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Over-Achiever

Over my career I have witnessed the vulnerability of Entrepreneurs, CEOs (women and men), Artists, Fashionistas, Writers and other Creative Folk, and each of these creatives that I worked with have been at high risk for depression, addiction and suicide. I have met with everyone from television writers, to high-level executives, artists, and second generation high-wealth clients — all have struggled to find their path. Each one of these individuals had lost their purpose. Each was teetering on the brink of a mine hill disaster — from depression, alcohol and other drugs to chronic pain, medical maladies and thoughts of suicide.

Research indicates that this creative, take-charge group of folks is under more pressure than other groups of people. These creatives experience a range of mental disorders like panic attacks, insomnia, violent outbursts, substance abuse, disordered eating, suicidal thoughts, sex addiction (including kinky or sexual deviant behavior). We know all too well today that working in the arts, or in high-pressure jobs, can be  unhealthy to the point of destructive for many.

Some super achievers cannot help but compare themselves to others, and they fall prey to self-criticism and loathing. Other super achievers are fearful to seek expert advice because they are terrified their “weaknesses” will be exposed. This may have been the case of designer Kate Spade, who experienced a bi-polar disorder that tragically impacted her life. Perhaps Spade was unable to escape the pressure of perfection rather than being led to address any mental health and addiction problems — thus derailing her life. So too may have been the path for Anthony Bourdain. Along these same lines, Austin Heinz was a Silicon Valley science geek who was once a rising star in Silicon Valley for his creation of a laser print DNA machine. Heinz took his life in 2014 only two weeks after happily walking on the beaches of Del Mar, California. Depression and mind-altering substances once again took a life.

According to National Institute of Health, CEOs may be depressed at more than double the rate of normal adults. Other research indicates women in positions of authority exhibit more depressive symptoms than those women not in authoritative positions. David Linden, PHD, a neuroscience professor at John Hopkins School of Medicine, and an author, has spent some time analyzing addiction research. He has argued that the traits that make a good CEO – “risk taking, high drive for success, obsession, dedication, novelty seeking – are precisely what make a good addict.” Linden says that the pleasures derived from success, and in particular from risky or novel business ventures, is borne of the same brain pathways that make substance misuse irresistible.

Moreover, in a CNN article about Silicon Valley, Linden said that nearly half of all entrepreneurs experienced mental health issues during their lifetime. Linden believes that the personality traits often found in entrepreneurial folks: creativity, open kindness and a propensity for a rush , are the same traits found in substance abuse.

Likewise, Forbes contributing author Alice Walton posits, after interviewing psychologists, some of reasons for why there are more depression amongst entrepreneurs, CEOs and other highly successful folks:

  1. Competition – There is always someone who appears better/faster/stronger, and one grows weary always comparing themselves to others
  2. 24-hour worker – never being present and always working makes one hyper vigilant, and creates a lifestyle that is not suited for happiness. These people are never present — not even when with family because they are always thinking
  3. Detached from self – if someone is suddenly catapulted to wealth and a different lifestyle, they can be disconnected to their former selves
  4. Privilege makes them less resilient – Sometimes when people have grown up with privilege, they fail to launch and don’t have skills available to navigate the world
  5. Disconnection from self and others — Digital – Being always needed or thought needed, the phone has become an appendage taking away from a person’s ability to be present. There is always another deal, another plane to catch
  6. Their values may change over time – there is a certain ennui that happens when you realize you can create and live the life you thought you wanted —  have the material things you desired — and are still not happy. These folks have climbed Everest, created award winning films, a tech company, taken a safari in Nambia, amassed tons of real estate holdings, wrote an outstanding play, styled the best, etc, and while their art was recognized inside, they never believed they were enough. When they reached what they thought was the pinnacle of success, they looked down and realized the climb hadn’t changed what they needed inside

Adding to those six, I have observed that super achievers often have an entourage that is on their payroll. They are not use to anyone confronting or challenging their viewpoints. When their drinking or other drug taking gets out of hand, the super successful have a bubble of people who are too fearful to take action — lest they be demoted fired, scolded, or otherwise dismissed.

It is the brave warrior who chooses to challenge this super achieving person. Those are the folks who usually call me, and together we craft a plan with the individual in question that honors the competence of the super achiever, and invites him or her to change — while being ever mindful of their competence, special needs and wants.