The Intuition Network, A Thinking Allowed Television Underwriter, presents the following transcript from the series Thinking Allowed, Conversations On the Leading Edge of Knowledge and Discovery, with Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove.


JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Our topic today is "The Dark Side of Excellence." My guest is John O'Neil, who is the president of the California School of Professional Psychology. John sits on the board of directors of a number of corporations and foundations, lectures widely in the business community, and is the former vice president of Mills College. Welcome, John.

JOHN R. O'NEIL: Thank you. It's good to be here.

MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to have you here. You know, you talk a lot to business executives on this theme, the dark side of excellence; it's kind of ironic, in a time when we hear so much about success, quality, and excellence. And yet you find that when you talk about the dark side, you get a very strong response from them.

O'NEIL: Well, it's interesting. Sometimes the response may be more than one would expect. And certainly recently it was, when I spoke to a group of rather successful executives; in fact, these are people who are at the top of their profession. I spoke about this subject of the dark side, only to find, much to my surprise, that as I looked out into this audience, I saw people in tears. That made me believe that there was something going on that they were experiencing. It wasn't just the stories; in fact, I hadn't even gotten to the saddest part of my presentation. But they identify with this.

MISHLOVE: The basic point that you're making is that we have to look at our lives, at our world -- in business, in our personal lives -- realistically; and that somehow it's become a little bit like a football game, with cheerleaders urging us on to only think about the positive side, to work harder and harder and harder for success, without recognizing that there's really a larger picture.

O'NEIL: Exactly. That larger picture is what each one of us has to take care of in our lives. This drive for success, this winning, this business about excellence or peak performance, all these things are fashionable ideas. There's nothing wrong with any one of those words. They're all good, old-fashioned words. The problem is that when a life becomes too devoted to short-term success, to numbers, to winning as if somehow that in itself was the end, then you're going to run into deep and painful problems in your life. Because a life is made up of more than that kind of success.

MISHLOVE: It seems in a way that when one makes success a value, an end in and of itself -- like Vince Lombardi's famous quote, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" -- that one loses touch with a larger sense of values. I mean, why are we here in the first place? It may not be just to be successful in our businesses.

O'NEIL: Yes, indeed. Because if you don't have a broader sense of yourself, and also if you don't have a sense of being successful that includes care for relationships, care for the community, and really in a sense the aesthetic care, the ethical care, the spiritual care, all of those values -- if they get too far out of focus, if they get too trashed or pushed aside as you race for the next promotion or the next product that's going to win you a prize, you're going to find yourself, at some point along the line, in quite a bit of pain, quite a bit of suffering. Now, there's nothing wrong with pain and suffering per se. Obviously we grow from some of that pain. So it's hard to put a quantifier on it -- you should only work so much, or you should only work so long, or you should only drive yourself obsessively for so many years of your life.

MISHLOVE: I guess the question is, how do we integrate the pain and suffering? What do we do with it?

O'NEIL: Exactly.

MISHLOVE: And so much of the cheerleading that seems to go on in business almost implies that the only pain and suffering is what you get after a good workout or something.

O'NEIL: Yes, it's interesting. We have a rather mechanical view of the psyche. We talk about getting one's psyche cleansed or somehow released or freed up, as if we were talking about a massage. The psyche is so subtle and so difficult to treat in that way. Let me give you an example. The phone rings. There's a man on the other end. He says to me, "We've got problems here." This is a very substantial company. What's the problem? Well, it turns out that the CEO of the company is locked in his office and he won't come out. He's been in there for four days. They are going absolutely crazy, trying to communicate with him, find out what's wrong. All he says is, "I need some time, I need some time." What happened? How did he get there? How do we get him out? Fascinating. Extraordinary. This man is a very successful man. He's running a huge company. What happened? He found one day that the price of stock started to drop, and it dropped more than he had anticipated, and he couldn't understand what he had done that was wrong. At that point he had had such a life of everything going up that literally, for him, that was the symbol of a spiral that might not stop -- he could see himself going all the way back down that fast. Those were the words that he finally used when he came out of the office.

MISHLOVE: In other words, his own personal identity had gotten tied up with the price of his stock.

