Dr. Pearsall was the author of over 200 professional articles and eighteen international best-selling books.

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Monday, July 15, 2002 - The following is a feature article published in the Honolulu Star-bulletin.

New book takes shine off multitasking
A Hawaii Kai author argues today's hectic pace poisons people

Paul Pearsall discussed his book "Toxic Success" last week at his Hawaii Kai home.

By Burl Burlingame

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 bike/microwave oven?

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 his thoughts.

"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 R&B acts.)

"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 outfit?

"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!"