A few months ago I wrote about Amy Winehouse’s tragic death and wondered out loud about what role her art, and addiction, played in her demise, along with a long list of other great artists who killed themselves at the age of 27.
I picked up the paper this morning to read John Hopkins professor of Neuroscience David J. Linden’s research on why addicts tend to be among the most successful individuals if they manage not to kill themselves. (To be honest, I am embarrassed to say my mom sent me a link to an NPR interview with Linden weeks ago, but I was too lazy to read it.)
Linden’s research points to addiction being genetically correlated to blunted dopamine receptors. “Addicts want their pleasures more but like them less,” according to Linden. That’s because they have a problem in the pathway—the dopamine receptors that make normal people feel happy and complete—that should allow them to feel pleasure. That’s why addicts are a restless bunch, constantly in search of some artificial way to fill that gap.
Linden’s explicit conclusion based on his research is that the correlation between greatness, in pretty much all fields from art to business to politics, and addiction is not despite the addiction but in fact because of it. Greatness doesn’t cause addiction, but addictive qualities actually cause greatness. (Wow, why didn’t I think of that! I’d like to go find this guy Linden and give him a Good Men Project bear hug.)
The very traits that make an addict crave pleasure make him or her more creative and take risks. “The risk-taking, novelty-seeking and obsessive personality traits often found in addicts can be harnessed to make them very effective in the workplace,” says Linden.
There’s a reason my mom sent me the NPR piece on Linden, and it all started ringing a bell for me. I’m no Kurt Cobain, but my dopamine receptors are pretty damn blunted. Food, booze, coffee, the Internet…I have had my struggles with addiction. When I got old enough to consider work an even semi-important objective, I also became an insane risk-taker in my professional life—before, during, and after getting sober.
I’ve had success far in excess of my talent (became CFO of huge company at 29, sold it, then at 31 saved a web company from certain death that went on to become $5 billion market cap, among other notable “wins”). Harder working and, frankly, smarter peers didn’t get as far. I always described that difference as their playing by the rules and my refusal to do so. But it seems there’s more to it than that.
In the end, as Linden points out, it came down to risk tolerance. As an addict I sought out risk whether or not it led to success or absolute gut-wrenching failure—and to be honest, there were more failures than successes. Over time I realized that no matter how many times you fail, the world measures you by your greatest successes, not your many failures. In fact, if you blow up and come back, it’s called heroic. So my strategy was just to keep rolling the dice until I hit the jackpot. Normal people wouldn’t do that. I couldn’t not do it. It was the only way I could function. Get slapped to the ground, pick yourself up, and shoot for the moon again. “You can’t go lower than zero,” I would tell myself, “so losing doesn’t matter.”
The killer—literally, when it came to Amy Winehouse, who had enough fame and fortune to last any non-addict a lifetime—is the inability of the jackpot, once you finally hit it, to make any real dent in those dopamine receptors. The “high” from even the most stunning triumph lasts about a minute and a half. Then the restlessness sets back in.
One of the leading physical chemistry researchers in the world, who I met in a church basement, always described it this way: “The prize I win today quickly goes into that ‘file of stuff that I deserved but someone has been screwing me out of for years’ and is promptly forgotten in favor of the research outcome that will stun the world. The problem is that outcome wins me another prize which goes into that same file and is immediately replaced with the need to do something even bigger and better. It never ends, and I’m never satisfied. Even for an instant.”
There’s one more element that makes us addicts superhuman, when we don’t kill ourselves. The obsessive character trait is often combined with an ADHD-like (or in fact, diagnosed ADHD) hyper focus followed by non-focus or, in fact, an inability to change focus or keep everyday things in perspective. A family member who is both an addict and has been formally diagnosed with ADHD recently described this phenomenon as zoning out punctuated by “bursts of focus.”
I had never heard it described that way, but it is me and my life in a nutshell. I aspire to be a slug. I really don’t like doing much of anything if I can get away with it. My friends often ask me what the hell I am doing with my time (I generally don’t have a good answer) and get more than a little perplexed at my apparent success, financial and otherwise. What happens is that I get obsessed with something for no good reason other than an addictive attachment. And that mobilizes a burst of focus during which time I know that I do things most others couldn’t and wouldn’t want to.
That extreme focus is a secret edge that allows me my modicum of greatness. I suspect for many other addictive personalities—those who write songs or start companies like Facebook or rule countries—it works the same way. In sports nomenclature it’s a “zone” where that 100 mph fastball slows down in the eyes of Ted Williams and becomes something he can smash rather than miss. And as soon as it is over, I go back to my slugdom. I have a couch in my office, which is in my home these days, where I like to nap during weekdays when I really should be working like the rest of the world.
The question, of course, that remains is how does an addict, even a sober one, possibly cope with never feeling enough pleasure to slow down or fight off the need to do the deal or write the novel that fills the void for an instant. All the premature deaths of amazing talent suggest that the upside of addiction may be superpowers and success, but the downside is still devastating. For me, it has been particularly challenging to have a somewhat normal amount of patience, with myself or others, and to learn how to socialize with any semblance of grace. I’ve come a long way, but I still wouldn’t call myself “normal.” My non-addict friends get a kick out of my insanity, but they still really don’t know what to make of me. I’m kind of a freak to them. So I just try to embrace my freak.
Perhaps the answer for us addicts is to see addiction not so much as a pathology—a disease—but a special gift. As Linden concludes, “So, when searching for your organization’s next leader, look for someone with attenuated dopamine function: someone who is never satisfied with the status quo, someone who wants the feeling of success more than others—but likes it less.”
And, of course, try not to kill yourself, but instead try to enjoy life for longer than a nanosecond, even if your brain isn’t wired for it.