O'NEIL: Exactly. And believe me, that man was well equipped in every regard. He had all this money, he had all this power, he had resources he could call on. And yet the very thing he needed wasn't there. And what wasn't there? We could ask that question. What isn't there when you put so much of your life into one thing?

MISHLOVE: It sounds, from what you're saying, as if people who are successful, who see their businesses grow, and the stock prices, when they identify with that success, when they become very elated by that success, at that point they're already losing some perspective.

O'NEIL: Often it's the case. When you go back over these lives and look at them later, people who haven't learned how to stop themselves, who haven't learned how to put the brakes on -- to take a retreat, as it were -- are the ones who are the real candidates for serious trouble.

MISHLOVE: And job burnout is a very big problem these days.

O'NEIL: Oh boy. We dare not take that too lightly, because as you know as a practicing psychologist, a great number of people, by the time they're in their mid-thirties, are already experiencing burnout, or symptoms of depression that are so serious. The other word is cool-off; they suddenly don't care. And I think we're seeing more of that. Let me go back to another story I think you'd enjoy. I was looking around for literature on this subject; you look in all the usual places. I was absolutely delighted to find a small book written by Winston Churchill on painting. What was this book about? It was describing this hobby that Churchill had found that allowed him to go away from the pressure, away from the scene of the great power, and to retreat and then come back refreshed. He describes in this book the actual difference between using the left hemisphere, which he used when he did his normal work, as it were, and the right hemisphere, which was being exercised in this painting, and how refreshing and how important that was. So we've got a lot to learn from people like Churchill, great leaders, about what it's like to back off, to stop.

MISHLOVE: As if we really need to integrate, or make a normal part of our business life this sense of retreat or renewal, rather than always push, push, push.

O'NEIL: Exactly. My great mentor and friend John Gardner has written brilliantly on this subject, and we need to pay more attention. Renewal for self, and renewal for organizations -- it's a very important process. Hard to do; hard to get people to pay attention to when they're on that winning curve, as it were, but terribly important.

MISHLOVE: I realize that you're not necessarily a spiritually oriented individual professionally, yet what you're saying does sound to me to be a bit spiritual. Like Mohammed going up to the mountain to discover God -- it changed his whole life. Or the sense that we need to be a little bit detached from our successes and from our failures, so that we get some perspective.

O'NEIL: I think it's true that all great leaders, spiritual leaders -- I found another example in a book called The Art of Japanese Management, that describes a great Japanese industrialist and his retreats. All of these great leaders have learned the value of retreating in order to come back stronger. There's also literature about how civilizations must do that. Toynbee talks about that. In fact, if you go back and look at what he says, it's really rather interesting, considering where we are today. What he says is that civilizations reach a place where the old myths start to weaken, and at that point it's very, very important for a small group -- a creative group, he calls them -- to come up with new mythologies, new ways of seeing things, new ways of doing things. In the period where the collapse of the old myth is occurring, you have tremendous stress, tremendous anxiety. But out of that is born the new basis for the civilization.

MISHLOVE: In my way of thinking, that's an apt description of the twentieth century. We've had wars, we've had revolutions, we've had every form of social alienation, more than any other century in history. We obviously need as a culture to come to this point of renewal, and surely it must affect the world of business.

O'NEIL: Absolutely. Let's take for example what I call the prolonging of old myths. We are still treating our country to the mythology of the great expanding frontier. Now think about that as a mental way of being in the world
-- of being a frontiersman mentally. Everything's possible. You can plow up the ground, and there's lot of it. You can tear down -- you can play with the environment because in some sense it's so vast that you can't imagine really hurting it. And now what's happening is that myth is clearly starting to not hold. So what do you do? Instead of giving up on it and stepping back and saying, what should we put in its place, you push it further. And what our President has done is to extend those old cowboy myths by insisting that we go around strutting our power and doing these things to make us feel better.

MISHLOVE: Reaching into outer space.

O'NEIL: Reaching into outer space, or having a little war down in the Caribbean, so we'll all feel better. We're getting stronger somehow out of that kind of behavior. It's a Rambo-ization of the human psyche. We really need that sense of power, but if it's not going to be healthy, then we'd better watch out, because that stretching of that kind of mythology, at a personal level, is devastating. I dare say it's devastating for a society if it goes on too long.

