Steven Berglas, Douglas LaBier

When Success Fails

VTR Date: October 26, 1986

Guests: Berglas, Steven; LaBier, Douglas


“When Success Fails”
HOST: Richard Heffner
Guests: Dr. Douglas LaBier, Dr. Steven Berglas
VTR: 10/26/86

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Having grown up in the Great Depression, when so many of us were literally failing, really down and out, it’s a bit hard for me to work up enormous sympathy for those who suffer from what one of my guests today calls ‘modern madness,’ and the other labels ‘the success syndrome. Basically, I still think that the real life problems and ills we should most worry about and strive to redress are those associated with grinding poverty, not with the affluent few. Yet, those comparative few do already number in the tens of thousands of young Americans, they do suffer from the smell of success that turns out not to be all that sweet. Most important of all, they are our children. As Daniel Goldman pointed out recently in one of his fascinating New York Times reports on contemporary thinking about American life, many young people are finding that, in achieving success today in business, they’ve distorted their lives and fallen into emotional turmoil; the bitch goddess success turns out to be just that, while the intense psychological distress suffered by so many young achievers today seems to give the lie to the old adage that as my guests today seem each to have written – Dr. Douglas LaBier, in Modern Madness: The Emotional Fallout of Success, and Dr. Steven Berglas, in The Success Syndrome: Hitting Bottom When You r Reach the Top. Gentlemen, thank you for joining me today. The coincidence of the two books coming out at just about the same time must say something about success in America and the yowl that we hear coming from those who have achieved it. And I wanted to sort of begin by asking just how crazy making the American economy makes us – American business – because I think you both related yourselves to business and people striving, whether in government or profit making. Is it the … is it the craziness of the system?

BERGLAS: Well, my feeling is that it’s not the system per se, but the nature of the reward system. I found that the way in which people are valued and the way in which value is exchanged in today’s society, has a lot to do with the success syndrome and people suffering from success. I think there is a shift from a notion of achieving for intrinsic motivation, or a desire to feel good about yourself, to a more extrinsic orientation. And I think if you want to look at one factor, it might be materialism being more attenuated today … could be causing these disorders.

HEFFNER: You mean the rewards are too great?

BERGLAS: Well, I think that’s one of the issues. And the focus on the reward aspect as opposed to the process aspect is another factor. But if you’re looking for what you can derive from an activity, the activity itself becomes less rewarding.

HEFFNER: Do you feel the same way?

LA BIER: Very similarly. My research has focused somewhat differently but I agree with a lot of this in that what I find the younger careerist is struggling with today is to try to combine a sense of success and achievement with a greater sense of fulfillment and meaning and purpose in life, both at work and in their private lives. And the problem is that the turmoil in the world of work, and in our culture at large, has created a situation in which the successful careerist, as he or she moves up through the organization, finds himself or herself engaging in so many compromises and trade-offs between one’s inner sense of truth or values in particular and what one has to do, think or believe or how to behave in order to become successful, that it ends up taking a tremendous emotional toll. And that’s really at the root of what I found among what I call in the book, ‘the working wounded.’ That is, people who are psychologically normal but suffer from a wide range of emotional problems and psychiatric symptoms because of this negative side of successful adjustment.

HEFFNER: Dr. Berglas, you agree with that position about … it seemed to me you gentlemen take somewhat different positions about the nature of the success syndrome – about the nature of “the working wounded.” One puts its emphasis upon situational situations; upon the nature of the workplace, and the other puts his emphasis, it seemed to me, upon traditional psychiatric or psychological origins of the illness. Is that fair?

BERGLAS: Well, I think what we both are saying is that it’s not necessarily dependent on pre-existent or pre-morbid character flaw or something inherent in the individual who succeeds. I did focus on the fact that success, as an experience, distorts one’s life. I mean, when you become successful your world changes. That is a fact. And what I’m arguing is that you needn’t postulate that the person who suffers a psychiatric breakdown subsequent to success is somewhat flawed and not just brought about. What I’m saying is that the experience is intense enough and the demands derived from success are intense enough to take the normal individual and force him or her to readjust.

HEFFNER: But it was always true that to get along you go along. To succeed you make those compromises. More true today than before?

