When I was five years old my mid-life father took an overdose of sleeping pills because he felt he was a failure as a husband, a father, and a man. When he was in his 20s he had achieved career success at the highest level as a member of one of the most prestigious acting companies in New York. He had moved our family to California with the hopes of getting into the burgeoning television and movie industries, but he never achieved the level of success at midlife that he had reached earlier in his life. He became increasingly frustrated and depressed and at age 43 he took an overdose of sleeping pills. Though he didn’t die and was committed to a state mental hospital, our lives were never the same. His failure to build new strengths nearly killed him.
I grew up wondering what happened to my father and what I could do to keep it from happening to me. I chose a different field than his. I became a very successful psychotherapist and author. It took me longer to reach the top in my career, but by the time I was in my mid-forties, I had written a best-selling book, Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places: Overcoming Romantic and Sexual Addictions, was making more money than I ever expected to make, was widely respected as a healer, and had made a T.V. special about my book, Male Menopause.
Then it all began to fall apart. At first I had more difficulty getting my next book accepted by major publishers. My agent was encouraging, but I was working harder and header, but not getting the results I expected. I was also becoming more irritable, angry, and depressed. My emotional volatility was impacting my marriage, but I denied anything was wrong.
As I had done in the past, I wrote a book about what I was going through, The Irritable Male Syndrome: Understanding and Managing the 4 Key Causes of Depression and Aggression. I did find a publisher, but it wasn’t one of the majors and I became even more depressed and angry.
I was doing my usual multi-tasking by taking my car in for servicing and then running the 5 miles back home to get exercise mileage in before seeing my afternoon clients. All of a sudden, it felt like my head was about to explode. The pain was so intense, it knocked me to the ground. By the time I got home, the pain had subsided and I got back to work. After it happened again a few days later, my wife insisted I see my doctor.
I was diagnosed with a rare adrenal tumor, a pheochromocytoma, and needed immediate surgery. I survived, but the wakeup call convinced me that I needed to change my lifestyle. My wife and I decided to move out of the big city, bought a small house in the hills of Mendocino County. I slowed down, re-evaluated my life, and began to learn more about what was going on with my life and my lifestyle.
The Hypomanic Edge and Drive for Success
I found a book, The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (A Little) Craziness and (A Lot of) Success in America by Dr. John D. Gartner, a psychologist and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University Medical School. He began by studying successful entrepreneurs in the tech boom of the 1990s to see if “a little bit of craziness” was related to “a lot of success” achieving the American dream. As part of his research, he gave them a list of hypomanic (i.e. a milder form of mania) traits including the following:
- He is filled with energy.
- He is flooded with ideas.
- He is driven, restless, and unable to keep still.
- He channels his energy into the achievement of wildly grand ambitions.
- He often works on little sleep.
- He feels brilliant, special, chosen, perhaps even destined to change the world.
- He becomes easily irritated by minor obstacles.
- He is a risk taker.
These were certainly traits that fit me and many successful men I knew and counseled.
“Once hypomanics lock their sights on a goal, it’s sort of like Michael Jordan driving to the hoop,”
“They might fail, but they’re determined to go through any barrier. They’re impelled to throw the full force of their energy and drive toward a goal. That’s why people who accomplish great things are disproportionately coming from this mindset.”
For Dr. Gartner, his research was personal as well as professional. He recounts his own experiences in an article reviewing his book by writer Jim Duffy who noted that Gartner grew up in Manhattan in a family touched by bipolar disorder. He quoted Gartner saying,
“From a young age, I noticed I was different, but I had no way of understanding it or explaining it.”
Gartner was expelled from the seventh grade. He didn’t cheat or fight or smoke pot in the bathroom. In fact, he says, he was one of the two smartest kids in his class.
“They kicked me out just for being a wise ass,”
“for dominating the class and making jokes and challenging the teacher. They couldn’t contain me. And frankly, I got fired from my first faculty job for behaviors not all that different.”
He had always wanted to go to Harvard and achieve his dreams of success. But his dream of going to Harvard seemed dashed when he scored a modest 1040 on his SATs. The accepted wisdom back then was that since the test measured aptitude, studying was pointless.
