A few days ago my friend Mike sent me an article about being addicted to achievement. Then he wrote, “sound familiar?.” For the last several months I have been addicted to achievement. I’ve taken cognitive enhancers”, worked longer hours, and hustled more than ever. Obsessive focus became my substitute for feeling any unpleasant emotion and my escape from anything I didn’t want to feel.
Because I didn’t have a contract for a third book, I felt this immense pressure to knock it out of the park for The Audience of One book launch, no matter the cost. I churned out article after article, trying to push the limits of my word counts. When I returned from a short book tour, my mother mentioned to my dad that I looked exhausted. The harder I worked, it seemed like the worse things were getting.
At the recommendation of my friend Mike, I made an appointment to see my energy healer. For years I’d been skeptical about this kind of work and wrote it off as new age BS. But when a painful experience I’d been thinking about for years finally dissipated after my first session with her, I was less skeptical.
So I made an appointment to see her. She told me if I continued down this path things would only get worse. Her prescription went counter to everything I wanted to do:
People wear sleep deprived 120-hour workweeks like badges of honor. They assume if they adopt the same working habits of some iconic figure like Elon Musk, they’ll get the same results. They mix up causation and correlation to their detriment. For most people, this isn’t hard work. It’s just a slower more socially acceptable form of suicide.
If you scroll through your newsfeed, on any given day, you’ll find a parade of accomplishments and people who:
“Success porn” litters the headlines of Medium articles, many of which I have written. You compare yourself to people who have achieved more. You feel lazy because your habits aren’t as solid as theirs, and you try to “lifehack” your way to success.
A few weeks ago I was lamenting to my sister how shitty the year had been She said: “don’t forget you did publish a book.” When we were speaking the other night, she asked how it was doing, and I said “well it hasn’t made the New York Times Best-Seller list, but it seems to be resonating with people who read it. And she reminded me “but isn’t the message of the book not to concern yourself with that?” In its failure to live up to certain expectations, I failed to appreciate the accomplishment of publishing a book.
We always want more because we think more is going to be the key to our happiness and our well being. But what we fail to realize is that more of anything will only provide us with temporary satisfaction because of hedonic adaptation. Would selling more books make me happier? Yeah, probably for a little while. But eventually that would be normal, and I’d find something else that was missing from my life.
We live in a culture that glorifies accomplishment and rewards our addiction to achievement. After all, it’s not like being addicted to success is like being addicted to heroin. Nobody is going to tell you to seek counseling if you’re kicking ass and taking names. The false sense of celebrity that social media creates encourages and ensures that we keep chasing accomplishments, that we hustle and crush it, no matter the cost.
We read self-help books, listen to podcasts, attend conferences and do whatever we can all to improve ourselves. I’m not criticizing anyone who does these things. I do them myself. I host a podcast and write books that would fall into this category. All I know is that my addiction to achievement was starting to look like it was going to end in a very dark, very bad place.
I wasn’t following my own advice. I fell asleep with my laptop in my bed. I looked at things on my phone after I turned the lights out, and sacrificed sleep in the name of “getting shit done” and the only things I did get done were shit.My accomplishments defined me so much that the only way I could feel whole or complete was to accomplish more. When what I accomplished didn’t live up to my expectations, I felt lazy and guilty. So I did more:
There was never any sense that my work for the day was finished. Eventually, it led to this dark and debilitating narrative.
Society doesn’t have protocols for how to handle the inner demons that haunt people and talk about them in a public forum.
This year has felt like an uphill battle, with a mountaintop nowhere in sight. The surface of life deceives us, and social media amplifies that deception. Of course, nothing I’ve mentioned is catastrophic or life-threatening. But that’s what the demon of depression does. It dreams up catastrophic scenarios and presents them to you like a Grammy-winning album. These are a few of its latest and greatest hits.
Then you talk to a friend who feeds you with self-help cliches and platitudes, you feel better and realize that depression’s greatest hits are self-indulgent bullshit. You remind yourself that dark chapters and seasons of adversity eventually, and that your temporary circumstances are not your permanent identity.
People say the hardest thing about running a business is managing your psychology. When you’re running a business, it’s hard not to feel like the success and failure of a business is not a success or failure of you as a person.You measure your self-esteem in profit and losses, traffic and conversion rates, book sales and downloads or whatever North Star Metric you’ve chosen.