LA BIER: Well, it’s more true today in certain respects. You have to remember that everybody in our society is pressured to adapt to some degree – to earn a living, at least most of us have to earn a living, to get along with people to a minimal degree. So everybody has to adapt to the prevailing norms of the situation they’re in. The problem in our culture is that, with the younger careerists trying to combine both a sense of achievement with fulfillment, the individual often finds himself doing work which is very dead-end, boring, empty, and they often end up hating it, despite all the success they’ve achieved. A lot of the people that I interviewed would say, after a two or three hour interview, ‘The problem is that I hate my life. I hate what I do. My work is meaningless.’ And yet, at the same time, they don’t want to give up all the perks of success – the money, the position. And in fact, they start to inflate the meaning of those things – of the perks – as a substitute for any real sense of fulfillment. And that’s where they get into emotional trouble.

HEFFNER: What’s the way out?

BERGLAS: Well, the notion that I try to advocate is that the golden handcuffs, the perks, hold an individual there, but really like a captive – that the circumstance of someone being in a set of handcuffs, I either … of steel or gold is the same … and what you have to really do, and I defer to Freud in this case, is balance between love and work as he advocated. And I think it’s the only way out. That if you are bound by a set of extrinsic golden handcuffs, you know, factors that you are working for as opposed to deriving from what you do, you’re heading toward ruin. If you can find a circumstance wherein you enjoy or derive satisfaction from your work, I think that would be the first step.

HEFFNER: Yes, but, you know, both of you, in writing your books now, talk about a situation related to modernity and yet adapt or die is not exactly a modern slogan. You seem to be talking about something we’ve always had with us – what makes this generation different?

LA BIER: There is a big difference, I think, from, say, the ’50’s through the ’60’s to the present. In the ’50’s, we heard about the organization man – the man in the grey flannel suit. The difference is that those people were feeling some of the qualms about conformity and loss of individuality and so forth, but their main motive was to submerge or quell those conflicts and fit in so that they could achieve success by not rocking the boat, not making waves, wait and be rewarded by being a good functioning member of the organization. We’ve come through a period – through the ’60’s and early ’70’s – of the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the whole counter-culture era. And the younger people today …in the book, I say the yuppies are the direct descendents of the hippies – by which I mean that they’ve absorbed … the younger people have absorbed the legacy of all of these movements of the ’60’s. So they’re looking for and hungry for opportunities for personal development on the job. They want opportunities to express themselves, to participate in decision making, to be more creative in their work. And the problem is that our organizations have not yet adapted themselves to theses changed realities. And so the younger careerist hits a brick wall of organizations that are still too hierarchically oriented, not sufficiently decentralized or team oriented, which is really the kind of conditions that brings out the positive side of these people.

HEFFNER: But team oriented – do you think that the kind of modification in the workplace that you’re … you’re suggesting would have anything to do with the demands, and in both your books I’m impressed with the demands that are made upon young people today.

LA BIER: Well, we see it happening in situations where this has occurred. You see … see, I think the younger people, they’re highly educated, very ambitious, they also have a lot of latent idealism, despite the stereotype of the materialistic yuppie. They have a lot that they can give and want to give … to contribute to an organization, but they want it to be meaningful, they want it to be connected with outside reality. Now some of the people I interviewed say to me, and I heard this among some of my patients too, that nothing has any meaning any more – like a journalist who talks about going for the next story and winning awards and so forth, but feeling that there’s no larger purpose, there’s no … it’s so empty – the actual content – that there’s no sort of vision beyond the day to day, or the selfish self interest pursuits – which, incidentally, get supported by the larger culture – politically and so forth. There’s no sense of vision beyond that that can provide a sense of … of a purpose to life. And I think that’s really the root of the emotional conflicts of normal careerists, as well as the other side of the coin – of very sick people who happen to be well adapted to situations which, in fact, reward sadism, grandiosity, narcissism. We have very sick people who happen to function very well.

HEFFNER: Dr. Berlgas?

