From Overachievers to Underachievers

Geraldo Rivera was clearly embarrassed and he did not appear to be acting. His show was on “transvestites, cross-dressers and the people who love them.” Geraldo’s titles are literal and the panel of guests spoke so literally that “bleeps” were blocking many of their words.

Although he asked his audience “am I blushing?”, mumbled to himself that “no one told him this job would be easy” and sighed demurely more than once, Geraldo’s questions to the assembled panel of ten very unordinary people were immediately intimate. So were their answers. Welcome to “sweeps” month — the period when the national talk shows put on the zany, the bizarre, the weird and other displays of ‘off the chart’ behavior to deliver the bigger audiences for their advertisers. February, the month of Lincoln and Washington, brings to television the lives of the strange and brazen.

There is, alas, no “sensible” month where these talk hosts address serious topics of both consequence and human interest to many in the viewing audience. Talk show hosts, with few exceptions, engage in “protective imitation” with each other and don’t like to take many chances off the sensually beaten path.

Phil Donahue found this out over a year ago when he had a serious and gripping hour on the Bosnian tragedy and received low ratings. Talk show audiences are now dominated by people who have run the Pavlovian gauntlet — that is, people who have chosen to endure the conditioned responses of scores of tabloid-type shows. Those who might have watched the Bosnia hour had long since tuned out. The shows do shape the kind of audience they attract.

In any event, a “sensible month” might elevate the existing audiences by appealing to a higher standard of concentration. Oprah did this recently with a full week of one hour conversations with best-selling authors and no studio audience.

I have two subjects to recommend. First, who do so many early bloomers fade out sometime in their mid to late Thirties after being first with the most for over a decade in their chosen fields? We all know people who fit that profile.

Among my friends, there was the head of a major federal agency at 29, then a commissioner of another agency until his late Thirties. Although still up to date in his field, he is a part-time law teacher and far less involved in the swirl of public policy. In addition, once a prolific writer, his written output has been minimal.

Another friend was a White House official in both the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, a marvelous speech-writer and idea man. He still retains his convictions, has written three books in the past twenty years, but no one who knew him thinks he is anywhere near the dynamic force he once was. He is more the observer from afar having gone from overachiever to underachiever.

Many achievers take off fast from the starting gate and then pull up short for no apparent reason. No family, health or other plausible factors seem to be involved.

Even more poignant are the classmates we know who were “most likely to succeed” in class polls. Here again, the fates seem to intervene. More often than not, it doesn’t work out that way. These classmate winners were always at or near the top, were always praised highly by their teachers and peers, were always unused to failure.

When they get into the post-college world, additional traits are needed for “success” beyond the ability to take tests and write papers. These traits are normally associated with personality than with skills. They are not measured on the SATs or GREs.

Can they pioneer? Can they assume the risks of failure and bounce back? Can they organize and motivate people? Can they be creative? Can they work with people without inflating their ego in an unproductive manner or without alienating those whose work make it possible to have a good supervisory or management record? Can they break their routine so as to keep growing? Can they surmount their own success to reach higher levels of accomplishments?

Of course, these are traits to be cultivated by most people with a drive to achieve, not just the early bloomers who fade early. Which is why they would make good topics for talk shows, at least during a “sensible” month.

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