Too Much Success Can Kill You

by William S. Frank, President/CEO of CareerLab®

"Success has killed more people than bullets." ~Texas Guinan

As much as I like to help people achieve greatness, I also like to help them maintain balance in life, because without balance, success can be short-lived. We all have friends who suffer from life-threatening illnesses because they achieved prominence, but forgot to take care of themselves along the way. I believe too much success can literally kill you. It’s not the achievement itself that’s harmful, but the frenzied activity and self-denial it takes to get there.

High-achieving people often nurture everyone but themselves.

Here are 30 indicators of high stress that can accompany the hot pursuit of success. Review this list, and note any items that apply to you. If you find yourself checking more than ten, it may be time to alter your career to reduce your stress level:

    1. When your clothes come back from the dry cleaner, they seem to be shrinking. (If you’re a man, the shirt collars don’t button.)
    2. You drink more than two or three cups of coffee a day.
    3. You car is littered with McDonalds, KFC, and Taco Bell wrappers. (OK, OK, McDonalds is on the wane; maybe it’s Chipotle bags.)
    4. You feed your pets and plants better than you feed yourself.
    5. Before you phone a friend or business acquaintance, you plan an excuse as to why you can’t get together with them soon.
    6. Your “MUST READ” pile is more than a foot tall.
    7. You subscribe to web services, newspapers, journals, or magazines and don’t read them.
    8. You go to bed feeling tired, and wake up feeling exhausted.
    9. You routinely work more than 60 hours per week.
    10. Your spouse, partner, or children are nagging about not having enough time with you. And that makes you angry.
    11. You hide behind a host of phone numbers and email addresses. Your e-mail or voicemail is frequently full.
    12. There never seems to be enough time—and you hate waiting in lines.
    13. You put five or six errands into every drive across town.
    14. All your friends are work-related friends. All your social gatherings are work-related.
    15. You have physical symptoms you can’t explain, or a nagging health problem that won’t go away.
    16. You guide every moment with checklists, and feel guilty if you’re not doing something “productive.” You don’t do things without a “purpose.”
    17. You’ve taken on too many causes or projects; you’re riding your horse in all directions.
    18. Friends say you look tired and warn you to slow down.
    19. You haven’t had a two-week vacation in more than five years.
    20. Exercise is last on your list of “to dos.” As a result, it’s often forgotten.
    21. You can’t understand why anyone would want to drink a beverage like water.
    22. You rush across town to meditate or do Tai Chi, then race back.
    23. You forget things, or lose your keys or day planner. Important details fall through the cracks.
    24. You spend weekends organizing your stuff.
    25. TV Guide is the last good book you’ve read.
    26. You’re a hotheaded in traffic; you’ve had a few near-misses, or a few hits.
    27. Did I mention too much food or drink?
    28. You take drugs to control headaches, rather than eliminating the cause of the headaches.
    29. Your social networks run you, you don’t run them. Your mood rises and falls based on endorsements, recommendations, hits, clicks, likes, views, retweets, hashtags, Snaps, thumbs-up, or repins.
    30. If you forget you’ve left your infant child in a parked car while you board a bus or train bound for work, that’s the ultimate red flag.


This 30-item list could go on endlessly—and one person’s stress is another person’s happiness. One of my friends calls herself a “stress-junkie” and thrives on adrenaline. The question is, for how long?

In Portraits and Observations by Truman Capote, Marlin Brando is quoted as saying, “Too much success can ruin you as surely as too much failure.” And Navy SEAL veteran Brent Gleeson advises “Don’t run to your death.”

Our culture encourages us to be more and to do more. There’s nothing wrong with high achievement, the problem with achievement is when it takes over our lives—when we become our careers. That is, when our career becomes our whole identity. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a career being one’s whole identity (think industry titan), unless it interferes with family, friends, health, and having a personal life—if in fact you want a personal life. Some folks don’t.

America’s high-speed FedEx, Twitter, 24/7/365, needed-it-yesterday culture rewards achievement, consuming, and having and doing more; and it disdains being quiet, taking time for oneself, slowing down, and looking after oneself. It’s a battle with the culture to achieve balance and peace of mind.

I work with people in high-stress situations: they’ve been fired or laid off, or are afraid they might be. Worse yet, they don’t have a direction. Their future is completely uncertain. A broken career can be frightening and disabling.

When things are at their worst, I teach job candidates about “Self-love, Self-care.” It’s a concept that means we should be kind to ourselves in all situations, no matter how harsh, and especially when times are brutal.

Self-care means different things to different people. For some it’s walking their golden retriever in Washington Park. For others it’s skiing the black diamonds at Vail. You may be calmed and centered by reading, meditating, or playing your violin. Forget what works for others; do what works for you.

I’ve found massage therapy, or “body work,” to be beneficial in combating a high-success lifestyle, and I’ve used a family counselor and executive coach for years. These four books have slowed me down and put my career and life into better perspective: 1) Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life, by Thomas Moore; 2) Lao-tsu’s 2500-year-old masterpiece Tao Te Ching, Translated by Stephen Mitchell; 3) Happiness Is a Serious Problem: A Human Nature Repair Manual, by Dennis Prager; and 4) The Artist’s Way: A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self, by Julia Cameron with Mark Bryan.

The reason I’m such an expert at discussing “too much success,” is that I’ve displayed most of the above-mentioned symptoms myself, sometimes many of them at once. Mid-career, I’ve made some gains in balancing my life, but I’m still working at it. It’s a lifetime journey.

Texas Guinan, quoted above, was an American actress, producer, and entrepreneur (1884-1933). Credit to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd for some of the language in item #29.

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