One Therapist's Diagnosis—And Prescription—For The Overworked Masses Of Silicon Valley

In her new book Speed, Bay Area psychologist Stephanie Brown unpacks the tech industry's predilection for a frenzied pace of life—and to what extent it's screwing up our lives and work.

What is it like to be a therapist in Silicon Valley?

For Dr. Stephanie Brown, it’s been a lot like being a therapist much anywhere else: you’re surrounded by patients ravaged by addiction. Yet Brown, who has a specialty in counseling substance abusers, thinks she has identified a new form of addiction, one endemic to Silicon Valley and other stress-filled corners of the country. It’s an addiction to “speed”—not methamphetamines, but to an overall rushed rhythm of life that is spiraling out of control.

Her book is Speed: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster—and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down. Fast Company caught up with Brown to talk about addiction, overwork, and the ways our society behaves like a bunch of impulse-driven toddlers.

Stephanie BrownPhoto by Layla Mandella

FAST COMPANY: So your book, Speed, is not a novelization of the Keanu Reeves movie.

STEPHANIE BROWN: It’s about the fast pace of life that has spread through America and is spreading through the world. It was born in Silicon Valley, where I live. In the last 20 years, there’s been a revolution, a radical shift in the pace of life. What I see is the ravages of an addiction that has encompassed our culture with this sense of the need to go faster and faster.

I think many readers may balk at the notion that we’re really “addicted” to speed—not the drug, but simply the pace of life. Some people begin to feel we’re experiencing a kind of addiction inflation. And yet you’re not someone to use this terminology lightly, are you?

I identify as a recovering alcoholic, and I am a researcher of AA and of people in AA. What I describe in the book is an in-depth theory about why I think this is an addiction, why I think society has gotten out of control—and that’s what an addiction is. Society now readily operates at the level of three- and four-year-olds: the idea that you should operate on impulse, not stop and think, that you should keep moving or you’ll fall behind. The dynamics of it become an addiction. People are no longer pausing to say, “Wait a minute. What am I doing here? What happens if I wait 15 minutes and don’t respond to this right away?”

Is there a test for whether one is “addicted” to speed or not?

No. But people will be able to diagnose themselves. The book has been out a week, and people area already saying, “Holy cow, this is me. Oh my gosh. I don’t listen to my children anymore.” This is why I think the addiction framework is very valuable. This is not just a minor tweaking we need to take on here.

You link the addiction to speed with workaholism in your book. But surely hard work is valuable, no?

I don’t contest the value of high achievement or of work. But we’ve gotten caught up in our preference for outcome, and we don’t understand the value of process. We think in terms of, “The team won or the team lost.” Everyone is looking for the next hit. As a culture we’ve come to value this kind of dichotomous thinking, but that kind of thinking is characteristic really of a younger developmental level—eight-, nine-, ten-year-olds. I think we need to redefine success.

Your book chronicles the story of “Jack” and “Maureen,” a married couple who seem successful—at least on paper.

They come out to the West Coast. One takes a job in the startup world, another in a stable company. Together they forge a life in the fast lane. But then they begin to have trouble with their pace of living. They’re always on “go,” up early, up late, pushing, pushing, pushing, fancier cars, a bigger house. But they’re not stopping to think. They’re not reflecting very much. Jack eventually has trouble in the workplace. He makes too many mistakes, and the boss and team say, “You need to take time off.” Only through this forced slowing down—which at first he thinks is terrible—is he able to think, “Hold on a minute. What am I missing?”

Jack winds up getting advice from a friend, “Raj,” who has faced substance addiction. Do you believe the DSM-V, say, will include your notion of “speed addiction” in the way that earlier editions of the DSM include specifications for drug addiction?

I don’t know. I think there’s a huge problem with the DSM anyway. I think we’re not at a point now where we should be reducing it, trying to define it. What I try to do in the book is to describe it, so the reader would say, “That’s me,” but not necessarily sign themselves into a treatment center. We should not start reducing it. We’re just beginning to identify it.

You’ve treated all sorts of Silicon Valley types over the years. So who’s crazier: hackers or venture capitalists?

We’re all in this together. At the beginning of the book I talk about recovering alcoholics who look at people who can drink without trouble as “normies.” But we don’t have any “normies” left—not the tech people, not the VC people. It’s the entire culture. The whole culture lives out of control now. And we need to have a conversation about it.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Related: "'Alone Together': An MIT Professor's Book Urges Us To Unplug"

[Image: Flickr user Noelster]

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2 Comments

  • Sumi Allen

    Close. Your clients might benefit in marketing with your advice. You speak of pace, I see NARCISSISM And sometimes you don't pay attention to the world outside of yourself when you're not paying attention. Or just being selfish. San Francisco is not "fast". The BART is not "fast". The 101 going north or south by the SFO- so not fast. The Muni-omg. Pedestrians? NO. I'm "fast". I take my energy out on a walk. I run FAST. But nobody can innovate or create value for the buyers if they can't empathize with the target demographic. And that requires someone to just pay attention to the demographic or the target market. The only real "fast" in the Yay area are a bunch of geeks chasing connections at Stanford (no I cannot blame them)- or the baristas at the Starbucks on Market by the Fidi (best staff ever!). Fast =innovation. Fast = hourly wages. The property managers and realtors pushed the cost of shelter WAY too high. There's no time to relax. Sorry, that's what I see with the Yay Area.