BERGLAS: Well, my feelings are consistent with that, although somewhat different. I think part of what organizations and our culture is doing is placing less of an emphasis on individuality and contributions by the reward system. Again, that is being advocated to day. You find … and the most salient example is in sports … that there is no franchise loyalty, there is no team loyalty – that you’re purchased, contracts are negotiated. There is an impermanence that I think has shifted our perspective toward materialistic concerns, that you go to the highest bidder, that loyalty is a rarity. When an athlete, like Julius Irving, decides to stay with the ball club and turn down a contract, it’s newsworthy. When an individual is loyal to a corporation and steps laterally, rather than hierarchically, with another firm, that’s newsworthy. And I think that the … that there is something, and I’m not a sociologist, I would be able to comment better on this if I were, but I think there’s something that’s occurring in the ’80’s where individuals are being bought and the process by which people move from corporate structure to corporate structure, the notion of a golden parachute, which never existed, I think, before the last five years. Or the ways in which cooperate takeovers are occurring, are making a sense of loyalty and structure within the business community a thing of the past. And I think that nature, the shift of success in that regard as opposed to the entrepreneurial spirit of developing something from scratch, which was previously the norm, has shifted the psychological consequences of succeeding.

HEFFNER: But you know, so much of what you both say reads very much like … sounds very much very like an extension of criticism … social criticism that was offered in the late 19th Century, when we became an industrial nation, when we began to grow, when we began to have the large corporations, and I wonder if what you’re describing isn’t in the nature of late 20th Century American life and will be even more so in the 21st Century.

BERGLAS: You are talking about that period, and there is one fact that I think is unique to American society, and that’s where status is ascribed. And I think the criticism of the industrial society also posed a critique of the, you know, Western notion of status which was different from the older European models where you were born into this hierarchical chain and status and prestige and social rank was ascribed differently. In America we’re unique in that the rags to riches model is the norm – it’s demanded, you can’t really be successful in America unless you’ve taken that route. And it’s reinforced, which I think, you know, is part of the entrepreneurial spirit and the organizational spirit which demands money to achieve status.

HEFFNER: Well, if I understand correctly, you’re saying that there was a conflict between the idealism that was generated in the ’60’s, and perhaps even to some extent in the ’70’s, there is a conflict there that is … that is permanent between that and the parallel desire for profit, for dollars for material things. How do you resolve that conflict?

LA BIER: Well, one way is to recognize that the younger careerists are really trying to combine both. You see, they want to be profitable, they want to be …

HEFFNER: They want to have it all.

LA BIER: Exactly, What the ‘all’ refers to is that they want to be winners in the career, they don’t want to be losers or drop outs, but they all want to have … they also want to have more of a feeling of fulfillment and pleasure. They … ironically, despite the image of the hard working younger careerist, they don’t want to be so wedded to career as they are. They really want to have more balance, more of a sense of integration between their work life and their not work … the non-working life. Now what happens in a lot of these situations is that their desire for achievement gets perverted and their desire for more fulfillment and development also gets perverted. The achievement desire gets perverted into greed and all of the Wall Street insider trading cases referred about … illustrates that. The desire for fulfillment gets perverted into escapism. A lot of the cocaine usage among the affluent is an example of that. There is really a perversion of very positive drives into their pathological counterparts, if you want to call it that.

HEFFNER: Why do you call them positive drives?

LA BIER: Because, if you understand that an individual is motivated to do many things – a person is not simply acting out some childhood conflict, which is the orthodox or the mainstream view, which I came to see has limitations. A truly neurotic person is one who is driven by certain unconscious and childhood based conflicts. But we have people in our organizations who are normal individuals, who don’t have any particularly strong degree of neurotic tendencies, who are, in fact, having all kinds of conflicts because they’re striving to develop themselves in a context which is very difficult. So you have, in a human being, very positive motives towards being productive, contributing, working together in a cooperative way. And when these drives as well as the drive for more development of the individual, hit a brick wall, then you get their negative side. This is why I’ve called this the negative side of success, or the downside of normal adjustment in our culture.
HEFFNER: Neither one of you has made me feel that there is very much of a positive side to success.

