Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Sermon: Gospel of the Underachiever

Sunday, August 5, 2012                                                            Sacramento, California


#21, For the Beauty of the Earth; #346, Come Sing a Song with Me (verses 1, 2 and “cookie.”)

#16, ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple; #86, Blessed Spirit of My Life.  Special Music:  93 Million Miles from Earth (J. Mraz), sung by Eli, Erik, Senior High Youth Group.

Farewell Blessing to Departing High School Seniors Alex and Ted


Associate Minister’s Introduction

Two members of our senior high youth group are leaving soon for college.  Alex and Ted have grown up in this congregation.

Youth Reflections—spoken  by each of them


Gift from the Congregation

We have a couple of gifts and a card for each of you to take with you, so you will remember this church.


Words of Thanks and Blessing


Ted and Alex, it has been a blessing to get to know you and watch you mature.  We send you off now with our best wishes for success, well being, and joy.  Remember Mark Twain’s advice:  never let your schooling get in the way of your education.  Enjoy college and the opportunities this time of life can offer.  Take care of yourselves, for the health of mind and body is a precious resource.  Eat your vegetables and get exercise.  Try to get a good night’s sleep, at least once a week.    Now others who care for you have some words to say.  We ask for each group to stand before they speak.

Families of Departing Seniors

We have watched you grow,

gaining skills and understanding.

We see you now ready to face new challenges.

As you enter young adulthood,

our love goes with you.

Adults in Congregation

By growing up among us, you have enriched this beloved community.

We welcome you to this new time

in your life’s journey.

For your many gifts,

for your vision and your energy,

For your questions and your challenges,

For the hopes you carry and the worries you bring,

we give you our blessing and our love.

Take care of yourselves.

Children, Youth &

            Religious Education Volunteers

For your gifts of friendship and joy, we thank you.

For memories we will cherish, we thank you.

As you leave our beloved community of kids and youth, we give you our blessing and our love

All of Us

Bless you on your journeys.

Wherever you go, remember

that you always have a home here.

Remember also that you are precious.  You are beloved upon this earth.  Amen and blessed be.



Pastoral Prayer

Now let us join together for a time of contemplation in word and silence.  Feel your feet and bodies resting.  Notice the breath of life…   After I offer these words, we will take some time in silence, and the silence will be followed by music.

Spirit of Life and Love, give us hearts full of gratitude for the gift of life and the gift of this new day.  ‘Tis a gift to be simple, a gift simply to be here, with old friends and new seekers in this spiritual community.

Today we send forth our college-bound seniors with pride and with our prayers for safe travel, health, joyful learning and new friendships.   We send our loving wishes to all those in our lives who are departing home for new ventures — study, work, travel, starting a family.  May they have safe journeys and years of well being.  For their parents, families and friends, in these times of transition, we pray for comfort, wisdom and serenity.

We reach out in care to those in our lives now facing a family crisis, medical challenge, financial distress, heartache and loss, and various burdens of the mind or spirit.  Let us say the names of those people we have on our minds, either whispering to ourselves or calling out our concerns for all to hear.  For Ben who on Thursday was taken to the hospital for heart concerns after a collapse. He has come out well on all tests, and is teaching Sunday school today.  For Chris on the sudden passing of her nephew recently.  For others on our minds, we now speak their names into the space of our sanctuary.

We strive to extend our care and compassion around this earth to zones of conflict and oppression, including Syria.  Let us remember those who yearn for freedom, security, dignity, and the simple gifts of safe water and food.  Let us pray for the spirit of mercy to soften the hardest of hearts.  May peace prevail, and may fairness reach all people.

In this warm season, drought brings failure to many fields around the country, and worry to farmers.   Sweltering heat oppresses elders and the poor in many cities.  In India, power outages have brought hardship and fear to so many.   May relief come to all who suffer at this time:  people, animals, crops.  May humility bring us anew to the ways of stewardship and justice.   For the beauty of this earth, may we ever have cause to raise our hymn of grateful praise.

Around the globe, spectators watch the games in London as young Olympians bring joy, excitement, disappointment, and above all, wonder.   Let us marvel at the grace of the body, the exertion of the will, the hard work of honing natural human gifts.  And let us also remember the miracle of every human being, body and soul, including our own. May we care for ourselves, find pleasure in the senses, and joy in every breath of life.  Yet wek know our bodies do change; limitations arise and startle us.   So let us practice open-hearted presence to all that we are, and give thanks for simple victories.  Let us be mindful of the marvel of our life, every day we are given to live.

