The more visible the venue, The more public the plunge. In the glittering world of Hollywood, stars are made to fade. In the big-money, big-ego realm of professional sports, heroes jump higher – only to fall harder. In the rarefied air of the media, a single misstep separates sitting on top of the world from standing in the unemployment line. The list goes on and on: academic achievers who are accused of defacing university property; star journalists who are discredited when they fabricate stories; Wall Street investment bankers who are convicted of insider trading; corporate chieftains who get caught cheating on their wives.
The list of business stars who have pushed themselves to the heights of success, only to plummet to the depths of excess, is so long that you can’t write them all off to bad luck. Today’s crackups have the smell of intentionality. They feel fabricated – as if the act of willfully forging success also involves the courting of failure.
John B. Evans Goes Down the Up Staircase
Everyone who comes into John B. Evans’s presence thinks that they’ve been given an exclusive ticket to an off-Broadway event: John Evans – the One Man Show. The minute you meet him, you know that you are in the presence of a rare, larger-than-life figure. He quotes Dylan Thomas from memory in a native Welsh brogue that makes you beg for tea and scones. His command of history is encyclopedic and esoteric: Hitler’s dog, he offhandedly tells you, was named Blondi. The furniture in his office, located in the funky Chelsea section of New York City, is held together, he explains, not with glue or nails but by a delicate balance in the cut of the wood and by moisture in the air.
Evans, 60, owns a consultancy, REM Productions Inc., that works with such cutting-edge Web companies as Biztravel.com and Visual Radio Inc. He also offers advice to the likes of Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks. This is the same John Evans who launched Elle and Premiere magazines – and the same John Evans who, 20 years ago, at the end of an average workday as head of the Village Voice, would fall asleep in a gutter, collapsed in an alcoholic stupor.
In a world of success and excess, Evans is the alpha and the omega. Success has come easily to him. His hard work has been dedicated to destroying what he’s achieved. Why did he devote himself to tearing down his accomplishments as fast as he posted them?
“Imagine life as two barometers,” he says. “One is how the world sees you. The other is how you feel about yourself. As your worldly position rises, your self-image crashes. People abuse themselves with fine food or drink or drugs or sex – so they can avoid getting too successful. Why do CEOs who are sitting on top of the world have a problem with self-esteem? It’s simple: People who feel like bags of shit overcompensate and act like gods of creation.”
One of Evans’s gifts is his clarity of vision. It served him well in the mid-1970s, when he saw an opportunity that few media moguls had grasped: Why not make classified advertising a form of personal communication – and a source of increased revenue? The classified department that he built at the Village Voice became a gold mine. Rupert Murdoch, who owned the Voice, rewarded Evans by naming him to the post of executive vice president for development at News Corp. Ltd., a job he held from 1980 to 1994. Success took him to the highest reaches of Murdoch’s operation and brought him inside the charmed circle of the power elite. When Murdoch needed to fire people, Evans often did the beheading – and did so with such charm that the victims were grateful for the shave-and-haircut. When a Murdoch executive would get into an alcohol-related scrape, Evans would be dispatched to clean up the mess. When the Internet blossomed into a serious business proposition, Evans became Murdoch’s technical adviser, educating his boss on the value of that new medium.
But even as he rose into the stratosphere of business, Evans was toppling into the gutter of self-destruction. When he tells his story today, he sounds like a cop whose beat is his own soul – and who considers it his duty to save other souls.
“Once, at a family gathering, when I was a small boy,” he begins, “an adult asked me, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I said I wanted to be like my dad. Everybody thought this was very cute – except my mother, who pulled me aside and said, ‘Don’t set your sights too high.’ My father was a pilot, a war hero, and a famous lawyer. From that point on, the one thing I feared was success. I had to find some form of self-abuse.”
Evans was 16 years old when he had his first drink. “I didn’t even like the taste of beer,” he says. “But I can remember the feeling of being relaxed for the first time in my life. The bar was a club, and as long as you were imbibing, you were acceptable. It had the kind of culture that encourages you to increase your drinking and that excuses all sorts of behavior. You piss in your pants, you throw up in the morning – yet you keep going, often brilliantly. I worked for two or three years as a lawyer. Then I worked in advertising and in media. I was speeding like crazy, because the only way to keep ahead of the avalanche of my life was to run as fast as I could.”
