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Toxic Success
by Paul Pearsall

reviewed by George Blomgren

In the preface, olympic gold medalist Matt Biondi laments the fact that many victims of "toxic success" -- often individuals considered quite successful -- won't take the time to read the book because they don't consider their situation to be a problem. I'm guessing it's equally true that many who pick the book up to read will give up as soon as they realize the book won't "add another arrow to their quiver" or teach them new ways to enhance their standing with respect to existing paradigms and standards of success.

In other words, this isn't another book on professional effectiveness, management skills, more efficient use of time or how to make more money. (Although the author would maintain that a saner approach to success won't necessarily limit ones success, even by conventional standards, and may even help.) This book would probably be better classified under stress relief, although most stress relief techniques are more geared more towards treating symptoms rather than changing lives.

The author brings a traditional Hawaiian perspective to the subject matter, making the book distinctly different from the philosophical/business books we're more familiar with, which tend towards eastern or western concepts. He advocates thriving in lieue of striving, connectedness in place of multitasking, and the collective good over individual self interest. The author also brings in the perspective of cancer victims, through his own experiences (personal and professional) and interviews. As a group with a uniquely powerful and valid viewpoint, they too share a perspective best summed up by the idea that nobody ever said on their deathbed "I wish I spent more time at the office."

As useful and remarkable as the book is, it's hard to offer an unqualified recommendation. Anyone who is fully committed to striving -- not only enjoying being consumed by a challenge larger than themselves, but also associating it with the virtue of a good work ethic -- will likely find this book offensive or silly. And to anyone who isn't consumed by ambition, the book may seem abstract and pointless.

Additionally, the nuances of what the author is recommending are hard to grasp at times. For example, he makes it clear that it isn't long hours at work that can be toxic, but the underlying attitudes and motivations of those who often work 12 hour days. And yet he eschews "positive thinking" type exercises or strategies. While he does propose a number of suggestions, exercises and "meditations" geared towards relieving TSS (toxic success syndrome), I didn't finish the book feeling like I had a clear cut, well-defined sense of the steps necessary to "detox." Perhaps that merely reflects this reader's "results oriented, break it down into bullet points for me" western perspective.

Still, for anyone who finds their professional pursuits more taxing than fulfilling, or whose health or family life has suffered in the service of professional ambitions, this book offers a unique perspective. If it doesn't provide an easy prescription to relieve these problems, so pervasive in our society, at least it offers a clear and bold critique. Just knowing it isn't so crazy to sometimes think that most of what our society tells us is worth striving for is crazy ... should make you feel a little less crazy.

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