I was 13 when I first heard the word “underachiever.” Mrs. Growe, my ninth-grade English teacher, used it to describe one of her students. The student?
“Mr. Masterson,” she announced to the class, “is the classic example of an underachiever. He doesn’t complete his assignments. He shows up late for class and then wastes his time daydreaming. As a result, he produces C work. From a child with modest potential, I would be happy with mediocre results. In his case, I am very disappointed.”
I was not surprised by her assessment. It was accurate. I couldn’t deny it. The female maturation process held my interest at that time. That and football. And goofing around with my friends. And just about anything else but school.
I wasn’t a good reader. And I couldn’t sit still during class. Much later I discovered that I was suffering from a combination of dyslexia and what is now called “attention deficit disorder.” But neither Mrs. Growe nor I knew about such things then. As far as she was concerned, I was a perennial slacker. I shared her opinion.
At least once a year, however, I promised myself that I would “turn over a new leaf.” I sensed, as Mrs. Growe did, that I was not as dumb as my grades suggested. And I felt, deep down in my bones, that eventually I’d be a success.
But first, I had to make a very fundamental change. And that change began at the end of my senior year.
I woke up one day disgusted with myself. I was tired of being the perennial screw-up. I was sick of getting lousy grades and playing the fool in class. I wanted to become the person Mrs. Growe thought I should be. But it seemed to be too late. Graduation was only months away, and it was obviously impossible to rectify four years of poor performance in so short a time.
Since my grades were mediocre, I had no chance of getting a scholarship. And since my parents couldn’t afford to help me with tuition, I had no choice but to attend a local community college. The community college was happy to take my $400 a year, and would be equally happy to give me the Cs I had been earning in high school. But I wasn’t willing to live that life any longer.
I realized that, oddly enough, my lack of success was a benefit in disguise. I was about to put myself in an academic environment where mediocrity held sway – where I would be competing with other high school screw-ups just like me.
But what if I used the remaining time I had in high school to prepare for a new and better life in college? What if I directed my energy toward developing skills and habits that would help me succeed over the next four years?
And that’s exactly what I did.
The Saturday after I made my big decision to change, I drove my ‘56 Bel Air to Nassau Community College in Hempstead, New York. I gathered up all the information I could about the school and the curriculum I was going to enroll in. I brought it home and spent the rest of the weekend carefully reading every pamphlet and brochure.
I was doing something I had never done in school: getting ahead of my competition by planning my success. Over the next few weeks, I became a minor expert in that little college. I knew every course they offered, every major they offered, and every teacher who’d be teaching freshmen that year.
Taking the initiative to plan my success gave me a very positive feeling. I could actually feel myself changing. I was becoming – even before I began – a serious and committed student.
I realized that I would be starting college as a brand-new person. None of my teachers would have heard about my high school antics, and none of my fellow students would be expecting me to be the class clown.
Starting college without the bad reputation I had established in high school was like a gift from the academic gods. I could walk into my new classes as an interested, enthusiastic student who was there to succeed.
And that’s what happened. I showed up for classes in September on time, prepared with the required texts. I sat in the front row and raised my hand whenever the teacher asked questions. I did my homework assignments and spent my spare time studying. Between attending classes, studying, and running a house-painting business on the side, I worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
By the end of the first semester, I had the reputation of being an A student. Throughout the rest of my college and graduate school days, I never retrenched.
I sometimes think about what would have happened to me if I hadn’t finally become disgusted with myself. Or if I had failed to make those preparations that allowed me to turn over a new leaf.
It’s highly likely I would be grinding out a living somewhere, working a job I didn’t like, struggling to pay my bills and making futile resolutions – knowing I’d live out my life as a habitual underachiever.
The difference for me was the simple realization that if I didn’t change myself, my life wouldn’t change – not then or ever. I had wasted my high school years making promises I never truly meant to keep. But I was tired of doing that.
Thinking back, I can see that there were several factors that allowed me to change in a serious and committed way:
• First, I had bottomed out emotionally. I had reached a point where I truly detested myself for not achieving what I felt was my potential.
• Second, I made a decision to change completely – to go from being a C student to the top of my class.
• Third, I recognized that I would have to change not just my work habits but the way I thought about myself. I would have to “become” the A student I wanted to be.
• And last, but not least, I took action immediately. I didn’t wait till September to make the change. I started right away by preparing myself to succeed during my final months of high school.
Have you made resolutions that you’ve failed to keep? Held dreams of success and happiness that you’ve failed to fulfill? Do you sometimes feel that, however much you’ve done, you are still, in part, an underachiever?
If so, there is good news. Your past behavior has no bearing on your future habits. If you can change the way you work – even just a little – you can change the way you live.