In 1967, Evans founded an advertising firm in Scotland; in 1968, he sold it. With the profits, he bought a share in a boat and sailed the Atlantic Ocean for four years, crossing from Europe to the West Indies 13 times in his own and other vessels. For one entire year, Evans took acid every day. He finally washed ashore in New York City in 1972. “New York was intoxicating,” Evans says. “The bars were open all day, and there was this incredible can-do feeling: ‘You want to do that? Let’s give it a shot!’ “
His money had run out. It was winter, and after years of sailing, Evans didn’t own a single pair of long pants. He decided to get a job, and he set his sights on the Village Voice. But, says Evans, “I was too far gone, and even they wouldn’t hire me.” Instead, he worked as an ad executive on Madison Avenue for four years. Then he saw an ad in the Voice for a job in its classified-advertising department – +/-one notch above the mail room.
“I went back to the Voice and convinced the people there to hire me,” says Evans. “I knew the paper had enormous potential in its classified department. I got the second-lowest paying job. It paid $14,000 per year.” The move was vintage John Evans: He was taking a job for which he was wildly overqualified – working for second-rate people who held vaguely tenured positions and who were sure that he meant to take their jobs away. It was also the perfect response to his mother’s caution, the one strategy that could prove her both right and wrong: Evans would set his sights low – and then become every bit as successful as his old man.
“We were making record profits in classifieds,” Evans says. “I worked only in the morning, so I could get drunk in the afternoon. There was a bar next door, and I drilled a hole through the wall so I could move my phone into it and take calls on my lunch hour – which lasted from noon until 6 p.m. I was hired in December, and in January, Rupert Murdoch bought the Voice. Everybody thought I was a spy, but I wasn’t. In fact, I was deteriorating emotionally and physically. I had the business going brilliantly, but my life was on a downward spiral. I was shaking every morning, full of fear and gloom and dread.”
Evans’s life teetered between the rising barometer of success and the falling barometer of self-destruction. “I arranged to produce the classifieds at the New York Post during the newspaper strike of 1978,” he says. “I handed them in, and Rupert summoned me – it was my first meeting with him. He said, ‘These aren’t our ads.’ I’d alphabetized them, and the first ads were for abortions. Rupert thought the Post didn’t run abortion ads, but of course it did. He said, ‘The Post runs abortion ads?’ I said, ‘I’ve never read the Post, but it seems that it does.’ I guess I made an impression.”
Evans’s stock was about to go up – just as his string was about to run out. “I knew that the end was near,” Evans says. “I had planned to kill myself. I had stopped paying my bills, figuring that I would be dead by the time they shut off the electricity. As you drink, you drink yourself into a dark hole, and life gets smaller and smaller. I would drink at night, get to 22nd Street, and have to call my friends at my apartment because I was lost. My loft was on 23rd Street, and someone would have to come get me. I couldn’t even find my way home.”
One day, a drinking buddy came into the bar where Evans kept his office. “He told me that his wife wouldn’t allow him to come home unless he went to an AA meeting. So I told him I’d go with him. At the door was one of those guys who is clear-eyed, fresh-faced, and full of hope. He took my hand and said, ‘You don’t have to live this way any longer.’ I was outraged! I thought, ‘Does this guy know who he’s talking to? I’m just here to visit!’ My friend left during a coffee break to get a beer. But 18 years later, I’m still being mentored by that same clear-eyed, fresh-faced guy.”
That visit triggered a sequence of events. “Ninety days after I became sober, Murdoch made me general manager of the Voice,” Evans says. “When I got sober, I got rid of some negative attributes. It’s not that I suddenly got talented and lucky. I felt like tarnished silver – and the alcohol was the tarnish. One of the reasons I didn’t want to get sober was that I thought my talent was inseparable from my behavior. And that wasn’t true.”
Four years ago, Evans left Murdoch to launch his own consultancy. Three and a half years ago, he had his first child — a daughter, Morgan. He’d always been afraid to have children. “I didn’t want to replicate the bad seed that I believed I was,” he says. “Now I know that the important thing in life is family.” In May, his second daughter, Sarah, was born.
