Book Talk: Ambition Addiction

Spiritual leader helps career-obsessed Washingtonians find balance.

During a particularly snowy winter in Washington, Benjamin Shalva realized he had a problem. On snow days, the author, meditation instructor and rabbi would panic, regretting how time spent with his kids would take him away from his work. “I took a step back and said, ‘is this really the person I want to be?’” Shalva recalls. His unhealthy obsession with career achievement led to his book, “Ambition Addiction” (Grand Harbor Press), in which he identifies the signs and outlines mindfulness and meditation techniques to overcome it.

Washington is a particularly career-focused town. “What do you do?” is the first question people ask when they meet you. Do you think the city attracts ambition addicts or the environment creates them?
I grew up in Milwaukee, where people didn’t ask you what you did right off the bat. There was a sense that work was a part of your life but it wasn’t necessarily the main focus of your existence. There’s a culture in D.C. where it’s accepted that one is going to work from dawn til dusk and  family and health and wellness, spiritual life, all take a back seat to professional concerns. Our Washington culture encourages ambition addiction and once you label it, you begin to see it all around you.

What are the dangers of ambition addiction?

When you’re so amped up on ambition and constantly striving for achievement, it requires the body to be in a constant state of fight or flight. This leads to all sorts of physically degrading symptoms such as high blood pressure, higher risk for heart attack and stroke, digestive issues, anxiety, depression, insomnia. Then there’s the emotional toll when one is constantly striving for higher achievements. Relationships take a back seat, leading to strained marriages, strained relationships between parents and children, and difficulties between colleagues at work. Colleagues are seen as competitors, so there’s a lot of tension that can be created. Often ambition addicts become very isolated. There are also spiritual consequences. When we become addicted to ambition on the outside we tend to disconnect from that inner sense of joy and peace and we look for happiness without instead of cultivating it within. The makes us always in a state of being hungry and never feeling sated.

You profile famous ambition addicts in your book like Steve Jobs and Martha Stewart. Do you think the most successful people in their fields are ambition addicts?
One of the reasons ambition addiction can be so difficult and dangerous is because our culture rewards unfettered ambition. We look at a person like Steve Jobs and say, yeah he abandoned his daughter and he was vicious with coworkers but he gave us the iPhone, so let’s forgive him everything. It’s not really about Steve Jobs, it’s about how we think about ourselves. We think, if I can forgive Steve Jobs for abandoning his daughter maybe I should also forgive myself for abandoning my kids. Ambition addicts do often succeed in ways that we traditionally define success. From the outside the reason this addiction is so difficult is that with other addictions like drugs or alcohol there are costs that start to add up right away and the detrimental effects become obvious. With ambition addiction, people look from the outside and go well that guy’s got it made. The repercussions do build up over time but it’s not as apparent.

You outline five steps to recovery: Slow Down, Enjoy, Give Thanks, Donate Time and Dream Anew. Which step is the most challenging?

Slowing down is the hardest step but it’s the one that you need in order to move to the other steps. We live in such a fast-paced culture and everything is geared towards immediate gratification, but our bodies don’t operate at that pace. They’re meant to slow down sometimes, to breathe and relax without having an activity to fill that time. Slowing down also helps us realize that we are not just running towards our ambition, we’re running away from our fears, things that are unresolved in our lives or old demons that we’ve been running from.

How has your life changed since you decided to confront your addiction?

We had a snow day in March and I didn’t panic. There were still moments during the day where I felt a little out of sync, but I was more easily able to put on my boots and go outside and play with the kids and build a snow fort. The really cool thing is that I haven’t had to sacrifice my ambition just because I’ve opened myself to health and wellness. I still have ambition and I’m still able to take steps towards my goals, I just do it a little more slowly and with a little more breath in between.

Benjamin Shalva will be leading a mindfulness meditation workshop and book talk at Take Five Meditation on Saturday, May 6 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Click here to sign up. 

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