Spirit of Life and Love, give us hearts full of gratitude, for all our gifts.  Amen.


On his birthday yesterday President Obama turned 51.  I turned 51 about six months ago.   I’ve pretty much concluded I will never catch up with his accomplishments, much less surpass them.  Even if he loses re-election and wins no more Nobel Prizes, he’s way ahead of me.  Surely it’s rough on Obama to be such an overachiever, though he’s often smiling.  However,  I believe we should grant our presidents the urge to over-achievement.  They surely need to put that much effort into the job.

For most of us however, the over-achieving ideology is poisonous.  It means our self-worth keeps moving one more step away from us.  Comparing oneself to others, looking over your shoulder to see who’s gaining on you, striving to outdo even your own success—the over-achievement bug is part the social environment in this land.

Underachievers don’t have a heroic reputation.  Yet underachievers are content more than depressed, liked rather than resented, and more present for the joys of life.  They live by the idea that “good enough” in life is pretty darn good.

This is the gospel of Ray Bennett, a medical doctor in Seattle who describes himself as a “recovering overachiever.”  Concerned about the stress he sees in in his patients, colleagues, and neighbors, he wrote The Underachiever’s Manifesto, a little book he calls “the guide to accomplishing little and feeling great.”[1]

He’s good with lists, like the 10 Principles of Underachievement.  A familiar one is “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”  Instead of the perfect, he advocates acceptance of “the perfectly adequate, [the] enjoyable, or even [the] just plain good.”  The benefits of acceptance include serenity, security and satisfaction.

Bennett’s book is divided into sections, such as The Underachiever in Love:  “It’s foolish to believe that there is only one perfect person in the world that you are supposed to meet.”  Instead of pursuing perfection, he advises that a person “ease into having a pretty good relationship.”

The Underachiever’s Diet Plan:  Instead of chasing “the next dietary craze” or miracle plan, just eat in moderation.  For the underachiever, moderation “comes naturally.”

The Underachiever’s Workout Plan:  Here’s a multiple choice question:  Say “you decide to [start] a fitness program.  Choose from among the following options:

  1. Investigate local triathlons.
  2. Hire a personal trainer.
  3. Start walking around your neighborhood each day.
  4. Buy a home [exercise] device shaped like a medieval catapult.

Bennett says the right answer is walking around your neighborhood.  Start with something that’s helpful AND manageable.  Don’t set your sights too high.  Of course, for some of us, a trainer or a health club membership gives the support and encouragement we need to stick with it.  But if our plans are too grand, we may not start anything.

I’m reminded of the 12-Step Movement’s mantra:  “progress, not perfection.”  If we’re aiming to better ourselves, great.  If we’re trying to outdo everybody else, success will escape our grasp much of the time.  We won’t feel any better, because we won’t appreciate what we have learned, what we can do.

The Underachiever’s Financial Plan:  Bennett recommends index mutual funds over trying to beat the stock market.  Don’t let envy, status goals, or foolish fantasies tempt you into danger.   Of course, the gambling industry is based on the fantasy that you can beat the odds, and you can beat the house, but the house wins.  Bennet says:  The overachievement bug has led to financial deception, bursting bubbles, and market crashes.  Underachievement leads to sustainable economic growth and personal security.  Having enough is pretty good.  He says:  “If what you want is modest, then what you have is greater by comparison.” Enjoy yourself, take care of yourself, and practice gratitude.

Finally, The Underachiever at Home:   Bennett’s advice to parents:  Yes, care about your children’s future, but “don’t go nuts trying to turn them into the next Mozart.”  Remember that Mozart “learned to play the piano pretty well without benefit of Baby Mozart videos or in-utero training.”  In parenting, “the overachieving mentality [can lead a kid to] dashed hopes, resentment, therapy, and the eventual tell-all memoir” the child will publish later to settle scores with you.  Underachievers don’t “worry [about] parenting down to the last detail, so it’s not so intimidating” Dr. Bennett says.  Well, I don’t have children but watching others who do, it looks pretty intimidating to me.  God bless all of you who do it.

Dr. Bennett admires parents who “just muddle through it one day at a time.”  Muddling through is the middle way.  He says, “[In] the humbling and beautiful world of having kids [this] is about all you can ask for (75).”

Time for a commercial:  A week from now, church member Dale Russell and I lead a class on parenting with spirituality and sanity.  You may sign up today at Connection Central.  Dale is a professor of social work.  I am a cautionary example of what can happen if you parent a child without spirituality or sanity in the home—you could cause them to enter the ministry.

