enotalone logo

Success Depression and Encore Anxiety

Excerpted from

Reclaiming the Fire: How Successful People Overcome Burnout

By

Americans are obsessed with lists of "bests" and "worsts," including the Fortune 500, Forbes's 400, even Mr. Blackwell's worst dressed list. But to get to the bottom-line definition of success most Americans carry around, we need to recall the quotation attributed to the football coach Vince Lombardi: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." A cornerstone of our collective unconscious is that winners will receive both wealth and all the self-adulation and interpersonal adulation this world can afford.

These definitions of success, however, fail to address the fundamental concern of this book: the linkage-or, more accurately, presumed linkage-between success and subjective well-being. For most Americans success appears to be an end in its own right. It is the only outcome, as Christopher Lasch noted, that in and of itself has the capacity to instill a sense of self-approval. Thus, it would make sense for us to define success in operational terms that include not only rewards and superior ranking but also purported effects on self-image. The key, once again, is the term purported. Research has shown that although people anticipate that rankings and rewards will give them the good and happy life, this is not necessarily so. In fact, success often gives rise to a host of feelings that are anything but what achievement-oriented people bargained for.

Sigmund Freud treated several patients who suffered mightily as a consequence of attaining long-sought-after goals Their disorders shocked him since his psychoanalytic theory was based on the assumption that people "fall ill" with mental disorders as a result of not being able to satisfy their libidinal (sexual, aggressive) drives. He wrote:

So much the more surprising, indeed bewildering, must it appear when as a physician one makes the discovery that people occasionally fall ill precisely because a deeply-rooted and long-cherished wish has come to fulfillment. It seems as though they could not endure their bliss, for of the causative connection between this fulfillment and the falling-ill there can be no question.

Given Lasch's observation that Americans believe success can infuse those who achieve it with feelings of self-esteem and self-approval, it is no wonder that after Mark Lenzi won a gold medal in the three-meter springboard diving competition at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics he thought he had it made. According to press reports, Lenzi believed that winning a gold medal would guarantee him a lifetime of solicitations for product endorsements, motivational speeches, and charity golf tournaments. Instead, he found himself lying in his bed in Ann Arbor, Michigan, sobbing. "It just hit me like a brick wall," he said. The "it" was a form of success-induced depression that athletes call post-Olympic depression.

Post-Olympic depression involves intense disappointment with the experiences that follow what was expected to be a life-altering event. While it can affect any professional, this disorder is particularly prevalent among those who have career tracks with end points, goals, or criteria for advancement that differentiate between those who have made it and those who have not. Why are people whose careers impose structured ranking systems so vulnerable to success depression? Because they follow an internal script that says, "Once I attain X, my life will be set," but when they attain the X, they find out otherwise.

On his ninetieth birthday, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., gave a radio address in which he shared his thoughts about avoiding the type of depression (without using psychiatric nomenclature) Mark Lenzi suffered: The riders in a race do not stop short when they reach the goal There is a little finishing canter before coming to a standstill. There is time to hear the kind voice of friends and to say to one's self: "The work is done." But just as one says that, the answer comes: "The race is over, but the work remains." The canter that brings you to a standstill need not be only coming to rest. It cannot be while you still live. For to live is to function. That is all there is in living [emphasis added].

As survey research and Justice Holmes's insight demonstrate, not only is reaching a benchmark no guarantee of psychological satisfaction but it is more likely to be a source of psychological pain. The end point of a quest such as a race or an Olympic competition is just that: an ending. As everyone who has ever aspired to attain a goal will tell you, when you succeed but no longer have a raison d'etre, it feels like something inside you has died. To address that feeling, ask one or both of the following questions:

1. What do I do for an encore?
2. What do I do next?

The first question often arouses feelings that I have dubbed encore anxiety - the fear of not being able to live up to the performance expectations you have generated. The second question typically induces depression because it can imply that there is nowhere left to go. Let's first examine the pain of some who succeeded without preparing for the future as Justice Holmes counseled.



Tags: Stress