Evans pauses to consider the story that he’s just told. “Is that enough?” he asks hopefully, helpfully. “Enough” is John Evans’s goal – and his mantra.
Mary Bell Tells Her Own Story
Mary Bell, 59, founder and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Recovering Families, has seen what happens when powerful people act out in dangerous ways. In Houston, the phrase “boom and bust” doesn’t just apply to the oil business. It describes the ups and downs of people who go for broke with their own lives.
Bell’s center occupies one wing in an otherwise unremarkable office complex. It shares floor space with a breathing studio, an alternative-medicine clinic, and a mind-body institute. Since its founding in 1985, the center has launched various services, including lectures, counseling workshops, and outpatient programs. Healing Choices, the center’s primary service, is a 16-week program limited to no more than seven people per session.
Achievement, Bell begins, is the alcohol of our time. These days, the best people don’t abuse alcohol. They abuse their lives. “People brag to me that they’re working 80 hours a week, giving their lives to the company store,” Bell says. “It’s heartbreaking. Those people are prime candidates for self-destruction.” The reason is simple: “Our bodies will produce the pain we need to get our drugs.”
The demon success has three faces, Bell explains: “euphoria,” “normal,” and “pain.” On a sheet of paper, she draws a chart showing these three terms arranged from top to bottom: “euphoria” above, “normal” in the middle, “pain” below. “You’re successful, so good things happen,” Bell says. “You complete a project, and you feel dynamite, so you move up to euphoria. That feeling doesn’t last forever, and you slide back to normal. You think, ‘I’ve got to start a new project’ – which is still normal. But you love the feeling of euphoria, so you’ve got to have it again. The problem is, you can’t stay on that high. A new car is good for six trips around the block, and then it’s a used car. The euphoria is gone.”
And then there are the events that drop you down to the pain level. “Say you’re working on a deal and it doesn’t get approved,” Bell says. “This time, you don’t stop at normal – you fall all the way to pain. Your self-esteem is on the line, because you’ve been gathering your self-worth externally. Eventually, in this cycle, you drop to the pain level more and more often. The highs don’t seem quite so high. You may win a deal that’s even bigger than the one that got away, but somehow that deal doesn’t take you to euphoria. Next time, you don’t even get back to normal, because you’re so desperate about clinching the next deal.”
An “achievement addict” is no different from any other kind of addict, Bell suggests. In either case, the individual still must choose between bondage and freedom. “Can you live without your junk? I ask CEOs that question all the time,” Bell says. “Can you live without the deals that you make just to reach the fantasy state of euphoria? Can you stop trying to please the boss or the board, rather than yourself? Who owns you? Do you own you – or do your projects own you?”
Bell pulls out a clean sheet of paper and draws a line across the page. Above the line, she lists several self-destructive behaviors: alcoholism, work compulsion, eating disorders, sexual compulsion. Then, below the line, she writes three words: “shame,” “fear,” and “isolation.” “You can see what’s above the line,” she says. “But what causes you to act on your compulsions are the three conditions below the line. Above the line is your conscious state. Below the line is your unconscious. The things below the line control us. They make us unable to stop compulsive behaviors – unless we recognize them.”
At her center in Houston, Bell helps executives to recognize the unconscious forces that control their lives and that propel them toward self-destruction. The treatment begins when they learn to tell their story – and that story begins with their family of origin.
“We don’t know our stories,” says Bell. “We live in a fairy-tale world. We make our family out to be like the Brady Bunch, because we want to ignore the painful parts and to remember our family as being wonderful. Or we go to the opposite extreme and remember our family as being horrible. But these extremes don’t exist. Families are places where things happen to us, where we draw conclusions about the world and about who we are. And most of our conclusions are wrong.”
This is not Bell talking theory. This is Bell beginning to talk about her own story. Before she learned to tell that story – all of it – here’s how Mary Bell would describe her family: “I was the second of five kids. My dad drank a lot, and my mom tried to control him, but she couldn’t. My dad was wonderful, and I was close to him. We were raised in Houston. We were well-to-do, a really happy family. And that’s my story.”
