Chapter 1: People Who Hit Bottom When They Reach the Top
Few highly successful people contact a mental health professional unless they experience a crisis. Actually, most successful professionals, even in the throes of a crisis, are loath to admit to needing a "shrink." The vast majority of my clients are referred to me by third parties who sense that without professional help the crisis that their colleague, friend, or lover is suffering will get worse. Given the energy expended to get a successful person to accept the need for a psychotherapist, corporate consultant, or executive coach, some may find it odd that the first thing I do when meeting a new referral is attempt to illustrate the two ironies of his or her situation.
The first irony lies in the fact that no successful person I can think of became successful without conquering some form of crisis. Career success signifies an ability to overcome obstacles, to persevere in the face of competitive threats, to adapt to change, and to endure grueling periods of deprivation. Someone who succeeds must have experienced the travails of (1) acquiring a new or specialized skill, (2) perfecting skills in order to display talents and abilities in a stellar fashion, or (3) deconstructing the status quo (as an entrepreneur, artist, inventor) and creating a new paradigm or prototype of excellence. Successful people are conquerors, so when they come to see me, the first thing I do is remind them of that fact. This reminder sets the stage for helping them understand why they are at a point where they can no longer do-or refuse to do-what they once did superbly.
The second irony involves the self-defeating nuances of meaning every successful person imposes on the idea of "crisis." When I begin treating people who suffer success-induced disorders, I try to help them accept the fact that connotations can kill. I start by showing them the Chinese symbol for crisis, which consists of two intertwined characters: the symbol for "danger" and the symbol for "opportunity." To help successful people in crisis help themselves, my job is to move them away from focusing on danger and help them begin focusing on opportunity.
Finding opportunity in crisis is not a facile fortune cookie cure. Crisis need not connote impending catastrophe; it can be understood as a turning point, a choice point, an opportunity for change. One patient of mine who read tarot cards as a hobby pointed out that the "death card" has a similar duality: loss plus generative potential. As Picasso allegedly observed, "Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction."
We suffer loss and opportunity throughout our lives, yet during our youth these events do not typically precipitate crises. When adolescents lose the protective status of being minors (at approximately the time we begin our search for identity), they typically focus on opportunity and feel elated. What freedoms adulthood holds! To drive a car. To hold an esteem-building job outside the sheltering (and at times restrictive) protection of the nuclear family. To date. It is undeniable that when something familiar dies, the loss arouses anxiety, but it is always possible to find exhilarating challenges before you. The key is to understand them as such and not focus on the potential threats they impose. Being pushed from any nest is unsettling, but contrast the entrapment of the nest with the freedom of flight!
A paradox of success lost on successful people in crisis is how constraining, tedious, and demanding their ostensibly favorable status is. There is great danger in abandoning the tried and true; to be a rookie after enjoying years as a superstar exposes you to humiliation and shame should you fail to live up to the image you've created. But what about the danger inherent in never freeing yourself from Sisyphean monotony? What about the danger inherent in not expanding your horizons or failing to actualize untapped potential? You know what they say about the tortoise who cannot get anywhere without sticking his neck out? It is safer within one's shell of success, but at what cost?
So people come to see me after a proven history of mastering crisis, yet they feel impotent to address a new one. They (or those who have referred them) seek my help to cope with perceived threats, despite knowing that they have mastered the dangers inherent in striving for success. When successful people visit me for the first time, they are aware of only the potential for loss, the potential for pain, the potential for shame. These are the concerns of people coming to grips with the syndrome I call Supernova Burnout.
Supernova Burnout afflicts successful people who find that their vocations are no longer psychologically rewarding or have become threatening to their self-esteem. Our culture glorifies material success. The truth, however, is that this flawed ideal is to blame for the rising number of high-achieving men and women wanting desperately to escape their circumstances after years of arduous work to get there. I am referring to business executives with years of success begging to break the grip of golden handcuffs, professionals willing to discard advanced degrees in order to escape mind-numbing tedium, and performers including athletes, musicians, and actors who report that they are crippled by the demands of constantly needing to answer calls of "encore, encore" when what they want to scream is Ciao!
