Aaron Houghton

Success Addiction. How High is High Enough?

Aaron Houghton
Success Addiction. How High is High Enough?

During the eighteen years I held the title CEO in various companies I maintained a singular focus on becoming successful. Success to me meant solving problems in new ways, delivering solutions customers desired, and growing the influence of my business in the eyes of my peers.

More success was better than less success. More complexity, stress, and workload was a sign I was on the right track. Anything else was counterproductive.

In the course of running my businesses I would often attend networking events across the country for entrepreneurs, tech founders, and Internet leaders.

From time to time at these events I would run into the most confounding type of person, a powerful executive or founder who wasn’t currently running a company. Instead of increasing the complexity of their lives they were in a period of simplifying. Instead of hard charging they were relaxing and thinking. Instead of becoming more successful they were focused on doing anything else.

I had a really hard time understanding the motivations of people like this.

The Most Interesting Man in the World

I remember the first person who ever answered my standard probing question “what do you do?” with “I’m taking some time off.” I was standing on a large outside patio overlooking the green golf courses of Southern Pines, North Carolina. One of the lesser known founders of Facebook was about to address the audience. Beers and cocktails were in hand and smalltalk was being made.

Trying my best to comprehend why someone would not currently be working as hard as humanly possible I stumbled as I asked what this person was actually doing with all his newfound time.

He explained he had been very successful as Chief Financial Officer at a software company that had recently been purchased. His daughters were young and it was a great opportunity to be able to spend time with them. He had recently traveled to Africa and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

The topic of long distance hiking brought me back to my years in Boy Scouts hiking the Great Smoky Mountains with my brothers and father and a personal goal I had recently set to visit Mount Everest in Nepal. The remainder of our conversation drifted from a love of the outdoors, to myriad outdoor adventures, to tactical advice on foot and sock maintenance while self-supported on the trail.

At the time it was certainly the most interesting conversation I’d ever had with a stranger at a business networking event. Especially an event full of high achieving executives like myself.

In that moment I got a glimpse into two things I had never seen before, even less thought about, and certainly did not understand.

First, this person had reached a level of success he determined was good enough.

Second, he valued his family and outdoor adventure more than he valued being more successful.

His view of the world stood in stark contrast to my view of the world. I put being more successful first, and everything else second. He had some things he held higher in his mind than success, maybe there were even more things he valued that we hadn’t had a chance to talk about in our few moments together.

His priority of family and outdoor adventure hit a nerve with me because it transported me back to fourteen years old when I lived in the mountains around Asheville, North Carolina. At that time I would have declared my priorities the same.

So, what changed? I realized that at some point I lost track of the reasons I wanted to be successful in the first place.

The Downward Spiral of Success

I believe that in the world of achievement “how high is high enough?” is THE only question that matters.

Without an answer I wander like a boat without a rudder following whatever current passes my way. With an answer far above my current height I subject myself to the debilitating mental and physical damage that comes from chronic stress.

But there is something much worse than setting an extremely high goal for personal success. I’ve before fallen pray to it myself and unfortunately it’s the most common situation I’ve uncovered while interviewing entrepreneurs around the world.

I call it living death by success and it involves one simple poisonous habit… moving the goal line up every time you pass it.

Living death by success means you’ve become so engulfed in the game you’re playing you’ve forgotten it’s just a game. Winning becomes more important than choosing. Competitiveness replaces happiness.

If you’re working harder and harder every day and achieving more and more success in result and you’re still not happy, this is you. Success has taken over your life.

Play this failed strategy out a few moves and you have only a handful of terrible outcomes to choose from for your remaining time on this earth. You will burn out your body as you develop deadly physical ailments like cardiovascular disease or diabetes, or you will burn out your mind as you develop anxiety or depression.

This obviously isn’t what you envisioned when you first set out to be successful many years ago. You wanted to spend some time on the racetrack because the rewards of racing would allow you to do something that really mattered to you. Now, you’re stuck on the racetrack and you’ll never see the exit because you believe your purpose is racing.

This is the definition of an addiction. You’re addicted to success.

Success is Not the Destination

In 2002 I invented an email marketing product and over a decade I was extremely proud of the software and the business we built. But let me be honest. Sending billions of digital messages via the SMTP protocol between servers to people’s inboxes around the world on behalf of the companies and causes they love was never my passion.

Don’t get me wrong, we enabled some really passionate people to achieve their goals and that felt great. But I never felt my raison d’être was email newsletters. In fact I really hoped it wasn’t.

I struggled to find happiness in the business I was lucky enough to have founded but could never connect the dots. In fact, my focus on extracting as much success as possible from the business distracted me from the things that really mattered most.

Under my leadership my software company grew from zero to $50 million in annual revenue. I got pretty good at accepting as absolute truth the remote possibility that something within my power was delivering the revenue and growth I desired. That delusion emboldened me further.

Chasing success doesn’t always feel bad. It was certainly thrilling from time to time. The fuel of my addiction was the constant hit of achievement and recognition. It made it that much harder to notice when my personal compass shifted from happiness to success.

I had lost sight of the fact that success is not the destination. Success is a tool that when wielded with intention and self respect can deliver you to happiness.

Happiness is the only actual worthy destination.

A Prescription for Happiness

Please allow me to be so bold as to offer some suggestions from my recent experience with taking a year off that I might call a prescription for happiness. I’m currently 14 months into my year off so I’m enjoying the opportunity to tell everyone I’ve finally found something I’m really good at.

First and foremost you need to know it took ten years from that fateful conversation I had with the most interesting man in the world until I offered myself the gift of some time away from the stress of running a business and chasing higher levels of success.

