You know the type, they have to run faster and jump higher. Whether at work or play, these “overachievers” get superior results through excessive effort. Driven to complete tasks above and beyond expectations, they often set very high, sometimes unrealistic, goals for themselves.
In Alexandra Robbins. The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids, Robbins describes teenagers who look at themselves through the prism of an ‘overachiever’ culture and come to the conclusion that no matter how much they achieve, it will never be enough. As a result, they become obsessed with success and contend with physical deterioration and illness. You only have to read of an undergraduate ‘walking off the roof’ of some high-rise to understand the dilemma of a chronic overachiever.
According to psychologist Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, this “curse of the capable,” is “a complex web of emotions that drives people to hide their genuine needs behind a mask of over-achievement.” He claims that people get hooked on “the quick fix of over-achievement to compensate for wounded a self-esteem.” He also explains that “chronically-overachieving people often don’t realize the unrecognised needs driving them from the healing conditions necessary for fulfilled lives.” What the overachiever fails to understand is that the temporary ‘high’ of ‘compulsive over-achievement soon passes, and is merely part of an on-going cycle of achievement followed by disappointment.
Like students, workers, and athletes, countries too can become chronic overachievers. I do not mean the term’s figurative use as when a country with an unsustainably high per capita income is described as “overachieving”. What I am referring to is the psychological state of an overachiever who is driven to go above and beyond,in an endless search for validation, affirmation of self worth, and in some extreme cases, the essence of their identity.
Over-achievement, its causes, practitioners and effects are not just, in my view, the privy of the person. It can have equal application to small jurisdictions, particularly those with few tangible natural resources and a history of colonisation. The ‘overachiever’ phenomenon is especially useful in understanding why successful island Offshore Financial Centres (OFcs), at the mere utterance of a new regulatory or legislative standard, are the first to demonstrate compliance. They are also quick to tell all who will listen, though knowing deep down that few care, of their success in meeting and exceeded compliance expectations. While chronic ‘underachieving’ countries, also engaged in the business of offshore seem never to tire of the criticism levelled at them about their lethargy and their own unresponsiveness to the implementation imperatives they have set for themselves, and imposed on others.
Some believe that at the core of a country ‘overarchiever’s malaise’ is fear. Fear of blacklisting and economic sanction in the case of the small island OFCs, comparable to a student’s fear of rejection by teachers or parents. This apprehension is well-founded, at least in the case of OFCs. It is however ironic that underachieving countries never seem to lack ‘friends’ and those willing to overlook, conceal or justify their failures and short-comings. For the OFC, if the truth of their success cannot be dis-credited, then something else must be found wanting; something that usually cannot be changed and is indeed extraneous to issue which was the basis of their success in the first place. For this reason every success by OFCs in the area of transparency and exchange of taxpayer information is countered by reference to their low or absent tax regimes, even as their detractors admit that this is part of the OFCs sovereign right, or in the case of others, part of the limited power of self-rule that has been devolved to them.
Fear is one of the most powerfully motivating forces known to mankind. This is the case whether fear is experienced by an individual or an organised society. To take a recent example, the seemingly compulsive need of OFCs to be counted among the first to draft comprehensive, well thought out national action plans with ready application to what the OECD describes as the “step change in the international transparency agenda,” is clearly driven by fear of ostracism and derision. There is however, to my mind, something more that accounts for this attitude, something more primordial.
There is a correlation between the systematic diminution of a society’s collective feeling of self-esteem and the number of times that, just when an OFC fulfils what were the stated requirements of a prescribed standard, often before anyone else, and within unnecessarily truncated time-frames, these rules are abandoned as unsatisfactory, insufficient or unworkable.
A society that suffers consistent and deliberate mis-characterisation, designed to invoke self-righteous ire for the sake of publicising a cause in which few are innately interested, while deflecting criticism from others, must I think, soon cause a society to become ill at ease with itself, and others. In an attempt to gain the acceptance that they crave, this can lead OFCs, to enthusiastically and sometimes prematurely accept new rules because they envision another opportunity to excel and win favour.
This exercise in early voluntary compliance can cause OFCs who are established industry leaders to shift their focus from customer retention and attraction. Instead they may, even if for a time, become overly preoccupied with trying to gain the admiration, respect and acceptance of a constituency that, though able to threaten their core business, are in fact, their rivals for market share and are unrepresented in every aspect of the OFC’s customer demographic.
It is one thing for an OFC to receive accolade for the soundness of its regulatory environment, and striking the right the balance between effective regulation and business facilitation. It is quite another to be constantly maligned and ridiculed as a society that ‘takes food from the poor’, enables global corruption and is no more than a bottom-feeder in the world’s financial ‘eco-system’.
Whether it is countries engaged in the legitimate provision of business and financial services in accordance with established, not ‘wished for’ global standards of conduct; or a prisoner of war, this type of psychological assault has the same result – the wearing down of the victim’s resolve to do anything further, even on pain of death.
This ‘curse of the capable‘ can be likened to the fate of a pet hamster, dutifully stationed on, for our purposes, a never-ending treadmill of fairer, better regulation to prevent tax avoidance and evasion; while facilitating increased transparency; and coupled with whatever whimsical devices the ‘tax fairness’ lobby can conjure up. There comes a time when, like the hamster, an OFC has to decide whether it wants to continue to ‘tread water’ while entreating everyone to observe how good a job it is doing of not drowning; or to shift their focus to how poorly its habitually underachieving competitors are performing and the effect that these countries regular near-drowning episodes have on their own people, OFCs and the rest of us.