as impulsive and as not having any patience, especially to do the kind of quiet and persistent thinking and attention that schoolwork requires,” says Reiss.

What are these patience-challenged students really like? Cal State Long Beach student William Sanchez shares his take on education. Sanchez describes himself as “going to school because my parents want me to.” He explains what it’s like to hate school – not that I needed elaboration.

“I have to force myself to even go,” says Sanchez. “I’m glad I force myself and that my parents make me, but sitting through it sucks. I don’t care about half the crap they teach me.”

I don’t think that many students will argue against that statement.

Now, to summarize the different types of underachievers. So far, there’s the student terrified of failure and then there’s the student like Sanchez who dreads learning at all.

People Who Don’t Care In General

What about those who don’t really care, in general? Surely there are some students that are the quintessential lazy bum.

Reiss explains that “those students who devalue achievement tend to be laid back and interested in leisure. These students do poorly in school because they simply do not care about doing well.”

These types of people will be the ones that underachieve in all facets of life, not just school. A delightfully lazy Erik Norwick, a student at Pasadena City College, explains all about this genre of underachiever. “I can do it if I try,” says Norwick. “I just don’t usually try. I work and do what I have to, but at school, man, I don’t even care.”

Reiss says that for this brand of underachiever, strict expectations and extrinsic incentives to motivate learning are a must. And me? I suggest you roll with it, as long as you actually do your work. It’s one thing to be laid back and another to be detrimental to one’s future.

People Who Dislike Anything Authoritative

That leaves us with the next batch of underachievers, and these are a rather curious lot. These fellows actually underachieve due to a dislike of, well, anything authoritative. According to Dr. Sander Marcus,”[t]hese students are constantly negative towards the authority figures around them. They often have a defiant and angry stance towards others. They are motivated to underachieve because the underachievement is an act of rebellion.”

Think Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke – that’s the real reason he ate all those eggs!

“Some students hate anger and shy away from conflict,” says Reiss. “Others are proud of their fighting spirit and tend to get into many fights, arguments and quarrels. They perceive academic success as conforming to authority. They may do poorly in school because they are distracted by their battles – whether they’re physical or symbolic struggles.”

That makes sense. What must be done to quell the fire in this curiously combative crowd? Marcus suggests that motivating these students is as simple as pointing out the destructive nature of their misguided crusade. And me? I understand the righteous crusade, brother or sister.

It’s still better, however, to take a step back and understand that school is in place for you to get a degree. Use the system, I say; don’t let it use you.

People Who Are Disorganized And Lazy

The next category is the disorganized underachiever. Their sloppiness, inattention to detail and general lack of any type of organizational structure is the reason for their bad grades. These students find orderly daily life to be confining; they follow their instincts on the matters they find important. Instincts are fine and dandy in the jungle, but, unfortunately, the jungle doesn’t have research papers, deadlines or assignments. Thus, it would seem that their instincts are a mismatch with regard to school.

The unapologetically lazy Norwick, a man who finds himself in the laid back category of underachieving as well, explains that he is, in fact, a slob, in addition to his affinity for leisure. He, of course, phrases it more elegantly. “I’m pretty disorganized, and I forget little assignments here and there because of it,” says Norwick.” But it’s all part of being me. I don’t miss that much work because of how I am, but it does affect me sometimes.”

For this branch of underachiever, Reiss suggests a focus on better organization. I agree; do it if only to slip through your academic career relatively unscathed.

Afraid of failure: check. Uninterested about book learning: check. Laid back: check. Rebellious: check. Disorganized: check. That leaves but one more of the six motives related to underachieving.

People Who Have Questionable Morals

The last category is the expedient underachiever. These people, as per the definition of expedient, are convenient and practical, although possibly improper or immoral. They get by, like any other underachiever; except, they do so by whatever means necessary. Missing an assignment because they can pull their grade through without it? Sure. Not attending class because it means they only lose 5 percent instead of 10? Gotcha. Cheating? No problem.

Peter Tran, a student who leans on the side of expediency, explains what this is all about. “If the teacher says you’re docked only half a letter grade for attendance, you can still pass,” says Tran. “That’s what I do. And cheating? Dude, everyone cheats.”

Shh, it’ll be our little secret. Don’t tell anyone he said that. Still, Reiss says that harder work will lead to a lack of necessity when it comes to cheating. If a student were to study more, the act of cheating would be less tempting as he or she would already possess the knowledge to do well.

Well, there you have it – six motives to explain the various reasons for academic underachievement, and suggestions by two doctors versed in the psychology of underachievement to remedy the problem. So that’s it? Not exactly. There’s obviously more to being an underachiever than the individual catalysts, whether it is laziness or disorganization. Have you ever considered the impact of being stress free because you worry less from underachieving? I bet not!

According to Stress Management Counselor, Nila Duggan, the benefits of being stress free are abundant: “Stress makes you prone to sickness, raises blood pressure, prevents healthy sleeping patterns, leads to overeating and a whole number of other things you wouldn’t even think of.”

Jonathan Garcia classifies himself as an academic underachiever, free from the stresses of academic life. “School doesn’t stress me,” says Garcia. “I get what I need to get done, and even if it’s not something the teacher will stamp with an ‘A’, it’s done and I’m worry free. I actually stress a ton more about work than I do about school.”

This type of thinking is, as it turns out, a good thing. Garcia’s outlook is positive, and for the most part, underachievers tend to spin things in a positive light – save for those who are afraid of failure. It is precisely this type of positive thinking that is highly beneficial to our health. According to the Mayo Clinic, the health benefits of positive thinking include increased life span, lower rates of depression, lower levels of distress, greater resistance to the common cold, better psychological and physical wellbeing, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and better coping skills during hardships and times of stress.

So, maybe being lazy isn’t so bad after all! You won’t have to pay for stress-induced medical expenses if you’re an underachiever, and it seems that with at least a moderate degree of work, it is still possible to succeed. You’ll look better too, so you can scratch off some of those irksomely expensive cosmetic surgeries. Your brain will function better, and hey, most of the time you’ll even be more positive than those who let that silly little “stresses-of-life” thing get in the way.

2 Responses to “Chronic Underachievement”
  1. Jane Ballinger says:

    Slacker . . .

  2. Esteban says:

    Oh! What a good intro. It really did hook me into reading this entire article.

    BERRY BERRY good.