BERGLAS: Well, there definitely is. The way I discuss, you know, the rewards of success and power to distress is a success … let me give you a simple example. Let’s say … you look at the way success buys freedom, okay? It … you know, you can have people do things for you. You can get … there are perks – you can get … there are perks … people like secretaries, assistants and the like. But the problem with success is that it’s always a two-edged sword. There is a lot to be gained from it, but as you become in a position where you can get more and more freedom, let’s say, more and more resources, right? And become more and more known, then you have to, you know, insulate yourself and isolate yourself. There are demands made on you and more is expected of you. So I think what Doug was referring to is also explained in a very simple, psychological level of what psychologists call “level of aspiration” – that life becomes boring if you don’t constantly achieve more and more. If you ski on the beginner’s slope one year, you want to go to the intermediate the next and the advanced the next. You keep raising your aspirations because of an innate tendency to create what we call U-stress, a positive stress, a challenge in your life. But the more and more you keep getting successful and raise these levels of aspiration, the demands are the higher and the, you know, stresses that go with it are more. Again, it’s hard to be very salient. I mean, Iacocca has, let’s say, the most resources that any of us in the room can point to of businessmen, but Iacocca can’t go to the store like you or I, he can’t go shopping freely. He’s written a book, too, I think, hasn’t he? And, you know, it’s not as easy for him to walk around because of his success. Now, he can buy insulation, but with that power goes the stress of having to isolate himself.

HEFFNER: Well, that of course … the old business about rich and poor, it’s all the same, but rich is better seems to me, and stop me if I’m wrong, if I’m being unfair, it seems to me that both of you are trying to develop, if not formulas, at least roads, pathways for this generation of the “working wounded,” as you call them, to achieve, to have it all. And isn’t there some other answer – fellows, girls, you can’t have it all. That itself is the problem – that their notion that one can?

LA BIER: I would put it this way. A lot of the young people, and a lot of … anyone who listens to this kind of talk would tend to say, ‘What are you talking about? Of course, if you have a lot of money, you’re happy.’ And there’s a myth in our society that equates money and position and power with fulfillment. A lot of these people spend years pursuing that and they get to be in their 30’s or around 40 and they start to realize, life is very short, what am I really doing on a day-to-day basis, and they realize that they hate what they’re doing. And they discover that money buy things – doesn’t buy happiness or fulfillment. And that’s I think, a creeping awareness in our culture, which is one reason why books like ours are coming out and getting a lot of attention. Because, I think, it taps into something that people respond to, that they identify with inside. That they’re really recognizing that there’s an absence of something in our culture. For example, I think over half of the working force is depressed to some degree. There is a pervasive feeling of semi-depression, of a sense of helplessness in our culture, that has to do with there being any real alternative to pursuing nothing but a life devoted to career, to amassing money, to buying things – the new cappuccino makers, the BMW’s, all the accoutrements of the Yuppie class. And there is a growing awareness that it doesn’t provide the fulfillment that they think it would … that they thought it would.

HEFFNER: Which, of course, leads me to wonder whether either one of you has ever said to a patient, to someone who comes to you for help, advice, and getting through the night – ‘Get out! Get out of it all! You can’t combine all of these desires, needs, wishes and wants.’ It may be that that’s the American disease, but you don’t have to continue to suffer from it.

BERGLAS: The therapeutic approach that I advocate on its simplest level is diversification. That it is achievable if you are not monolithic in your pursuit of success. The … one of the problems I noticed about the breakdown of individuals after they succeed is that it does tend to distance them from a lot of people. The phrase ‘alone at the top’ refers both to decision making and, I think, into personal relations in a large number of corporations … that when you are an achiever you are almost by definition incapable of dealing with people in the way that you were before you were super successful or super achiever. There is a sense of both people wanting to be with you and relate to you because of your status and power – again, not really who you are but what you are. And a notion that any feedback you get may be to curry favor, to enhance the position of an underling. So you’re left alone. And this occurs in a lot of different dimensions for the really successful person. And when I say that there is a need to diversity, that is you have to step out of that role of super successful person and go slum it, if you will. And I hate that phrase, but be not a successful person in another role in your life.

HEFFNER: If you try that, if you try psychological diversification, as you suggest …

BERGLAS: No, it has to be physical. It’s not psychological.

HEFFNER: Physical … economic …

BERGLAS: … No, join a group where you are not a CEO.


BERGLAS: Don’t join a group and … let’s say, if it’s a church group, you know, become the deacon of the church. If you are the CEO of a corporation and you join a church, be as a church member. Contribute to the temple youth group, if you will. Don’t replicate your role as CEO in another form because that will keep you in the same posture.

HEFFNER: You said earlier, something about the nature of the American economy, something about the nature of our economic lives. Is what you said earlier consistent with the notion that there can be diversification?