Everyone knows of at least one rags-to-riches-to-rags saga that ended because someone who had it all (Freddie Prinze, Vince Foster, Robert Maxwell, David Begelman) was overwhelmed by psychological demons and committed suicide. This is not Supernova Burnout. The phenomenon I have studied for over twenty years is pervasive dissatisfaction with a successful career interrupted by often nondramatic, yet incredibly debilitating, symptoms ranging from anxiety about living up to the expectations born of success to a sense of ennui born of the realization that attaining the goal you thought would change your life did no such thing.
Achieving what you want and realizing that no favorable psychological changes have automatically ensued is far worse than failing to reach a goal. With failure you can always go back to the drawing board, or "try, try again"-these are actually energizing conditions. With success that forces you to ask "Is that all there is?" no such second chances exist. The disappointment of exposing the myths that surround success is devastating because we are obsessed with success.
Career success is the objective common to virtually all the heroes who have shaped our capitalist culture, from Horatio Alger's protagonists through Rockefeller, Mellon, and Carnegie to today's heroes like Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, and Steve Case. All these whites and blacks, men and women, have risen to the top of a professional heap and earned lots of money. Yet in my experience the most compelling common denominator in this population is the vulnerability to deep emotional pain that has the potential to blow the American dream apart.
Supernova Burnout is widespread, yet in spite of the fact that it has been written about for centuries, people are loath to acknowledge its existence. George Bernard Shaw started his professional life battling feelings best described as contempt-laden despair because he felt coopted by success and recognition:
I made good in spite of myself, and found, to my dismay, that Business, instead of expelling me as the worthless imposter I was, was fastening upon me with no intention of letting me go. Behold me, therefore, in my twentieth year, with a business training, in an occupation which I detested as cordially as any sane person lets himself detest anything he cannot escape from. . . . [Ultimately,] I broke loose.1
Shaw wrote these words when he was in his seventies and was asked to reflect upon what life was like before he found, or began to practice, his true calling. Most of the professionals I have worked with in psychotherapy or executives I have coached on the job were not able to "break loose" the way Shaw did in his early twenties, a time in life when golden handcuffs are far less constrictive than they are in later years filled with familial demands and expectations.2 In the main, professionals who suffer Supernova Burnout have long recognized that they are in vocations (or professional circumstances) that they detest, but they are unable to break free until something cataclysmic forces their hand.
There are, to be certain, many people-like the vast majority of you reading this book-who have experienced symptoms akin to those that cause Supernova Burnout and who don't need the help of a mental health professional, or a tragedy, to make adjustments to their lives.
One woman I'll call Martha-because she possessed the meticulous and somewhat obsessional organizational skills of Martha Stewart-had seemingly adjusted to the ennui she experienced after years of working as the executive vice president of finance with a Fortune 1000 corporation located near Washington, D.C. But when I met Martha-I was assessing the corporation's executive team for their readiness to initiate a takeover of a related business-I was struck by how ill-prepared for new challenges Martha seemed to be. After our initial meeting, I scheduled a follow-up session to confront her with my concerns. "You know, I don't sense that you view purchasing [the targeted corporation] as a worthwhile move for your company," I said. "In fact, when I talk with you, it strikes me that you're bracing for a set of onerous chores, not an opportunity for growth."
Her response was completely candid: "You're right, but for reasons that have nothing to do with my role here. My job was a dream come true when I landed it, but no longer. I'm forty-one years old, my daughters are both in high school, and I'm jealous of them; their opportunities are limitless. When I was their age, the aspirations I listed under my yearbook picture were 'future Nobel Prize laureate' and 'philanthropist.' My salary here without stock options is more than twice as much as Nobel Prize winners get, but that's not enough. Why can't I just try to do something that will make me feel like a winner, rather than a prosaic professional?"
Martha and I met several more times for brief chats, and while I can say that I was a catalyst in her decision to move, I was in no way a causal agent. I discovered that Martha had been exploring for more than a year the possibility of getting a fellowship at a prestigious economic think tank in the D.C. area (she had a Ph.D. in economics), and with my urging-and a few clarifying remarks about how normal it is to experience inertia in a career that is the envy of most professionals-she resigned her job.
