Stop Envying the Super Productive. Extreme Ambition Is a Form of Mental Illness (Just Ask Elon Musk)
A philosopher, an author, and Musk's ex-wife all insist that exceptional success comes at a huge human cost.
Sites like Inc.com celebrate exceptional achievement and help others pursue greatness, but is super success all it's cracked up to be? If you knew the real costs (and the roots) of being a household name, would you actually want that life?
That's the fascinating question at the heart of a handful of recent articles that question whether what we usually cheer as great success isn't often just a manifestation of a troubled personality and a whole lot of pain.
Extreme output comes from extreme personalities.
Take the case of best-selling author Danielle Steel. Having churned out a mind-bending 179 books, she's won herself a legion of fans and a hefty personal net worth. How did she do it? Simple, she works 20 hours a day.
No, really, that's straight from the horse's mouth in an interview with Glamour: "I don't get to bed until I'm so tired I could sleep on the floor. If I have four hours, it's a really good night for me."
Commenting on this interview, author and Guardian journalist Oliver Burkeman points out that "before the dawn of the gig economy, which made it mandatory to celebrate unrelenting toil as proof that you're a 'doer', we called this workaholism -- a compulsive absorption in work, perhaps due to anxiety, or low self-esteem, or the desire to avoid engaging with some more difficult aspect of life."
Burkeman isn't saying anything radical here, but in today's world, where extreme success is so celebrated, it's easy to forget that the drive to reach the top often doesn't just come from love of the work. Instead, the motor powering the extreme effort underlying extreme success can be a need to escape anxiety, fear, or inner turmoil. The super productive are often running away from pain rather than toward the joy of creation.
He isn't the only one making the point. Over at The School of Life, a brainy self-help program started by philosopher Alain de Botton, a recent article breaks down the painful psychological roots of super achievement. A great many of the highly driven, the piece points out, had a troubled childhood. (Science confirms this: 75 percent of super achievers come from difficult backgrounds).
"It's a rather simple question that quickly gets to the core of someone's sense of well-being and legitimacy: did your childhood leave you feeling that you were -- on balance -- OK as you were? Or did you somewhere along the way derive an impression that you needed to be extraordinary in order to deserve a place on the earth?" the article asks.
For around 20 percent of us, achievement is a way to try to fill a hole created in childhood, generally by a parent who suffered their own loss, mental illness, terrible marriage, or great life disappointment.
Anyone who has been around high achievers won't be shocked by the news that many of them are chased by demons, yet we often forget this fact when we dream of monster success for ourselves.
"It seems odd to look at achievement through this lens, not as the thing the newspapers tell us it is, but -- very often -- as a species of mental illness. Those who put up the skyscrapers, write the best-selling books, perform on stage, or make partner may, in fact, be the unwell ones," says the piece.
A real-world case study.
These articles do a good job of laying out the case that "success" as many of us dream of it is often built on trauma, but a real-world example can be more convincing than an abstract argument. Handily, to find one we need to look no further than Elon Musk.
An avowed workaholic who routinely puts in 80-plus hour weeks, Musk is undeniably achieving incredible things. He also, by his own admission, had a pretty miserable childhood with his nasty father and bullying schoolmates. Those past struggles are at the heart of his current drive, according to his first wife, Justine Musk.
"Extreme success results from an extreme personality and comes at the cost of many other things," she wrote on Quora. People like Musk "tend to be freaks and misfits who were forced to experience the world in an unusually challenging way... Other people consider them to be somewhat insane."
In short, Musk is the perfect example of the syndrome The School of Life article describes: a man most likely driven by early trauma to sustain an extreme lifestyle that comes at a huge personal cost but yields exceptional achievement.
No one's dumping on super achievers.
Which isn't to say anything negative about Musk. As he tweeted himself, "If I am a narcissist (which may be true), I'm a useful one." We are all weirdos in our own way, and Musk is carrying his baggage with grace while working to make the world a better place. The exceptionally driven can hardly be any other way. Power to him (and Danielle Steel).
The point isn't to criticize super achievers. It's to nudge those who admire them -- and maybe beat themselves up by their failure to reach similar heights -- to think harder about their definition of success. Yes, the Musks of the world get the glory, but they often seem pretty tortured. Is that really what you want? Is being that driven even something you can consciously choose if your early years haven't wired it into you?
There's no shame and perhaps a good deal of wisdom in a more moderate view of success. Or, as the School of Life puts it, "Perhaps success might -- after all -- be nothing more than a quiet afternoon with the children, at home, in a modest street." The article concludes with a perfect summation of the takeaway, so I'll give it the last word:
"Most movies, adverts, songs and articles, however... continually explain to us the appeal of other things: sports cars, tropical island holidays, fame, an exalted destiny, first-class air travel, and being very busy. The attractions are sometimes perfectly real. But the cumulative effect is to instill in us the idea that our own lives must be close to worthless. And yet there may be immense skill, joy, and nobility involved in what we are up to: in bringing up a child to be reasonably independent and balanced; in maintaining a good-enough relationship with a partner over many years despite areas of extreme difficulty; in keeping a home in reasonable order; in getting a lot of early nights; in doing a not very exciting or well-paid job responsibly and cheerfully; in listening properly to other people and, in general, in not succumbing to madness or rage at the paradox and compromises involved in being alive."