BERGLAS: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: Can someone who’s in it, who’s working at it, who’s working at success really manage to diversify the way you are suggesting?

BERGLAS: With a vocation and an avocation differentiation, he can.

HEFFNER: But you have both described people who are so incredibly involved in the rat race, and you make it sound as though the rat race is just that because of the nature of the American economy.

LA BIER: …Well, but these people are also suffering. I would add to what Dr. Berglas said that the way I look at a lot of these issues has to do with developing other aspects of the self that are not supported by work, and that can’t be supported by work, that help provide more of a sense of meaning, enrichment, fulfillment, and that means the person … for example, if a person realizes that they’re too wedded to money or they’re too selfish, they have to practice the opposite – compassion. That means developing a strategy, in a sense, of how to practice daily, on a day-to-day basis, in their relationships or in activities and involvements – situations in which they become more giving, more compassionate to balance the selfishness. In these ways, the person can develop qualities of the heart that are important for personal fulfillment which aren’t going to be developed in career.

HEFFNER: You know, five years ago … I guess it was five or six years, Jay Rohrlich was here. He had just written his book On Work and Love: The Crucial Balance, and I wonder whether those five years have seen a nurturing, a growth in the possibility for having that critical balance? Now you both come out … you both talk, with new books, and you both talk about the need for that balance.

BERGLAS: Let me talk for just a second. There’s one point I think that’s interesting that I’ve noticed. We both come from cities where these individuals are concentrated. I mean, I think we’re on a parallel plane, if you will, because Washington, D.C. and Boston have witnessed an intensification of this phenomenon. If you read Newsweek’s article on “The Year of the Yuppie,” they focused on a Boston food chain and Boston very much. At one grocery store for Yuppies in Boston was half of the article. Washington D.C. is the place to be if you want to study these careerists. And if you notice the perversion of success … I mean, Washington, D.C. is a place where it’s … I mean, you get this turnover and this constant rise to power. So I think it is intensifying and most noticeable in places like Boston, New York, and D.C.

HEFFNER: All right. Then I have to ask the question – since Rohrlich’s book basically came out of New York, and yours comes out of Washington, and yours comes out of Boston, you’re catching up with New York. What’s the future like?

BERGLAS: Well, I think …

HEFFNER: Not in terms of what you’d like it to be, but your guess as to what’s going to happen to these people.

BERGLAS: I think that … as we’ve both been saying, that there’s an awareness that satisfaction does not derive from success, period. That is … it doesn’t equate with fulfillment. And getting more money, getting a larger contract doesn’t make you happier. And what happens is, if you want to use the concept of diversification or differential needs, what we’re saying is the same thing – that what a person does has to provide rewards.

HEFFNER: Oh, I’m not asking about what your therapy would be or what your solutions would be, I’m asking about what you really assume will happen in American business because I started off by asking you whether it is crazy-making because both your books sound, read as thought it is crazy-making.

LA BIER: Well, let me put it this way. I’m concerned about the future. I see an increase of people who are these troubled winners in our culture, to the extent that two things fail to happen. One is that our organizations … our leadership and management in organizations fail to accommodate themselves to new realities, fail to decentralize sufficiently, provide entrepreneurial enclaves, for example, provide opportunities for stimulating new energy and creativity and participation and team work and all of that. And in a larger sense, to the extent that the culture, the political leadership in our mass culture fails to recognize and support personal development. When we have political leadership in a larger society which is tremendously focused on short term, self interest, as it is now – in our corporations and our national life. That’s going to work against the kinds of conditions that will help develop people and help create healthier and more balanced lives. And then we’re going to have more trouble. We’re going to have more of these cases of working wounded, of this success syndrome, of … ranging from acute emotional disturbance to a sense of malaise. So I think … I’m concerned about the prospect of more problems.

HEFFNER: So we’re talking now about the 21st Century, seeing more of what you call modern madness, the emotional fallout of success, Dr. LaBier, and what you call the success syndrome: hitting bottom when you reach the top, Dr. Berglas, and it’s at that optimistic note or ending that I’ll say thank you both for joining me today on THE OPEN MIND.

And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write THE OPEN MIND, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; Pfizer Incorporated, and The New York Times Company Foundation.