The last time Bell told her story that way, she was 35. She worked for the Houston Bar Association and ran its continuing-education program. “I felt I was leading a double life,” Bell says. “I felt like an imposter. Nobody at work had a clue that I was getting blitzed every night. There’s a myth that alcoholics don’t have willpower or self-control. We live on nothing but willpower and self-control. When I walked into my first 12-step meeting and saw the president-elect of the Bar Association there, I said, ‘What are you doing here?’ He said, ‘I’ve been coming here for years. It’s the best club in town.’ “
With help from the people in that club, Bell learned to tell her real story – and to tell it so that her shame, fear, and isolation came to the surface: “Someone in my group said, ‘Tell us how your dad used alcohol.’ And I said, ‘We always liked it when he drank, because he’d be funny. I was his hunting buddy, and we’d go down to the duck swamps in southern Louisiana and stay on a houseboat with a group of Cajuns. They didn’t have electricity, but my dad would go into town and buy them color television sets.’ Someone else in the group said, ‘Buying these people color televisions when they didn’t have electricity-isn’t that weird?’ And I would think, ‘It does sound weird, maybe even sadistic.’ And someone else would ask, ‘Wasn’t it cold and rainy in the swamp?’ And I’d suddenly remember, ‘Those mornings weren’t much fun at all. It was cold, but my dad let me drink whiskey straight out of the bottle to warm myself up.’ Now I would start to think, ‘That’s child abuse!’ But a minute before, I’d been thinking that it was wonderful-and hiding my real emotions.”
She began to connect the facts to the emotions. She’d felt shame because of the joke her father was making at the poor Cajuns’ expense. Deeper still was the shame that she felt when she realized what her father and mother had been going through in order to lead their make-believe lives.
“I started to ask what made my dad need to buy color televisions for people who couldn’t use them,” Bell says. “Did he have no experience of real pleasure? Was he drawn to fake happiness? I began to ask what all this meant for my mother. She had been born into money, but her family had lost everything in the Depression. She nearly died of anxiety whenever she saw my father throw money away. I became the vessel for feelings that my parents couldn’t confront. I carried on the family tradition of denial.”
Bell began to see how her story manifested itself in her work and in her life. “Every time I took a new job, I would rise in the world,” she says. “But I never did it to advance myself. I never understood why I felt the way I did about authority. All I knew was that I changed jobs frequently. I’d leave to move away from a difficult boss or a bad situation. Or I’d run away from a boss who was dependable and competent. I got no pleasure from any of these moves. Eventually I ran out of gas.”
Telling your story gives you the power to get beyond it. You tell your story, and you tell it again. You tell it until the sad part is over and the mad part kicks in. “Once I could tell the story with the emotional content, with feelings, it became my story – not some fantasy that was controlling me. Knowing your story frees you up to have your own feelings,” Bell says, “and your feelings are what get medicated away in an addiction.”
Bubba Levy Is in Recovery
Leaders, fixers at heart, are the last to admit that they may be broken. They try to go on, obsession and all, but often they break down, and sometimes, they take their companies down with them. But in Houston, there is a breakthrough group that counsels and repairs broken CEOs The counselors are executives themselves, and they call their group “CEOs in recovery.”
About 70 leaders have taken part in the program, which began when a group of professional acquaintances noticed an alarming increase in the incidence of breakdown among people like themselves. “I’ve known some of these people for 10 years,” says Bubba Levy, 64, CEO of Redi-Packaging, a large, independent manufacturer of corrugated boxes. “They come and talk. You offer suggestions, tell them your story, show them your vulnerability. There’s no set program to breaking down a lot of walls. They listen and understand that they’re human – and not bad or guilty. Most of us have these ‘be perfect’ drivers, and that’s not the real world.”
A CEO in recovery can call for help any time, night or day. “I’ve gotten calls at 1 a.m. to sit with a suicidal friend,” Levy says. “A lot of calls have to do with the mix-ups of success and failure. What I learn from the others keeps me straight too.”
Levy credits the work of Dean Ornish with inspiring the group’s methods. Ornish, author of Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease (Random House, 1990), created a regimen that emphasizes dietary changes, exercise, and use of a buddy system. Perhaps victims of success compulsion could benefit from a similar program. Perhaps what worked for the heart could work for the soul as well.