MISHLOVE: And I suppose if you look at this in politics as well, one can see now the beginnings of the faults beginning to show in an administration which believes in those myths itself too much.

O'NEIL: I think that's what we're watching. In this latest round of hearings, we're going to see a tale of arrogance, a tale of not paying attention to some of the fundamentals. But winning, winning, winning -- winning in Nicaragua because we know what's best. We, this little self-appointed group. Well, every time that happens -- it doesn't matter which side of the political spectrum you're on -- when that happens it is extending some mythology you've created beyond what you can handle.

MISHLOVE: Similarly you made a statement once, a very provocative one, that they should take all the best-selling management books off the shelf, because they were also perpetrating certain myths about success and the successful entrepreneurs.

O'NEIL: I'm a great admirer of what Tom Peters is trying to do, and have told him that; I like his passion to find something that will help America wake up and change its ways.

MISHLOVE: For the benefit of our viewers, we might mention that Peters is the author of In Search of Excellence and A Passion for Excellence.

O'NEIL: And really, he's sort of the winner, the big success, the excellent guy in that business book race that was going on for a while. Actually that's cooled down quite a bit. But my sense is: you bet; we need all the excellence we can get. But what Tom is finding is that it isn't where he thought it was. And you've got to be very careful how you define it, because if you define it too short-term, you're going to get into all kinds of problems -- or if you define it as simply we're the biggest, somehow therefore we're excellent, we're bigger than everybody else. We see in General Motors that being bigger is really a heck of a problem, because nobody really knows how to run something that complex. And now we see the waste and the tragedy of it. So what America has got to do, and what we as Americans who are trying to be leaders have to do, is to understand how to gracefully redefine those rules -- how to make excellence a more broad and humane concept. Otherwise we're in trouble.

MISHLOVE: I suppose another problem with excellence is that if you do succeed, you may be tempted to try and repeat the same formula again and again as conditions change.

O'NEIL: I think that's a marvelous, marvelous point, because again what we know about human learning is that it comes in two ways. One, it comes as a result of finding a particular path that we can handle, and staying on that path, but not staying on it so long that it no longer challenges us. So a learning curve is valuable up until the time that you forget that the past success won't take you to the next one. And so you've got to get off that curve and get on a new one. Prolonged success and not paying attention is dangerous.

MISHLOVE: What does that mean -- when you're on the learning curve, and you need to get on a new one?

O'NEIL: OK. Let's take the case that's made in this book The Reckoning by Halberstam, which is essentially the book of the shoot-out between Japan and America; but now it's the automobile business. What is the point of this book? The point of the book is that America had the biggest, the strongest, the most successful automobile companies in the world. We invented the modern factory. We lived very well as long as there was cheap fuel. The American companies learned how to make great big cars that were comfortable, and you could put your whole family in and go all over the place. We had all these great roads, and we didn't pay a bit of attention to fuel consumption. Along came the OPEC problems, and along came some other problems, and the next thing you know, fuel is really a serious matter. Now what happens? The Japanese come in and just simply wipe the floor with these big companies that were so strong. Why didn't they learn? They didn't learn because they had been on a learning curve that was successful. In short, if you stay -- if any of us, I'm not just picking on them -- all of us have done this. If we stay too long on our own learning curve, that feels comfortable because we're so good at it, we'll have a terrible crash, because we won't notice that circumstances have changed and we need to be on a new learning curve.

MISHLOVE: I suppose in psychological terms you might say as long as we're still getting intermittent reinforcement for our old habits we'll stay with them.

O'NEIL: Exactly. And the last thing we're going to want to do, any of us, is look too much at the dark side of our own existence. We'll do almost anything rather than take a good hard look at that, because it's painful. And yet it shouldn't be, because if we looked at it gradually and gently and paid attention to that side of ourselves, it could be very useful, very supportive.

MISHLOVE: John, you're the president of one of the major graduate schools in professional psychology in the United States. How do you get people to take that painful and rewarding step to look at themselves, to face the dark side?