In true hypomanic fashion, Gartner rejected the accepted wisdom. He transformed his room into an Olympic-caliber aptitude training camp, full of vocabulary books and math review manuals and essay books. He took a full two-hour practice test every weeknight for four months. He crammed four more practice tests into every weekend. He studied so voraciously that he had every one of 5,000 new vocabulary words down cold.
The second time around, his SAT score jumped by 400 points, enough to get him wait-listed at Harvard. He went on to become hugely successful in his field. Says Gartner,
“I’m hypomanic, and I like hypomanics. I think that overall, this is an advantageous trait to have as a country.”
Yet, many of us find that what counts as success in the first half of life is different from success kind of success is needed in the second half. For many, our hypomanic edge can turn into a harmful addiction if we don’t shift gears.
Workaholism and Addiction to Success
The term workaholism was coined by the psychologist Wayne Oates in the 1960s after his son asked for an appointment at Oates’s office to see him, so scarce was his father’s time. Oates defined workaholism in 1971 as “the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly.”
Many of us only begin to recognize our addiction in midlife when we begin to recognize that we neglected our family life as we climbed the latter of success, yet we have a difficult time slowing down and reducing our preoccupation with work success.
In his book, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in The Second Half of Life, social scientist Arthur C. Brooks, Professor of Public Leadership at the Harvard Business School, says that workaholism and addiction to success are endemic to professionally successful people. Prior to his mid-life shift in career from business to academia, he served as president of the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC.
“I doubt I ever worked less than a sixty-hour week the entire decade that I was a chief executive. Many leaders work much more than this, leaving little time to cultivate outside relationships.”
I found that it was only after I broke free of my own addiction to success that I could see the truth of my situation. That was what Brooks found to be the case.
“Leaders who work crushing hours often tell me they have no choice if they want to do their jobs adequately well. But I don’t buy it. When I dig a little—in my life and the lives of others—I usually find that workaholics are caught in a vicious cycle: They become successful by working more than others—and thus more than ‘necessary’—but believe they have to keep up the pace to maintain their astronomical productivity. The rewards of that productivity give way to a fear of falling behind as an impetus to keep running.”
Here are some questions that Brooks found helpful in recognizing whether you are slipping into workaholism and success addiction:
- Do you fail to reserve part of your energy for your loved ones after work and stop working only when you are forced to do so?
- Do you sneak around to work? For example, when your spouse leaves the house on a Sunday, do you immediately turn to work and then put it away before she or he returns so that it is not apparent what you were doing?
- Does it make you anxious and unhappy when someone—such as your spouse—suggests you take time away from work for activities with loved ones, even when nothing in your work is unusually pressing? (By the way, I’m feeling a bit angry and defensive as I write this).
“What workaholics truly crave isn’t work per se; It is success,”
“They kill themselves working for money, power, and prestige because these are forms of approval, applause, and compliments—which, like all addictive things from cocaine to social media, stimulate the neurotransmitter dopamine.”
In my own life, and in the lives of most success addicts I have counseled, I was attempting to fill an inner void that was linked to experiences in my family of origin. Part of the unwillingness to recognize and deal with my addiction was my fear of addressing the truth about my childhood. Mid-life is the time for healing old wounds and looking anew at what success means in the second half of life.
One of the most common wounds for success addicts is related to our fathers. Although I had written many books that addressed issues from my past, it wasn’t until I wrote my 14th book, My Distant Dad: Healing the Family Father Wound, that I finally addressed these issues. I offered the following three quotes that captured, for me, the essence of the father wound.
“A father may be physically present, but absent in spirit. His absence may be literal through death, divorce, or dysfunction, but more often it is a symbolic absence through silence and the inability to transmit what he also may not have acquired.” –James Hollis
“Kids have a hole in their soul in the shape of their dad. And if a father is unwilling or unable to fill that role, it can leave a wound that is not easily healed.” –Roland Warren
“You will begin to forgive the world when you forgive your father.” –Tennessee Williams’ psychiatrist.
In part 2, I will discuss how we can find our true purpose that can guide us through the second half of our lives. I invite you to read my free weekly articles here.
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