Paul Pearsall discussed his book "Toxic
Success" last week at his Hawaii Kai home.
You! Yeah, you, the person reading this story in the newspaper.
Or maybe you're surfing the Internet and stumbled across it. Whatever.
What are the chances you're doing something else as well at this
moment? Cooking breakfast? Playing the stock market? Driving?
(Eyes on the road!) Exercising? Taking a phone call? Waiting for
a phone call? Scanning the ads so you can get a deal on a cell
phone/personal digital assistant/e-mail-delivery system/exercise
Too much. It's too much. Fighter pilots call it "situational
awareness," the ability to keep tabs on everything simultaneously,
to compartmentalize your overtaxed brain into ever more efficient
sensory inputs. It's like willing your mouth to get bigger and
bigger to consume more and more. Something's seriously amiss in
a society where headache medicines outsell ice cream.
But this mental juggling act has become the norm, points out
Hawaii Kai author Paul Pearsall in his new book, "Toxic Success."
"Most of the very successful persons I have met are either
still looking for something more or fearfully consumed by trying
to sustain and protect their success. My research indicates the
'something more' is being able to focus their attention when,
where and how they choose," writes Pearsall.
You! That's right, you -- pay attention! Focus! One thing at
a time. Or you'll become adrift simply trying to keep up. It's
a kind of adult attention-deficit disorder -- AADD -- but Pearsall
calls it Toxic Success Syndrome, or TSS, in the easy acronymology
of heal-yourself psychology. His point is that by becoming prey
to endless (and self-inflicted) interruptions, modern folks lose
connection to themselves and their capacity for intimacy.
Pearsall has been there. "Toxic Success," published
by Maui's Inner Ocean, is his 15th book, three of which topped
the New York Times bestsellers list. A couple more made it into
the top 10. According to Inner Ocean publisher Roger Jellinek,
Pearsall is probably the most in-demand lecturer to corporate
conventions and meetings in Hawaii, and despite writing for an
international audience, Pearsall uses traditional Hawaiian philosophies
to illustrate his concepts.
"He also walks his Hawaiian talk," says Jellinek. "He
and his family are wholly involved with Frank Hewett's halau.
He is one of the leaders in the movement to make Hawaii a world
center of integrative medicine. This past April, he was honored
by Scripps Medical Center with the 2002 Trailblazer Award, only
awarded twice before (once to Andrew Weil), for his leadership
in integrative medicine."
We caught Pearsall at his Hawaii Kai office, where he works as
a "psychoneuroimmunologist," which he describes as specializing
in studying the brain's interaction with the body's immune systems,
a subject he's close to after beating bone cancer a decade ago.
He said he was devoting 100 percent of his attention to this
telephone interview, although he admitted looking out the window
and marveling at the big, sparkling ocean waves.
"It's a myth that our ancestors had it easy," Pearsall
mused. "Life has always been stressful. The danger is acclimatizing
to stress as 'normal.' That pace of living is dangerous and sick.
The media accepts that, and no one really questions HOW we live."
Really? mused this reporter, who was checking e-mail and laying
out a newspaper page while listening to Pearsall and recording
"Go to a kids' soccer match, and check out how many parents
in the audience are on cell phones," illustrated Pearsall.
"Or talking on a phone while driving! Our pace and hyper
culture just keeps bumping up our capacity to juggle. We call
it 'multitasking,' like that's a good thing, like that's something
to strive for. That sets up an impossible cycle, but that's one
that's ingrained in our culture.
"A woman told me once that she could not remember the meeting
that prevented her from attending her daughter's first soccer
game but that her daughter will never forget it.
"I've often wondered why IQ tests are timed. Why not let
the child finish the test at his own pace? Some of the brightest
people in history -- Nobel prize winners -- were reflective, not
reactionary, thinkers. Einstein would have timed out on an IQ
test, and they'd have put him in the back of the class. But when
you mention the time thing to the teachers and test-givers, they
get horrified and sputter, 'But, that's the way IQ tests are supposed
to be given!' Why?"
BACK TO THE fighter-pilot metaphor. Pearsall has lectured at
the U.S. Army War College on decision-making, and he says that
one of the military's biggest concerns at the moment is the demand
multitasking makes on a person's attention span. "Too much
data actually makes a person less alert, more prone to error.
It creates a culture of easy outs and snap decisions. People treat
marriage like there's an ejection seat attached. A little smoke?
Well, hit that button and -- boom! -- I'm outta here!
"Why do top executives do such stupid things? Enron, WorldCom,
the top people in outfits like that; they're the most driven,
most successful, the brightest -- and yet, they melt down. The
greater your 'success,' the greater the acceleration, the more
demands on your time and brain."
In "Toxic Success," Pearsall makes much of po'okela,
the Hawaiian term for excellence through shared, rather than individual,
values. It's a way of inverting the stress factor by redefining
goals. He recognizes that while the pace of acceleration is unlikely
to change in modern life, our way of dealing with it can evolve
into something healthier.
"I'm afraid of landing on the self-help, laid-back, New
Age psychobabble shelf," said Pearsall. "I'm simply
trying to make folks aware. These how-to-do-it books to mental
health -- how do they know what's best for you? It's so arrogant.
My method is to do research, then publish it in peer reviews and
then run it past professional colleagues before I write it up.
This book has been in the works for more than a decade. I'm a
scientist. I need empirical data. I'm not a guru! I want my books
to produce more questions than answers.
"Yes, it's more philosophy than diagnosis. The Hawaiian
and Pacific cultures have a lot of great lessons, and yet, if
you look at the 'self-help' shelves in the bookstore, they're
all based on European or Indian cultures. The Pacific is not represented
and yet it's just as valid."
Also underrepresented is the "profound power" of music.
Whenever possible, Pearsall teams up with musicians to perform
at his lectures. (In his early days, he supported himself as a
saxophone player with the Ike and Time Turner Revue and other
"Music is a great teacher. Do you know that there are eight
markers in a person's DNA, and everyone is different? If you assign
a musical note to each marker, that means everyone in the world
has their own unique melody."
WILL "Toxic Success" be a success? Pearsall's lectures
on the subject at recent conventions have drawn high marks from
attendees, but at the same time, the subject bothered them, Pearsall
reports. Talk shows may beckon -- he's been a regular because
of previous works -- but "can you imagine a bigger paragon
of TSS than someone like Oprah? The subject matter would seem
ripe for discussion -- normalcy is dangerous to your health, change
how to think about life to survive modern times, the only addiction
that is rewarded by society, 'attention span' is an oxymoron,
and the tragedy of living but also missing out on life -- I relish
the opportunity to tell about these things. This book will either
be my biggest success or my biggest flop."
So why go with a fairly new Hawaii publisher instead of a mainland
"Well, mainly because the folks at Inner Ocean understood
exactly what the concept was about. I mean, there's a reason they
live in Hawaii, after all. But the other thing" -- Pearsall
began to laugh, a big, rolling, sparkling laugh -- "can you
imagine a bigger example of Toxic Success Syndrome than a big-shot
New York editor or publisher? It scared the hell out of them!"