A few weeks ago I picked up a book called Reasons to Live by Matt Haig. It turns out there’s a long lineage of successful and famous people who have dealt with depression. “Depression can happen to prime ministers and presidents and cricketers and playwrights and boxers and stars of hit Hollywood comedies. Well, we knew that. What else? That fame and money do not immunize you from mental health problems” says Haig. No accomplishment makes you immune to it.
My friend Joseph texted me when he saw a picture of Matt’s book.
Joseph: Is that what it sounds like?
Me: yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like.
Joseph: I could have used that a few months ago.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel crazy. Somebody else felt this way. So I made a list of reasons to live, in order of importance:
I’m sure the list is longer, but at the moment I can’t recall all of it.
At moments, I wonder why it takes me so long to get over something that most people would get over quickly. I wish it didn’t. I wish I didn’t feel things that seem like they wouldn’t phase another person.
The heightened sensitivity pisses me off. It gets in the way of being productive. I don’t have time for my own drama. And yet that’s so much of what goes on in your head, your drama. A few weeks ago I was searching for a new roommate, and the whole experience was a shit show. People would commit to seeing the place and not show up, others would change their mind on the way to see the apartment, and one guy committed and bailed. I finally did manage to find a roommate. And then I was pissed off that I’d been so stressed about something that got resolved. My friend Mike said, “you’re beating yourself up because you beat yourself up.”
I wonder if the reason I surf, snowboard and do anything is that the flow is an escape. A professional skateboarder who jumps mega ramps once described extreme sports as a place where the ghosts don’t follow. I went on as many snowboarding trips as I possibly could this year. I surfed in Sri Lanka. And without a doubt surfing and snowboarding is that place for me where the ghosts don’t follow.
Over the course of the last year, we’ve seen high profile celebrity suicides, a sexual assault epidemic, and unparalleled levels of anxiety, depression and mental health issues. But for every celebrity or high profile suicide, there are many we never hear about. Unless people learn how to manage their psychology, we face a questionable and dangerous future.
In the culture I grew up in, mental health issues were incredibly stigmatized. It was an unwritten and unanimously accepted belief that therapy was for crazy people. Many of the people who believed this would benefit tremendously from seeing a therapist. When I found myself in a therapist office at the age of 37, my only thought was “why did I wait so long?
I’m not even sure how my parents would have responded if I had asked if I could see a therapist. There were numerous signs of depressive tendencies very early in my life that went overlooked. When I got fired from my first job, I was at my dad’s office, and he asked: “what’s your plan?” I replied, “I don’t know, suicide.” All he said was “you shouldn’t say things like this.” He didn’t ask me if I was considering it. He didn’t ask if I was ok. He meant well, but it was clear he had no idea what to do with that.
When you grow up in an Indian community, you grow up in a culture of judgments and expectations. It’s not with malicious intent. But, “what will people think?” is something you hear over and over until you can’t help but ask yourself that very same question.
I don’t know what it’s like in other immigrant cultures. But I’m guessing as Indians we’re not alone. I was the “anonymous” person in Sarah Kathleen Peck’s post about how to go to therapy.
When it comes to mental health, it’s not until we reach a breaking point, that we finally decide to ask for help. But that is a bit like waiting to put gas in your car until you’re stranded on the side of the freeway. My energy healer even said, “why did you wait so long to come and see me?”
If you’ve never actually dealt with depression yourself, prescribing self-help books, telling people to look on the bright side and make gratitude lists doesn’t help. “It’s hard to explain depression to people who haven’t suffered from it. It’s like explaining life on earth to an alien” says Matt Haig. When somebody is dealing with depression, their emotions are a roller coaster. They might understand logically that something isn’t as bad as it seems. But that won’t change how they feel. In the midst of depression, it becomes really easy to believe the worst opinions you have about yourself.
I’ve had a front-row seat to some of the highest achieving people in the world. And I’m consistently amazed by how many have referenced asking for help or seeing a therapist in our conversations. Despite the appearance of being extraordinary, they all have demons they battle. I can’t help but wonder:
I’ve had more than one podcast guest who attempted suicide. And I’ve had listeners who have told me that my work helped them get better after a suicide attempt. One of my readers also took his life, something I only learned when I sent him a Facebook message to ask if I could send him a book, and his wife replied.
When the state of affairs in our world is such that suicide feels like an option, it’s clear we need a serious reboot of how we address mental health issues.
I’m not quite sure if there’s an appropriate way to start this conversation. All I know is that it’s a conversation we’ve avoided for far too long. If the price we’re willing to pay is that of human life, it’s far too high just because we fear judgment, are desperately trying to live up to expectations, and are addicted to achievement.
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