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Success is Addictive


When an alcoholic reaches for a bottle at ten in the morning or finishes an entire bottle of vodka in one sitting, it’s pretty easy for everyone (including the alcoholic) to see the problem. It’s harder to see alcoholism starting. A drink after work to take the edge off seems pretty innocuous. Since one drink soothes feelings of anxiety, what’s the harm in having two? If two feels good, why not try three? At some point, however–maybe after you’ve ordered a third martini from a bartender–you begin to sense a problem and take measures to control your drinking or hide it. The dangers and stigma of alcoholism are, after all, well-known and well-advertised.

The same can’t be said for success-ism. In school, when you got an A+, you got a shot of “feel good.” You started studying a little more and playing a little less. You made yourself and others proud with your good grades, and you fed off that validation. You accumulated more and more A’s. At some point, though, good grades weren’t enough. You’d gotten so many in the past that they became expected, so you sought something else to give you that “hit”–something like awards or leadership positions or scholarships. Or maybe you took AP classes, prepared for the SAT, and set your sights at Ivy League schools.

If you’re saying to yourself right now, “He can’t be serious! Is he really comparing getting A’s with gateway drugs and alcoholism?” bear in mind that alcoholics often react defensively when they’re confronted.

Obviously, success isn’t the same as alcohol. There are many ways to define and achieve success, for one thing. And, in general, success is beneficial and desirable. But if your pursuit of success is preventing you from living a full life or experiencing joy, then you may be addicted to it the way others are to alcohol.

Western culture is built on a puritan-work-ethic ideal that leads us to celebrate hard workers. That’s why, in some circles at least, “workaholic” is considered a compliment. Workaholism is real, and it can be as all-consuming and self-destructive as alcoholism. But it’s not just work that is addictive, it’s also the products of that work. Your achievements have been celebrated and supported by all the people and institutions around you: parents, teachers, mentors, coaches, peers, bosses, schools, and organizations. With so much reinforcement, is it any wonder we crave success? Is it any wonder that we get addicted to it?

Late at night, do you hear a voice deep from within saying, “How did this become my life?” If so, you may be addicted to success and you may need to learn to seek joy elsewhere.

For all addicts, the first step toward recovery is to admit you have a problem. The reactions to your admission may vary. Not everyone will believe you. Those who are invested in your success may actively try to dissuade you. They are just being really good co-dependents. Find someone who is invested in you and not what you do or how much you make–someone who won’t benefit from your donations or reputation, someone who will approve of and celebrate you (not just your biggest financial or professional achievements).


About the Author

Gary Cohen is a highly-skilled Executive Coach, Leadership Author, Trainer, and International Keynote Speaker. His clients range from entrepreneurial CEOs of the nation’s fastest-growing companies to executives of global 100 companies. He differentiates himself from traditional (psycho/therapeutic) executive coaches by bringing a vast amount of business experience as a former Founder / President of one the Nation’s Fastest growing companies. He is the author of Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions (McGraw Hill). Gary B. Cohen Full Bio

  • Bill Fotsch

    If you define success narrowly, that is, in one facet of your life, then problems will develop as you point out. As my father did with me when I was growing up, I told my 3 children that it was important that they succeed in grades, athletically and socially. By the grace of God and my wife’s constant nurturing, each of them succeeded in all three dimensions. They continue to succeed, and lead others by example.

    We need more individuals who are pursuing success, not less. The key is to make sure they define success in broad terms, so they truly have balance and satisfaction in
    their lives… I suspect you agree. Happy New Year…

    • Gary B Cohen

      I hope that your kids continue to thrive. And sadly Aristotle teaches that we can not know if we have lived a good life until it’s over. I often question that teaching and yet it is a great point when considering our philosophies before they are fully played out. Perhaps Ted Turner has a different view of merging with AOL today than he did soon after the merger. It’s not that success is bad it’s just when it becomes a way to medicate from your feelings. Thanks so much for adding to the discussion your point is an important one for us to remember.

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