O'NEIL: I guess the thing that appeals to me most is to allow people to start to see the benefits of looking at the psyche, looking at their own psyche, as part of the good life, rather than seeing psychology as something you do when you get in trouble. So that my sense is that more and more of our graduates are going into jobs where they're helping people realize what the power is of the psyche, if well cared for, if well tended. The trick, it seems to me, is to become more excited about our own potential in a healthy way. And that, to me -- whether it is in an organization, or whether that's in an individual life -- is where the passion for excellence really should be.

MISHLOVE: And this is the notion of what a retreat might really be for -- to take that time to nurture our minds, and to examine things that maybe in the activities, the so-called rat race of daily life, we don't get an opportunity to do.

O'NEIL: It's interesting, a lot of psychologists have had to learn to deal with the whole area of stress. And there's been so much popular stuff written on stress, I dare say I don't want to spend much time tonight talking about it. On the other hand, what we've got to do is to see stress as a real tool, as something like our muscles, that we would be able to play with and have fun with, and to have stress as part of our lives -- to know how to back away from it, how to lose it, and how to keep it when we need it. And boy, that is a hard thing to do. There are a lot of people struggling to do it, and not very well.

MISHLOVE: I suppose it's really this failure to adjust to stress, to learn how to manage stress, that leads to burnout.

O'NEIL: Yes indeed, and more serious things, much more serious things. For one thing, I suspect that we don't even know yet all the pathways between stress and addiction. That's a huge, huge problem for this society; I mean, we are so addicted as a society. And to think of it in relationship not only to the daily stress that each of us has, but then adding on top of that these megastressors, these big ones, like an arms race, like toxicity of all kinds in our lives. And organizational stress is very real. So we're a society that turns to various things to handle that stress -- alcohol, drugs, you name it -- weird movies.

MISHLOVE: And these stresses, with the habitual responses that we have to them, I suppose ultimately stifle our own creativity in really addressing the issues that confront us.

O'NEIL: I have a good friend who's an extremely successful entrepreneur, businessman, wonderful family man. This weekend we were together and he said to me, "You know, I can do all kinds of things, but I can't stop. I'm not good at stopping. I don't know how to meditate. I try, and I just can't come off of this thing that I get racing in my life, enough to slow down." The occasion for our discussion was the death of a very close friend, a man who had essentially beaten the doctors for many years by changing his life, by learning how to moderate, and if you will, be tender to himself. We were thinking and reflecting on that life and what we had learned from him, and how important it is.

MISHLOVE: Interesting, interesting. What do you do when you have people, the so-called Type A personalities, who go, go, go, and they can never stop? What is to be done?

O'NEIL: Well, none of us knows exactly what is to be done. The people who are working at the problem every day are getting better at it. They're getting more and more evidence of what to do. Behavior modification, after all, is a real and lively science, and people are using that. My sense is that we're really still looking for a combination of things. My guess is that we still don't know how many variables we've got here.

MISHLOVE: It's as if really the new frontier that we need to explore isn't outer space, it's inner space. It's our own mind-body system, so that we can learn to function, not necessarily optimally in the "you-rah-rah" sense, but optimally in a more holistic sense.

O'NEIL: Yes, that's absolutely right. And yet -- having thrown a few rocks at the excellence people, I must spend a moment or two talking about the holistic set. I have problems with some of this because it too takes on a kind of guru-like quality when it comes out of some people: yes, indeed, let's look at diet, let's look at meditation, let's look at everything we can get our hands on that might be useful to us to make our lives stronger and better. But I don't think it's possible to tell you how difficult and complex it is to do that. And I think the worst thing we can do is to fall into some notion that there's a simple answer to it: if you'll just rub this crystal up and down your eyebrows, you'll be healthy and happy forever.

MISHLOVE: Well, I'm sure we could do many, many more programs on the dark side of the new age, and the dark side of a lot of so-called holistic thinking. John O'Neil, I hope to have you back in the future to talk about these things further. It's been a pleasure having you with me now. We're pretty much out of time. The whole notion, though, of excellence and its dark side, and the need for renewal, I think is a very important issue. I thank you very much for being with me and discussing it.

O'NEIL: Thank you, Jeffrey. It's just fun. I liked it.


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