This brings us to religion.  Religiously speaking, the drive to overachievement is a show of ingratitude for our gifts and for our worth.  Hebrew scripture says that every human being is made in the image of God.  The divine voice declares all creation to be good, and that includes us.  An enduring gift of the Christian tradition is that all people are children of God, all of us worthy of love.  Our Unitarian Universalist Principles call it the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

The demanding expectations of over-achievement lead often to disappointment.  Lower expectations can lead to pleasant surprises.  My late mother was not a bad cook, but not a great one.  She did not like planning meals.  She followed a predictable routine, and fed us many boxed and frozen dinners.   The result of her lack of perfectionism was that when I went away to college, in the dormitory cafeteria I dined in wonderment.  Other kids complained that the food wasn’t like their moms’ cooking.  I replied,  “No, it’s amazing!”  Lower expectations do lead to pleasant surprises!

When I was a boy, Mom praised me for good grades and kept a sense of humor about my bad ones, like shop class, gym, and art.  In high school I took a typing class.  In case you don’t know, back in the 20th century this involved a machine operated without batteries or cords, just keys you hit with your fingers.  No voice-activated word processing software, not even “spell-check.”  I was not fast or accurate, and on every report card I got a C.  I wanted to drop out at mid-year.  “No!” Mom said.  “You have to take typing.  You have to learn to type.”  So I stuck it out.  Little did I know– that by age 35 I would be spending hours a day with my fingertips on a keyboard and my eyes watching words on a screen.  I thank Mom for the lesson that gaining skills is good, even if you can’t get an A.

Of course, I won a few awards in high school.  No ribbons or trophies, but a thesaurus.  One year I got a Certificate of Perfect Attendance, on awards day at school.  Or I would have, but I was absent.  The night before I’d had a nasty wreck on my bike, and was at home recovering.

Dr. Bennett writes:  “The difference between a happy and an unhappy childhood is the difference between encouragement and pressure.”  He gives examples of the pressure of high-stress sports and piano drills.  But I’m sure he knows that when it comes to kids’ cleaning up the room, doing chores, planning ahead, being polite, many parents rely on heavy pressure and leave encouragement on the floor by the dirty clothes.

For those parents driven to over-perform or over-provide, Bennett asks this question.  What are your “happy memories of childhood?”  He suggests… those simple times of togetherness, affection, exploration, discovery.  To be sure, we dare not dismiss the passions and pursuits that lead many people to great success, fulfillment, and contributions to the betterment of the world.  For example, after watching the parents in the bleachers at the London Olympics, I’m sure those families recall times of dramatic success as well as simple tenderness.

Yet perfectionism and overachievement can lead us to loneliness and spiritual isolation.  And the isolation makes us unsure of how competent or good we really are.  This is why relationships in community are crucial.  With others, we can exchange encouragement, honest feedback, and acceptance.  In community, we succeed through mutual dependence, inter-dependence.  In community, we find mentors. We practice mentorship.

Mentors come in all shapes and sizes, named and unnamed.  Not just coaches, teachers, parents or pastors, but friends, classmates, coworkers, congregation members.

A mentor may be an ordinary person whose integrity and hard work you admire, or perhaps it’s their kindness, generosity, or sense of adventure.   A mentor may be a persistent friend who reminds you that “perfection” is folly, and that “hopeless” is a foolish label to lay on yourself.

I expect that each of you has provided mentorship without knowing it.  What do I mean by mentorship?  It is… helping one another to appreciate our true gifts, explore our genuine potential, stretch ourselves, and give from deep inside ourselves.  Mentorship accepts us as we are, but gives us the challenge, and some help, to grow and change.

We are capable of more than we imagined, but we need not drive ourselves to distraction seeking perfection.  Progress, not perfection.

Bennett says:  “Being alive at all is by far your greatest achievement.”  Count yourself a success, already!

“Good enough”… is pretty darn good.  You are enough.  I am enough.  We are enough.  No achievement can change this, no failure, no triumph:  We are worthy of love and acceptance.

Let us value the worth we start with, the blessings that we bring, just by being alive.  Let us give thanks for the gifts that we bring, just by being here.

We give thanks for the gifts of all those around us, and for all good gifts.  Let us be open to pleasant surprises.


[1] Ray Bennett.  The Overachiever’s Manifesto.  San Francisco, 2006:  Chronicle Books.


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