How Addictive Tendencies Fuel the Super Successful

A misguided conception of the true nature of alcoholics and drug addicts was one of the greatest hurdles in my own battle with substance abuse. Ego would not allow me to take the necessary steps that were crucial in finding help. Bottom line, there was no way I was going to be compared to millions of people that suffer from this clever malady. I was the exception. Sound familiar?

We typically see drug addicts as weak-willed losers. They lack the qualities needed to succeed in life. Successful people, on the other hand, possess discipline and resilience. To understand this perspective, we need to look under the hood of the brain, so to speak, towards the engine that drives the human pleasure and reward system.

When we think of qualities present in visionary leaders, we think of intelligence, creativity, wisdom and magnetism, not to mention the will to succeed, a hunger for advancement, and willingness to challenge conventional ideas.

What some business leaders and drug addicts share in common

But the psychological profile of a compelling leader - think of tech frontrunners like Larry Ellison and Steve Jobs — is also that of the compulsive risk-taker, someone with a high degree of novelty-seeking behavior. What we seek in leaders is often the same kind of character found in addicts, whether they are dependent on gambling, alcohol, sex or drugs.

Pleasure seems to be the fuel that powers the development of these qualities. Pleasure sparks neural signals that converge on a small group of interconnected brain areas called the medial forebrain pleasure circuit — tiny clumps of neurons in which the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a crucial role.

This dopamine-pleasure circuitry, developed over millenniums of evolution, can also be artificially activated by some, but not all, psychoactive substances that carry a risk for addiction like cocaine, heroin, nicotine or alcohol.

Our brain’s pleasure circuits are also hard-wired to be activated by impulsive rewards: While a roulette wheel is spinning or horses are on the track, we get a pleasure buzz even if we don’t get a payout in the end. Uncertainty itself can be rewarding — clearly a pleasurable motivator for high-risk, high-reward business ventures. Without the pleasure payoff, there would be no need to cultivate qualities like perseverance and discipline which can lead to financial success.

A socially-acceptable addict?

It almost seems like there are two types of addicts: those addicted to socially-unacceptable things, like drugs and alcohol, and those addicted to socially-acceptable things like business success. Yet others consume the mind-altering substances of the world or experience success without addictive patterns of behavior.

Why, then, do some become addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling or sex while others can indulge in a moderate, noncompulsive manner? One hypothesis is that addicts feel those pleasures unusually strongly and are motivated to seek them more intently. It’s reasonable, but wrong. Evidence from animal experiments and human brain scans indicates that the opposite is true:  Addicts want their pleasures more but like them less.

Genetic alternatives that subdue dopamine signaling in the pleasure circuitry substantially increase pleasure and novelty-seeking behaviors - people seek high levels of stimulus to reach the same level of pleasure that others can achieve with more moderate indulgence.  Those dulled dopamine receptor variants are associated with significantly increased risk of addiction to a variety of substances and behaviors.

Is there promise for the addictive personality?  Some of our most well-regarded historical figures were addicts — not only the recognizable creative types like Charles Baudelaire (hashish and opium) and Aldous Huxley (alcohol and the nonaddictive hallucinogens mescaline and LSD), but also scientists like Sigmund Freud (cocaine) and warriors and commanders from Alexander the Great and Winston Churchill (both known to be heavy drinkers) to Otto von Bismarck, the unifier of Germany, who drank two bottles of wine with lunch and capped them off with a little morphine in the late afternoon.

The innovative, risk-taking personality traits often found in addicts can be strong attributes in the professional theater. For many leaders, it’s not the case that they succeed in spite of their addiction; rather, the same brain wiring and chemistry that make them addicts also provides behavioral traits that serve them well.

I guess I had the wrong idea about those with addictive tendencies. They aren’t necessarily weak and feeble. Some qualities that are hallmark in those with addictive tendencies create a powerful persona for success.

Consequently, when searching for your next leader, it might help to look for someone with a reduced dopamine function - someone who is never content with the status quo, someone who wants the feeling of achievement more than others, but likes it less…

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