There are many ways to be overqualified.
You can be doing a lower-responsibility version of a job you are actually qualified for. Like being hired in as a night manager at a company where you were the primary General Manager. That would be a real “step down” even though it’s only a step down in prestige and the credit or recognition. A demotion in the military results in this kind of overqualification. It is a kind of deliberate disrespect by the organization to take a person backwards and relieve them of responsibility and respect that was previously given. We might call this overqualification by demotion.
Then there is the kind of overqualification that comes from loosing a job in something technical and high paying like undersea search and rescue — and taking the only job available because of the current economic crisis. Cleaning the deep fryers at a burger joint for this kind of person would be an example of overqualification by external circumstances.
But the kind of overqualification most of us think of when we talk about being over-qualified has to do with learned skills, and native intelligence. That Einstein really was a patent clerk, and Kafka really worked for an insurance company — almost sound like jokes. But they aren’t. Imagine the level of boredom and phoning-it-in involved in those jobs…. Imagine a Jacques Cousteau doing the obituaries for the a local newspaper, or Fareed Zacharia driving a truck for Walmart. “Not likely” you say? Okay. But consider the USSR’s decision to ship a huge number of intellectuals, Ph.D.s, and university professors off to Siberia to farm enough food out of the frozen ground to survive, just because they spoke out against their leaders or government. Imagine the slaughter of every living soul with ANY formal education in Pol Pot’s killing fields.
Intelligence and education aught to be valued — but too often, they are seen as a liability, especially by those who are insecure about their own intelligence and education. There is nothing worse than a local good-ol’-boy network for carefully NOT hiring anyone with more education or someone who shows themselves to be a quicker mind. Nobody of mid-level brains deliberately hires somebody smarter than they are, who might show them up in front of their co-workers.
So you end up with physicists working as patent clerks, and philosophers selling insurance. Or artists and novelists working for the post office and great composers working as short order cooks.
This kind of overqualification brings up our own worst guilt as well. The national guilt of having squandered oceans of potential by forcing people into servitude and slavery. The species guilt of squandering the minds and abilities of billions of women because they were viewed as property, breeding stock, or home-keepers. In fact, between racial and sexual discrimination, there is no way to calculate the number of potential Einsteins and Shakespeares and Camus we’ve tossed into the garbage pile.
There is something to be said for earning a living at something low-stress and low-responsibility. It leaves a lot of time for daydreaming — and daydreaming took Einstein all the way past the edge of the known universe, and Shakespeare all the way to Prospero’s Island and Titania’s garden. The ability to earn your keep by doing a phone-it-in daily grind, frees up geobytes of processing power. In terms of raw native intelligence and educated intelligence — this is pure gold. This is the free-period after lunch, but it lasts all day long.
It’s also a free pass to fly below the radar for as long as necessary. The step from the shadows to the spotlight is one of the most treacherous there is. A lot of over-qualified people don’t make the move gracefully, and many don’t survive it at all.
The trick, I think, is knowing which light to move to, and when to make the move. The truth is, the spotlight is not the only choice. There are a lot of directions you can go from the shadows of overqualification. Sunlight is good. Neon is good. Energy-saving florescent is good. Halogen, candlelight — you get the idea. And each of those represents a possible and intentional move toward fulfilling potential. Even Einstein had choices — university research? Teaching? The developing national laboratories? R & D for some industrial giant?
Likewise, Shakespeare could have gone other directions with his native genius. In fact, the most likely institution for him at the time would have been either religion or public service. A word spinner can ply their wares in all kinds of markets. Lucky for us, he had a flare for the dramatic.
Choosing the right step at the right time is the real challenge of overqualification. Everybody does jobs and finds themselves in situations that don’t require their best and their full talents. The task is to know where you’re going — and to know the value of good timing. Stepping too soon; attempting to step after the time has passed; and stepping without first finding true north and centering yourself result in less. In obscurity. In delay and postponement.
It all has to do with time and space. When and where.
Being overqualified for what you’re doing right now — is just a signpost that reads: