professional development

What is the difference between a good performer and a high achiever?

Eve Ash /

Good performers, high achievers: we all think we ‘know’ one when we see one.

Years ago, it was remarked of a young Barbra Streisand that “she’s great but she’s not yet good”. Streisand was about to hit the big time with Funny Girl, thrilling audiences with her melting mezzo-soprano. But she hadn’t yet acquired the technique of a top-notch performer. Lady Gaga, a Barbra for today, spent years practicing in musical theatre, first becoming an accomplished pop chameleon, and later surprising and delighting an Oscars audience with her note-perfect Sound of Music rendition

We must not forget that good performers are to high achievers what an excellent chorus is to the star. ‘Shows’ of all descriptions require both to be thoroughly appreciated, but what are the key differences?

Discipline and goals

As with Streisand, talent might be innate — even ‘sock it to ’em’ obvious — but only conscientiousness allows it to truly shine. Good performers and high achievers strive towards set goals; the high achievers are constantly evolving their goals to be bigger and their strategies better and stronger. They don’t stay on the same old railway line – they make new tracks.

The late drummer Buddy Rich claimed he never practiced.  True, maybe, but he was playing to audiences virtually every night. Being on stage regularly meant he was keeping his remarkable skills well-oiled. Besides, the talented schmuck who thinks they don’t need to do more than simply stand there and sparkle is wrong. They are tolerated, even admired for a while, but their lack of interest in putting in the requisite effort starts to wear thin, particularly for colleagues who’ve invested more of their time and collaboration.

Know-how, initiative and problem solving

A high achiever’s grasp of myriad detail isn’t down to intellect alone: learning has many modalities.

Some of us develop our understanding of the world through visual cues. Others, like sports stars and dances, are kinaesthetic, revealing poetry in motion when they move. They spend years sweating and developing their understanding of their craft. They learn to make unusual linkages, they initiate changes, the work out how to solve problems.

What separates a craftsperson from a good performer is the sheer breadth of knowledge (wisdom, really), displayed unobtrusively yet unmistakably. Master novelist Ernest Hemingway believed that consciously omitting much of what you know (providing that you do know it) from your writing enabled the reader to perceive hidden depths in a story, which would be missing if the writer were ignorant. 

Judicious use of energy

Many people think high achieving means relentless single-mindedness and being on call 24 hours: it doesn’t. Sure, there’s human greyhounds who never stop chasing that rabbit, conflating speed with achievement, when all they’re really doing is running in circles. Eventually, there’ll be a greyhound who is faster.

Good performers recognise that energy must be expended if tasks are to be done well and on time – that’s a prerequisite. High achievers have delivered, sweated, practiced and improved on their time management; they become so honed in knowing when to run and when to simply pace oneself that they appear almost leisurely. They know that if they’re constantly racing in a blur of perspiration, they won’t see what’s around them or be able to detect yet more vital clues and sources of understanding. 

Preparedness to learn, adapt and take risks

Good performers seek to improve their game through quality coaching and examples, but high achievers find learning opportunities everywhere; they will take risks and don’t necessarily seek the obvious.

This doesn’t mean they’re not focused – quite the opposite. High achievers have a game plan, which is not fixed in concrete but ever-evolving. They need Sherpas to help them climb personal and career Everests, but they will also study the mountain, recognising there might be many ways to reach the summit. A high achiever will always look back at what can be done better, they will learn from mistakes and try new ways, not stopping at an acceptable level – they strive to achieve the next level, often surprising themselves.

Sometimes so much is happening in our personal lives it is an effort just to maintain good performance and for that period of time, which may be days or years, a good work-life balance is most important. Better to be a good all-round performer at work and with family, friends, personal interests and sports, than a high achiever at work who sacrifices other facets of your life and being ‘less than’, while in the process disappointing yourself and letting down others.

Of course, there’s much more than what is listed above to becoming a high achiever. However, almost no way of being is permanent, no matter what you were born with. If doing well and making the most of your opportunities matters, these four applications of your skills and talents are essential.

NOW READ: Why employers shouldn’t treat performance management like a fad diet

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Eve Ash

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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