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

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Overcoming Toxic Success:
An interview with Paul Pearsall PH.D.
by Michael Peter Langevin
From Issue 82

Dr. Paul Pearsall believes we are killing ourselves with success. A clinical and educational psychologist who has a doctorate in psychoneuroimmunology—the study of the mind's effects on the body—Pearsall conducted a 10-year research project that focused on the lives of 100 people considered to be highly successful. An alarming percentage of those he studied exhibited a pattern he identified as "Toxic Success Syndrome," in which the trappings of success hide a disassociated personality, someone who is unable to enjoy their success, unable to give their full attention to the present, incapable of true intimacy. In his book, Toxic Success, Pearsall describes the causes and costs of this societal malaise, and recommendations for how to "detox." Using as a model the people who have achieved what he calls "Sweet Success," he tells us what it feels like and looks like to be fully present, content, and connected to the people, events, and experiences of your life—and still accomplish important work in your profession or public life.

Pearsall spoke to us from his home in Hawai'i, where he finds daily inspiration to lead a life according to his principles. Recognizing that Hawai'ian wisdom perfectly corroborates his findings, he sees his work as a way to achieve a "magical blend" of science and Polynesian cultural insights.

I have to tell you that your title, Toxic Success, put me off from the book right away. I personally feel that I'm a very healthy success, but looking into the book and then hearing you speak, I realize that there is a lot of room for improvement. What made you come to the title and to the subject matter?

Almost exactly the same reason that you reacted negatively. Because most people equate success with health or flourishing or doing well. When I was doing medical training in my clinical work, that was almost the clinical diagnosis; we would say "the treatment was a success." But in working with patients and working with executives from around the world—men and women who are highly "successful" in terms of accomplishments, status, and finances, all of these measurable characteristics of success—it looked at they were really just sort of "making it" on the emotional, spiritual, and physical levels—that they were actually in stress. And we saw that there is more than one kind of success: a healthy success and an unhealthy success—a success that is toxic. There is a kind that makes your life better and the kind that robs your life of its energy. There is a kind that draws you together with your family and friends and the kind that takes you away from them; a kind that devastates your health and the kind that enhances your health; a kind that makes every day just a joy to live and the kind that makes it such a hassle that you have to struggle to find time to add any joy to your life.

Your Ph.D. is in psychoneuroimmunology. How do you contrast that with your background in Hawai'ian culture, which seems so important to you?

They are exactly the same. Every time I publish a new book with all of the research, every time I present these remarkable findings, saying "Oh my goodness, success isn't always healthy! We are supposed to look for it and look what it does to us. It may be killing us," my Hawai'ian family and teachers would say "Nothing new to us. We knew this all along." Remember what Mark Twain said, that "the ancients have stolen our best ideas"?

My very first book in the early eighties was titled Super Immunity, and I had written then that the immune system is not just an automatic responder but responds to our feelings and learns. Well, now that's common knowledge in medicine, but it has always been common knowledge in Hawai'ian medicine. So, it's not really a struggle at all to put these things together because it's almost as if every time I do research that shows these findings, it reaffirms the Hawai'ian teachings.

How can people who find themselves on the treadmill start moving toward a healthier way of living?
You may be surprised with my answer. I don't think that there is anything wrong with being on the treadmill. And as I said in my research, there is nothing wrong with being type A; people who are type A do pretty well in life—they survive heart attacks, for example. The only trouble with being type A is that you kill the type B people you are living with. But there's nothing wrong with being a workaholic, nothing wrong with working long hours and being a competitive person. The problem, the root of Toxic Success, is a form of chronic attention deficit disorder— not being able to fully pay attention to now. I know that is a cliché about being in the now and I don't just mean the moment; I mean attending to what really matters most in life. We teach here in Hawai'i that "the work will wait while you show your child the rainbow, but the rainbow won't wait while you do the work."

We have all heard it said that no one says on their deathbed, "Gee I wish I had spent more hours at the job."
Right. And what has been problematic for me—and if I can be very candid about this—is that I think Toxic Success will either be one of the biggest books right now or it will flop completely. And my reasoning for that is that it is calling into question so many central assumptions people make because there are so many books on, for example, living in balance. But I don't know anybody that lives that way.