“I saw my father ride a horse to death when I was about four or five,” Levy says. “He was angry at the horse because it didn’t do what he wanted. It was a hot day, and he didn’t give the horse enough water. It fell, and he whipped it to get back up, and it died. I watched that happen. It was frightening.” His father didn’t treat the horse as a horse – and similarly, says Levy, “he didn’t treat me as a kid. He expected a lot. If you screwed up, you got your ass chewed.”
So Levy performed and succeeded. He excelled as a scholar and as an athlete. In his senior year at Dartmouth, he had an opportunity to study in England. “But my father said, ‘You need to get through your military training and go to work.’ That’s what I did. I’ve never regretted anything so much as giving up that scholarship,” Levy says. He served in the Air Force and then went into business with his father. He married and had two kids.
His business was a success, and at the height of that success, Levy took up racquetball and tennis – but more as an obsession than as recreation. “I was playing every day. It was a feeding frenzy, total narcissism.” Larry recalls, “I wasn’t a responsible husband or father. I wasn’t screwing around, but I was working nonstop. My wife had her own problems. We divorced, and I remarried. That summer, people from the Department of Justice went after our whole industry for alleged price fixing. They threatened me with jail and swore that they’d put me out of business if I didn’t cooperate with them. At the same time, I developed a problem in one of my knees. In a way, my knee was more significant than anything else that was happening in my life.”
Levy went to see the city’s best orthopedic surgeon and was told not to worry. He kept playing, kept following his obsession. Two weeks later, he tore the cartilage in his other knee. “The doctor told me that he’d have to break both my legs because they were out of alignment. Then he’d reset them. I’d be able to walk but not to play athletics,” Levy says. Here was Levy’s first clue that the voice of authority – the voice that his father had planted in his head – could be wrong. Here was a great doctor about to break his legs, about to make him half the person he was.
Levy chose an alternative route: an exercise regimen to strengthen his legs, to be followed by operations on both knees. His obsession with racquet sports began to wane, and he began to survey the landscape of his life. Everywhere he looked, there were signs of wreckage. His company was struggling: “Until then, it had run on the force of my personality. But because of my style – one more win, one more win, one more win – I hadn’t created a structure in which people felt safe to act on their own.” At home, matters were worse. His son was addicted to drugs. His wife – he was now on his third marriage – announced that she wanted a divorce: “She had been having an affair for four years, and I didn’t know it.”
Levy began to think about the choices he had been making. “It was my comeuppance,” he says. “I realized that these kinds of things didn’t just happen, that I’d played a part in making them happen. So I started making some changes. I put together a business plan that could withstand my personality, that wouldn’t take its shape from my personality. I put less emphasis on the high-risk paper-trading part of my business and concentrated on making boxes. I started meeting with people who taught me about the connection between mind and body. The emotions, the connections, emerged.”
From this new perspective, Levy began to see what he’d been missing. “Feelings had eluded me,” he says. “Working so hard shuts you off from emotion. Understanding the mind-body connection gives you a chance to experience real emotion for the world around you. It’s not that ambition or creativity disappeared from my life. It’s that peacefulness and beauty came into it.”
One of the oldest, most famous business books of all time, Acres of Diamonds, by Russell Conwell (Harper & Bros., 1943), teaches a simple and profound lesson: You can journey to the ends of the earth in search of success, but if you are lucky, you will discover happiness in your own backyard. Levy is one of the lucky ones. Before he moved into his current home, he owned a house on a large estate in the best neighborhood in Houston. The house was surrounded by an ash-gray wall, commissioned by Levy and designed by a local artist. The wall was a masterpiece, with the signs of the zodiac carved into the stone. It was a grand wall, and it cut Levy off from the world in grand style.
When he was at his most desperate, Levy sold that house. He moved into a new home that was, in a way, his old home: His mother and father had lived there until they died. Levy gutted the house and made it his own. There is no wall bearing the signs of the zodiac. Instead, there are walls that hold reminders of who he is and of where he came from, reminders of his father and of his father’s voice of authority – reminders that Levy has made peace with his “be perfect” drivers. The connections have grown stronger: This CEO is in recovery.
Harriet Rubin (email@example.com) a Fast Company contributing editor, is writing a book about the visions and dreams of leaders. You can reach John B. Evans and Mary Bell by email (firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com) and Bubba Levy by phone (800-324-2231).