A high-flyer is a person who has achieved notable success or distinction in a very short period of time. The term is also used to describe stocks which have performed unusually well, often with the implication that these stocks are extremely volatile, and they can crash just as easily as they can rise. High-fliers can be found in many societies and locations, from academia to the world of business, and many of them are very focused, driven people who prefer to think that they achieved their success on merit, whether or not this is the case.
The origins of this term lie in the writing of Richard Harvey, a British author who wrote in 1590 that people had a universal desire to be seen as “high-fliers and deep swimmers.” He meant the term in an uncomplimentary way, suggesting that a high-flyer was someone who was reaching too high, too fast, and that a tumble from the heavens was probable. Other writers around the same period referenced the Greek myth of Icarus, a famous high-flyer who reached the Sun and tumbled to Earth when he was burned.
Harvey's view of the high-flyer was by no means unusual for the time. Many people in this period felt that, with the exception of a few notable figures, it was better to work quietly and hard on projects than to be seen as too focused on advancement. Many notable figures of the period also ascribed to this idea, viewing humility as a trait to be valued above pride and referring to themselves as “dabblers” in the fields where they excelled.
Today, the usage of the term is mixed. Some people do use it as a compliment, with the idea of commemorating rapid success and promoting the idea that people can succeed through hard work. Other people use it with a note of suspicion, suggesting that the only way to become a high-flyer is through connections, and that a meteoric rise should be viewed with skepticism, rather than awe or respect. It can also be used in the original sense, to describe someone who has risen too quickly, putting him or herself at risk of a nasty fall.
A related term, high-flown, is used to describe bloated, hyperbolic prose or claims. High-flown language is language which uses a lot of big words to say nothing in particular, or a speech in which promises which cannot be kept are pledged. This related term clearly references the 16th century origins of the high-flyer.