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Success Addiction Makes Aging Harder

In my last post, I shared that I’d learned about strengths that emerge in the second half of life—namely, the ability to articulate lessons learned by living—a sort of wisdom. I was thrilled that I might have something to say as a person over sixty!

But there is something that holds me back from using my strengths. I worry about how these strengths will be received. I’m afraid of failing. After all, most of what I’ve learned from life are not things I can prove. They are experiences, intuitions, things I “feel in my bones.”

An addiction was uncovered as I read about a woman who said,“Maybe I would prefer to be special rather than happy.”  She then added,  “Anyone can do the things it takes to be happy—go on vacation, spend time with friends and family . . . but not everyone can accomplish great things.”

“Maybe I would prefer to be special rather than happy.”  

Initially, I thought, “Yea, I used to be that way.” I once was in a church leadership/public speaking role that resulted in regular human praise. I felt more intelligent and wiser than others. Special. Like her, I spent many years “creating a version of myself that others would admire.” On an even deeper level, I was trying to become someone I would admire.

But after decades of “success,” my life fell apart, and I resigned from my role as a pastor. I now realize that what I thought was a success was hollow. Why? Because I was not honest or authentic. I was performing to be respected. I eventually came to see my meltdown as a rescue and faced the real me.

Reading about the woman who’d rather be special than happy caused me to think about what motivates me. I realized I’m still addicted to success. It’s less about what I strive for and more about what I avoid: failure or criticism.  My fear of failure is rooted in perfectionistic pride. I’ve had a story to tell for over five years, but I’ve wavered about telling it because I might look foolish. The effort might be unsuccessful.

Arthur Brooks, who put this unhappy, special woman before me in his From Strength to Strength,says, “people who choose being special over happy are addicts.” He compares their workaholism to alcoholism:

Alcoholics are addicted to alcohol, it’s true. But in reality, they are hooked on what alcohol does to their brains. And so it is with workaholism. What workaholics truly crave isn’t work per se; it is success.

They kill themselves working for money, power, and prestige because these are forms of approval, applause, and compliments—which, like all addictive things, from cocaine to social media, stimulate the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Arthur Brooks
honor labels

Brooks adds, “Workaholism feeds fear and loneliness; fear and loneliness feed workaholism.” But the good news is that being open about your weaknesses can forge a human connection.

On the other hand, “people who are defensive or aloof reduce trust among those they lead, are unhappier, and less effective as a result.”

I beat myself up for a day or so, feeling I’d made no progress against my success addiction. After I recovered, I realized I’ve gradually been getting free. How so?

For the last ten years or so, instead of cultivating admirers, I’ve been quietly investing hours and hours in two friendships. We meet every other week, rarely missing. I’ve also been writing out my honest thoughts in a journal almost daily. This kind of writing helps me talk about my weakness and worries to my friends. During our time together,  I consciously resist presenting an image of success. Of course, sometimes I hesitate to share until I “figure out” my sadness or anxiety.


“Let’s look for our identity not where we are different or outstanding but where we are the same– our common human brokenness and our common need for healing.”

—Henri Nouwen

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t subject my friends to long monologues about my emotional state. I try to bring curiosity to our friendship and listen without judgment. And share briefly about how I’m really doing and reveal more if they explore. I’ll go into more depth on these dynamics in a future post.  

Something else has been happening, something underneath the journaling and sharing with friends. I’ve tried to pray honestly. For most of my life, I told God what I thought he wanted to hear. I somehow thought that negative emotions were sinful, or at least irrelevant. Stuff ‘em. Soldier on. I felt ashamed of fear and anxiety. I was ashamed of my shame.

As I read through the biblical psalms, I saw a vulnerable honesty expressed to God that was foreign to me. I’m still pretty awkward, but I’m learning to name grief, sadness, anger, as well as joy and wonder.

I imagine you, too, will find it hard to break free from success addiction and use the new skills that come with age if you haven’t already.  You probably wonder how others will receive your acquired wisdom.

I urge you to seek out a supportive friend or two and take the plunge. Lower your guard.  You may have to warn your friend about what you are seeking to do and ask if it’s ok with them.

older couples

The next step for me is to start telling my story to a larger audience. I hope that others will join me in making weakness our strength. I want to see a community of people over 50 develop in Columbus, Ohio, a safe place to tell our stories and develop our underutilized life skills.


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