Adapted from Arthur C. Brooks’s FROM STRENGTH TO STRENGTH: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life, published by Portfolio, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC, on February 15, 2022. Copyright 2022 granted to Arthur Brooks. The conversation I had with a woman roughly my age while writing this book was perhaps the most profound. She is a Wall Street success story, having amassed a fortune and garnering widespread respect.
Recently, however, she has begun to lose her footing occasionally. Her managerial decisions are not as precise as they once were, nor are her instincts as dependable. Whereas she once commanded the room, she now observes that younger colleagues doubt her authority. In a panic over the possibility of decline, she read an article I had written and contacted me.
I asked her numerous questions regarding her life. She was not very content and hadn’t been for many years, if ever. Her marriage was unsatisfactory, she drank excessively, and her relationship with her college-aged children was adequate but distant. Few were her true friends. She worked incredibly long hours and was frequently physically exhausted. Her work was everything to her; she lived for it. However, she was terrified that even that was beginning to deteriorate.
She openly admitted these facts, so the solution to her unhappiness would appear to be obvious. And indeed, I asked her why she hadn’t remedied the sources of her unhappiness: take the time to revive her marriage and spend more time with her children; get help for her drinking; sleep more; and get in better shape. I was aware that her arduous work ethic had contributed to her initial success, but when you discover that something has secondary effects that are making you miserable, you find a solution, right? Bread may be your favorite food, but if you develop gluten intolerance, you must stop eating it because it makes you ill.
She contemplated my question for several minutes. She finally looked at me and stated matter-of-factly, Perhaps I would rather be unique than happy.
She explained, in the face of my astonishment, that anyone can do the things necessary for happiness.
Spend time on vacation and with loved ones, but not everyone can accomplish great things. I initially scoffed at this notion, but later reconsidered it in private. I also realized that I have made this decision at various points in my life. Possibly even the majority of the time, if I am sincere with myself.
Every Thursday, counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories will be delivered to your inbox. The financier had spent many years creating a version of herself that others, including her deceased parents, would admire. Importantly, her curated self was a highly successful, hardworking executive that she would admire. She was successful! However, nothing is permanent, and she now felt that every hour of work gave her less than the previous one, and not just less happinessless power and prestige. Her dilemma was that the unique individual she had created was not a complete individual. You could say that she had exchanged herself for a symbol of herself.
Too frequently, we reduce other people to one or two enviable qualities, such as physical beauty, wealth, or power. The term for this is objectification. Celebrities frequently express how awful it is to be objectified in this manner. Relationships founded on objectification Money-driven marriages, for instance, inevitably fail miserably.
We know in our hearts that objectifying others is immoral and wrong. However, it is easy to forget that we can also do this to ourselves. With a self-definition revolving around work, accomplishment, worldly rewards, and pride, my financier friend had objectified herself as exceptional. She was too attached to her worldly success to make the adjustments that could now bring her happiness, despite the fact that this object was slowly deteriorating.
She was dependent on her job and, beneath that, on her success. Like all addictions, these diminished her humanity. She viewed herself less as a complete person and more as a high-performance machine, or one that had been high-performance but was now showing signs of wear and tear.
Perhaps I would rather be exceptional than happy.
The words of the financier vaguely reminded me of something, but I was unable to identify it for several days. Then I recalled a conversation I had with a friend who had struggled for years with alcoholism and drug addiction. He told me that he was acutely aware of the fact that he was miserable throughout his addictions. I asked him a straightforward question: If you were miserable, why did you continue to do it? Like the previous financier, he paused before responding. He told me that I cared more about being high than being happy.
That’s when I realized that people who choose to be unique over happy are addicts. Maybe you find that peculiar. Imagine a person who is desperately addicted to alcohol. Probably, the individual you have in mind is destitute and self-medicating against the traumas of the harsh world. You probably do not envision a successful and diligent individual. They are less likely to become addicted, correct?
Wrong. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the likelihood of drinking increases with socioeconomic status and education level. Some believe, and I concur based on my research, that people with high-pressure jobs tend to self-medicate with alcohol, including drinking at dangerous levels, which can temporarily switch off the feeling of anxiety.
However, alcohol is not the only addiction to which strivers are susceptible, nor is it the worst. Workaholism is one of the nastiest and most virulent addictions I have observed. In the 1960s, the psychologist Wayne Oates coined this term after his son requested an appointment to see him because his father’s time was so limited. In 1971, Oates defined workaholism as the compulsion or uncontrollable need to work continuously.
Leaders who work grueling hours frequently tell me that they have no choice if they wish to perform their jobs competently. But I’m not convinced. When I delve a little deeper into my life and the lives of others, I typically discover that workaholics are trapped in a vicious cycle: They become successful by working more than others and thus more than is required, but they believe they must maintain that pace to maintain their astronomical productivity. Fear of falling behind replaces the benefits of productivity as an incentive to keep running. Work eventually crowds out relationships and extracurricular activities. Work is all that the workaholic has left, thereby reinforcing the cycle.
Workaholism nourishes fear and isolation; fear and isolation nourishes workaholism.
Perhaps you can identify with this. I can. These problems—self-objectification, workaholism, and, most importantly, success addiction—that bind us to our inevitable professional decline must be resolved. Moreover, we must escape these tyrannies in order to make the leap to new success.
Success can be measured in different ways. When it hinges entirely on our careers, we fall victim to a devastating addiction.