The Art of Underachieving

Dutch children are among the happiest people in the world. Besides living in a (relatively) very affluent country, Dutch kids have good relationships with their parents and feel that they can discuss almost 'anything' with them. Dutch society is also known for its freedoms and that is - supposedly - another reason for people's happiness.

It is often said that another reason for children's happiness in the Low Countries is the lack of pressure at school. In school one is not 'pushed' to excel that much and that helps with one's 'stress' of course. In Dutch society, it is often said, "It is more important that we all do 'our best', rather than to try and do better". One might ask who sets the standards and defines what is "best". How do we actually 'know' if we could not have done 'better'?

Personally, this has always left me feeling a little sad, misunderstood, cynical and negative. I never believed that what I accomplished was the 'best' , and I always felt that I could have done "better". I often wished that people around me would support my belief (in a positive way) and would help me to do better next time. Ideally, the society, in particular the educational system, and the people around me were there to "help me excel". In my adolescent years, this inner conflict with societal norms has left me quite "lost".

In the Netherlands, there is an ongoing debate about what is called the Dutch 'zesjes cultuur' (six culture). This refers to Dutch students being mostly interested in obtaining a 'six' for their tests. A six is actually the first whole number passing grade on the Dutch grading scale of 1 to 10. These students are more than happy with scoring a 6 out 10 because in their view it is an acceptable (passing) grade. They did their 'best' and it was 'good enough': they are not stupid (they passed), they might not be really smart (though most might say that they could have done 'better' if they made more effort). Most of all: they are happy. There was not too much pressure - a six is good enough - and that usually means: less stress and more 'free' (leisure) time. Plus the good thing is - that is why they call it a "culture" - most other people got sixes too. Psychologically, this is probably very important: as long as most of the people around you also strive for a 6, then you belong to the 'group' and are not left out feeling like a "failure". Everyone did his/her best so a 6 (or even a 7) is an acceptable grade. (One should try to explain to an American that scoring a 6 out of 10 is still highly acceptable.)

That is another thing about Dutch culture: the Dutch do not seem to like other people performing "better", "smarter" or "more successful". It is usually not a popularity boost for a kid if he/she always end up having grades of an 8 or higher. In a lot of Dutch schools, most attention is given to the under performing (but doing their "best") students and not to the "high achievers". Those who are more intellectually inclined are usually left to fend for themselves, often poorly challenged and drowning in boredom. This problem - excellent students not being challenged or helped to excel even further - has been recognized by many. Unfortunately, little seems to be done about it. Why? Probably because it would require the Dutch to except the fact that all Dutch (and men) are not equal. In a socialized world, someone has more talents and skills than others does not necessarily equate to better opportunities. However, the Dutch have yet accepted the reality that it is logically impossible to "equalize" 16 million people.

A happy Dutch child?

"At least the children are really happy", one might say. We might conclude that less pressure seems to make people happier. Recently I read somewhere (can't find where) that everyone should try and practice the art of 'underachieving'. That suggestion sounded very Dutch to me - very similar to the "we must all do our 'best' and that is "more than enough". In this case it means something else though: if you set your goals (for a day) so that you can actually (easily) 'achieve' them, you will more likely finish them and then feel good about that (and yourself). Feeling good about yourself is self-empowering so that the next day you will probably achieve even more. The Art of Underachieving is not meant to say: try and achieve less than possible, it is meant to point out the danger of trying to "over achieve". Self-help and time management guides often tell us to set clear goals. However, if we always set our goals to high, for example for one day, and we never achieve them, that gets us 'down' and we start to associate negatively with our goals (and the self-help techniques). Setting your goals low enough (for a certain time period) so you can all achieve them, means that you will actually finish them all and thus have positive feelings. Of course, in the time that you have left for that day you should not sulk around but rather spent it on more work (that you can then see as "extra" achievements for that day). So yes, under-achievement: Try it yourself. But please, be sure to do more than just your "best".

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08 June 2008 • • Comments (1)Permalink
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