It's so true. We have to have balance, yet we are killing ourselves by filling our schedule with more things rather than less.
It's bizarre. That is why those six magic words—"Have less; do less; say no"—are so crucial. But the danger is, when I speak to a lot of major corporations around the world, the reaction is "Well I don't want you to tell my workers not to work hard. I want them to be competitive." And as you saw in the book, the first criticism I ever got was this one: "What's wrong with striving?" And I say, look at the definition of the word and see if you still mean that. Most of us don't want to be a striver.

We want to breathe and enjoy those rainbows.
We really do. And it's a hard call for me. It's always been my kuleana, which is a Hawai'ian word for responsibility. My Hawai'ian name, Ka'ikena means "person charged with sharing the vision." It's my responsibility to try to get people's attention. And the number one risk to our health is not diet, not lack of exercise, it's normalcy. The way you and I, all of us—I am not immune either—have come to accept as a normal way of living is pathological. I remember Maslow, he has certainly been mentioned in a lot of articles in your magazine.

Without a doubt. He is definitely one of my heroes.

Oh yeah. I still think he is really underrated, as much as both of us admire him. He said that there is a danger of a pathology of the average, and he said "Just because everybody is doing it doesn't mean that it's not sick." But the Western mind doesn't buy that concept. Not at all.

That's my struggle and, as you know, in the book the solution is not Eastern or Western—it's Polynesian. That is my kuleana: the blend of the best of science and the best of the Hawai'ian message. Out of all of the research and all of the people you interview, I bet you seldom hear discussions of the oceanic model.

No. When I heard you speak of it, I wondered, why is that so ignored?
For my whole career I have been battling that. I think Eastern traditions have great wisdom. I think the Western tradition have some great wisdom. I think the Native American Indians have brilliant wisdom. But Hawai'ians don't think "either/or," we think "and." And this 2,000-year-old oceanic model has not yet found mainstream acceptance.

And yet what somebody says Hawai'i, Maui, or Tahiti, you see them take a deep breath and smile. Don't you?

You do. Time and again. What are little things that people can do that don't upset their whole applecart, but move them in the right direction?
Excellent question. Let me tell you what they shouldn't do. Don't cut back. Don't try to find balance. Don't try to redo your whole life again. Don't try to reschedule. The issue is not time management; it is attention management. And that is different. Here are three quick suggestions and they are very difficult but very simple. First suggestion: Never just get up in the morning. Thoreau wrote something like "The first thing I do in the morning when I awaken is I take time to wake up." What he meant is, that first moment in the morning sets the tone of your mind and heart and consciouness immediately. So the first thing to do when you wake up is to not get up. Lie there. Breathe. I died of cancer 12 years ago. I had three deaths from it. I had a bone marrow transplant. I was on a recusitator. I was intubated. When they took that tube out and I took a breath on my own, I should have died. I never take the nature of breathing for granted.

No. Once you lose that it's true, you never take it for granted again.

When I get up in the morning, my first thought is that I can breathe myself. The one thing about human beings is that we have the ability to place our attention. Animals are very reflexive. But you and I can put in our minds what we want there in our consciouness. But for many people, when they wake up their first thought is "What do I have to do? Where do I have to go? Where are the kids? Gotta get breakfast, gotta go! Where is the car? I gotta call this person." I am saying the most important moment is when you wake up. So that is one suggestion. Second: Now this is going to take some time. These people who are so toxic sometimes, they say that they don't know if they have the time. Well they do. The issue isn't time; the issue is attention. And you just take a minute in the morning, afternoon, and late afternoon at work to do something that's very radical . . .

Nothing, right?
Right. And boy is that difficult. I didn't say meditate, although meditation is a great thing. Everybody knows about that already. I am saying just do nothing. Sit. For a minute. And let your brain do whatever it wants to do. The brain is not going to want this because the brain has lost its mind. The brain is going to say, "Get busy, make a call, check your e-mail, don't just sit here, what are you doing?" because the brain is in a lethal alliance with our body. And it is driving it to toxic levels. I just came back from New York; that's the capital of Toxic Success.

Great place to visit. Gives you good perspective.