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Book Review of: The Overacheivers

This book could change the future. Let's hope it does.

The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids

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Review of The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins (Hardcover, 2006)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

This book is really about obsession, but it's hard not to become obsessed with this book once you begin reading it. Strange, but true.

One reason for this obsession proclivity is the outstanding authorship. In writing this compelling documentary/ commentary, Robbins borrowed a technique from today's top fiction writers. That is, she interwove the activities and viewpoints of several characters into parallel story threads that help build tension in the book. Tension is what all the writing clinics tell authors to build into any story. This is only one of the tools Robbins used to keep the reader turning each of the 400 plus pages in this book.

Another reason is the authenticity. There is no "reaching for conclusions," taking things out context, or slanting things to support some errant opinion. Because Robbins has an actual travesty to talk about, has real information to share with the reader, and is so articulate, she doesn't resort to propaganda tactics. What you get is real.

Other sources confirm what Robbins reveals. As part of my review process, I brought up many of these issues with school teachers, students, a retired school principal, and a former teacher who quit for another line of work. Their opinions and observations supported what Robbins said about "teaching to the test" and how what passes for education in America has done enormous damage to millions of children.

Today, even the brightest kids have unwarranted pressures deadening both their ability and desire to develop healthy brains--or even to learn. Years ago, I read the details of the "No Child Left Behind" program. I immediately renamed it "No Child Gets Ahead." It has turned out to be exactly that, but for reasons I was not aware of. Robbins takes a much wider and more informed view than my own to produce the total picture. Any child who isn't behind is that way despite this program, not because of it.

Last year, I reviewed another book, "The New Brain." That book talks about how people's brains are "rewiring" for short attention span activities instead of deep thinking. We can see this played out in a manic, myopic, misinformed, misanthropic, and mentally retarding pursuit of perfection in a very narrow set of metrics. Those metrics consist mostly of test scores, school grades, SAT scores, and acceptance into over-rated colleges--none of which has any real meaning. Robbins addresses these issues well, and shows what happens to the victims.

Robbins avoids assessing individual colleges. So, I'll briefly do that here.

You've perhaps read various analyses showing that Harvard is merely a diploma mill. Harvard professors publish, rather than teach. This is true at both the graduate and undergraduate level. When you get all sizzle and no steak, you starve. Anyone reading the business journals sees that educationally starved Harvard MBAs have left a wake of destruction in corporate America. Although they have great "good old boy" connections, they lack a solid education. Their counterparts from lower-tiered schools can run circles around them.

The lower-tiered schools have to offer something other than a brand-name diploma, to attract students. Thus, their professors actually teach classes. Those professors also (at least in my case) call the students at home to discuss lectures and to assign special projects to help the individual student further develop. This, as opposed to an Ivy League lecture hall method where the student is just a "check off the box" nuisance obligation.

Robbins also exposes the absurd "Best Colleges" listing spewed annually by US News & World Report for the fraud it is. Reading the truth behind this hogwash, and the damage it causes, should shock anybody who has a conscience.

The school from which I earned my MBA never makes those rankings. At the time I was pursuing my MBA at Lake Erie College, a coworker was pursuing his MBA at highly-ranked Case Western Reserve University. My Business Law class alone required 120 hours of homework over a particular three-week stretch. But my coworker had time to play on four different sports teams (golf, volleyball, baseball, and bowling) while getting his CWRU degree. Discussing any MBA topic with him quickly left me with the impression he had only a surface exposure to the material--and sometimes, not even that. This level of "competence" is what a "top school" produces. Yet, many parents are fanatical about getting their kids into one of these "top schools." Go figure.

Sleep deprivation is another problem Robbins reveals. I was surprised to read these kids were getting by on about four hours of sleep and nobody ever saw the stupidity of that.

The Sleep Institute has reams of research showing that a person who is 20% sleep-deprived has the mental acuity of a person who is drunk. How dull is the brain when you are 50% sleep-deprived? If those same parents served their kids a half gallon of booze for breakfast and sent them off to school, people would be clamoring for Social Services to remove the children from those homes.

Is sleep deprivation really interfering with brain function? To find out, just watch today's "college track" school kids try to do something that requires concentration, critical thinking, or problem-solving. And take a look at the suicide statistics while you're at it. Sleep deprivation is a recognized torture technique. Why do parents use it on their children? Robbins explains why. The answer is important to understand.

Robbins addresses several other delusions many parents of today's school kids to have about education, extracurriculars, colleges, and childhood. Each delusion produces real problems with real consequences that we can see without much effort.

In the last chapter, Robbins provides excellent recommendations for making our dysfunctional "education" system functional. She offers specific advice for specific groups. For example, "What Parents Can Do" and "What Counselors Can Do."

The old axiom, "If you want it done wrong, have the government do it" is increasingly describing our "educational" system. Collectively, we have forgotten what education means. A close look at the toll on our society's children shows we have forgotten what humanity means.

This book should be required reading for all parents, teachers, school board members, and college admissions people. And let's not forget the politicians (much as we'd like to).

If The Overachievers makes it into bedrooms and boardrooms across the nation and spurs the necessary changes, it will help put our future onto a sustainable path.

I don't suggest you buy a copy of The Overachievers. I suggest you buy several copies and get them into the hands of people of influence. Our society has failed its children. But we can redeem both them and ourselves by helping others understand what Robbins researched and presented so well.


About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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