The people that I describe as suffering Supernova Burnout suffer much more than the normal inertia that holds people in well-paying but psychologically unrewarding jobs. These people are trapped, or terrified of failing to live up to expectations, and suffer mightily as a consequence, but their core concerns differ in degree only, not in kind, from the ones affecting virtually all careerists. I use extreme instances of Supernova Burnout for illustrative purposes for the same reason that advertisers use beautiful women in ads for products ranging from automobiles to beer: to capture attention. The psychological forces that kept Martha in corporate America years longer than she wanted to be there are not apparent without an in-depth understanding of Supernova Burnout. The cases that I have chosen to describe in the pages that follow are designed to make the conflicts, doubts, anxieties, feelings of guilt, and hostilities that cause Supernova Burnout obvious and understandable to all.
I'm an alcoholic . . . I thought only losers became alcoholics.
—Jason Robards (from a National Council on Alcoholism advertisement)
Typical victims of Supernova Burnout let their bodies do their talking. Stress-induced cardiovascular disease and clinical depression are among the most common precipitants of career change I know of. When physical disease isn't available to provide a convenient exit strategy, self-destructive behavior can be relied upon to get the job done. Have you ever wondered why there are so many well-publicized cases of Wall Street tycoons getting caught in shameful situations that involve white-collar crimes such as insider trading, illicit sexual affairs, or violence? The underlying cause of these "inexplicable" acts is often an inability to admit that living the good life is anything other than psychological purgatory.
Roughly two years ago James McDermott, the former chief executive of a major New York City investment bank (Keefe, Bruyette & Woods), was charged with insider trading and securities fraud for allegedly alerting an adult-video actress, Marylin Starr, with whom he was having a sexual relationship, to a series of impending bank mergers.3 Can I say conclusively that what McDermott did was a quasi-intentional plea for help? Obviously not. But I can say that I have treated over twenty men with comparable wealth, status, and power who "inexplicably" ended their successful careers by recklessly infusing a disheartening day-to-day routine with the exhilaration of illicit criminal activities. While it may be true, particularly for multimillionaires, that crime doesn't pay, illegal activity can be an incredibly stimulating alternative to the monotonous ordeal their careers have become.
While a significant-and highly publicized-number of people who suffer Supernova Burnout break loose from their career imprisonment by engaging in self-immolation, I have found that the majority resort to alcohol abuse, the most reliable unhealthy mechanism there is for pulling those who detest life at the top out of their gold-plated psychological confinement. I have treated scores of men and women (who must remain anonymous) for success-induced alcohol abuse. The former Boston Bruins hockey great Derek Sanderson has allowed me to discuss his descent from highest-paid athlete on earth (displacing the soccer great Pele) to skid-row alcoholic.4 Sanderson's travails, along with the stardom-to-sot chronicles of successful people such as Jason Robards, have given me a wonderful point of departure from which to explain how my life's work took shape.
My experience drinking alcohol and spending time in two places where it was served-catering halls and bars-played a central role in helping me understand how success can control, overwhelm, or destroy a person's professional life. In a certain sense, were it not for my questions about the effects of alcohol consumption, I would never have formulated the theory of Supernova Burnout.FATHER KNOWS BEST, BUT NOT ABOUT BOOZE
Several years before I was legally able to enter a bar, I had my first profound lesson about alcohol. I was roughly fifteen years old, an age when many boys find that the easiest way to endure dateless weekends is by joining a group of guys trying to dull the pain of adolescence by getting drunk. On one such night, after bingeing on a premixed screwdriver concoction that sickened me so completely I was unable to sneak into my home without creating a commotion, I was confronted by my father, who counseled me in furious yet caring terms: "My son, I want only what's best for you. You need to know that only bums get drunk. Men who cannot hold jobs and cannot provide for their families get drunk. I want you to be a success and a good provider. Do you hear me? Don't be a bum."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Reclaiming the Fire by Dr. Steven Berglas. Copyright © 2001 by Dr. Steven Berglas. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.