For two decades I was addicted to success. After selling my company for nearly $200 million I set the goal of building a billion dollar company and immediately jumped back in the saddle.

Fourteen months ago I began to weigh the rewards I was receiving from my business against the rewards I thought I could achieve in other areas of my life.

It started to become clear that there was a set of situations I could easily facilitate in my personal life that would more reliably deliver happiness than the possibility of closing the next customer and acquiring the next dollar of revenue.

I shifted from a success-oriented mindset to a happiness-oriented mindset. Which line of thinking dominates your mind today?

Success Oriented Mindset: It would be such a shame to squander this incredible opportunity I have been given to grow this business as big as it possibly can be.

Happiness Oriented Mindset: It would be such a shame to squander my physical and mental health and the time I have on this earth to create and experience happiness.

If you identify more with the success oriented mindset you have to admit there is little place for self care or happiness within such an external focus. You are the victim of the incredible chance that has delivered you to your current level of achievement. You have a large burden to carry and it grows larger every day.

On the other hand if you identify with the happiness oriented mindset it can be easier to determine that your current level of success - or maybe even a lower level of success - can deliver everything you need to be happy.

You are immediately set free. Game over. You win.

You Are Incredibly Successful

If you must compare yourself to others let’s put some context around where you actually stand among your fellow breed of bipeds. My hope is this comparison will make it easier for you to break the cycle of success addiction and take the exit ramp toward happiness.

You’re a natural born leader.

About 107 billion human lives have existed over the history of our species. Humans have historically organized themselves into groups of around 150 people. How many people do you think have ever lead a group of five or more people? Mathematically it can’t be more than about 16% of all humans. If you lead a team of five or more people you’ve already earned top respect among the widest peer group I can find for you.

You’re rolling in the dough.

There are about 7.5 billion people on planet earth right now. The top 1% in global income is $32,000 per year. If you make more than $32,000 per year you’ve literally blown all other human beings on earth out of the water with your level of financial achievement.

You’re richer than the rich.

The United States is one of the wealthiest and most productive nations in the world. The median wealth of an adult in the United States in 2018 is $62,000. If your total net worth is higher than $62,000 you’re doing better than half the people in one of the most elite success clubs human beings have ever been organized into.

You’re super duper productive.

There are 330 million Americans and less than six million businesses in the United States employ more people than just their founder. If your company has just one employee you are already in at least the top 1.8% of business achievement among all Americans.

Your business is off the charts.

Of the total 28 million businesses in the United States, only seven percent make more than one million dollars annual revenue. Only 40% of all American businesses are profitable. If you’ve passed the million dollar mark or ever turned a single dollar of profit you’re in an elite group of titans who have already figured it out.

You’ve already arrived. You are wildly successful. While 45% of the world struggles to meet their basic needs you’re working your butt off trying to go from the 1% to the 0.1%. It’s hard work and the stress you’re enduring is taking years off your life and sucking the happiness out of day after day after day.

When will it end? Is the return going to be worth it? Absolutely not.

Your Life Resurrected

How you go from chasing more success to optimizing your life around personal happiness is going to be up to you. If you own a business you might consider selling your company or hiring your replacement so you can make an exit.

However you do it my general point here is that you have enough intelligence and enough money to be the architect of your own resurrection. Make a plan and make it happen.

I’m going to get incredibly specific here and offer some thoughts on how you might spend your time if you weren’t spending it working so hard. One might assume these things would be pretty obvious to the super smart you I just described in the previous section. But I found it really hard to think of anything else I might do with my time when I was stuck on the hamster wheel race for success. During that time I just hadn’t had any recent experiences in other categories I could trust to pull from.

Here are ten intellectually stimulating categories of activities worth considering that may deliver happiness to you. They’ve certainly served me well during my time off this last year.


Don’t know what you’re interested in anymore? Ask a few friends what books they’ve read recently and try them all. The world is so much bigger than the experience you’ve been living so far.


Process your past experiences by sharing them with the world through writing. You control the words and the stories you tell. Write in a journal just for yourself or share your stories with the world.


Move your body and it will heal your body and mind. I like Mountain Biking because it’s just complicated enough it forces my mind to focus but simple enough I can fall into a flow state where I don’t remember having a single thought for minutes at a time. See if you can do something more adventurous than watching TV on a treadmill for this reason.


Success is about efficiency and optimization and if you’re like me you’ll find you made snap judgements about things that just aren’t correct. Meet new people, see new places, try new things and form your own impressions based on your actual experiences. Ask lots of questions but trust nothing other than your own experiences to be your guide.


Yes, sleep. About eight hours every night. Since you’ve probably been at more like six hours a night in the past this is going to require some time from your new schedule. Plan on it and don’t schedule anything right before bed or early in the morning if you find it’s hard to keep your sleep hours up.


You haven’t had time to be creative in years. You’ve been in execution mode where every idea is tallied and scored and evaluated and only the best survive. Now it’s time to create something just for the sake of creating it. Painting. Music. Sculpting. Photography. Sketching. Digital Design. Whatever.


Take some time to determine the people in your circle of influence who could use a little help. You’ve been ignoring them for a long time. There are few things in life more rewarding than giving without expecting anything in return.


It’s lonely at the top. One of my daily disciplines this year has been to spend a few minutes in public among people I don’t know. This can be at a restaurant or coffee shop or just walking down a busy street. Anything that allows me the simple opportunity to have an interaction with a stranger and experience a sense of connection with the rest of humanity.


The patterns you used to chase success in the past have dug deep grooves in your methods of thinking. It’s time to smooth them out by thinking differently now. One of my biggest learnings from this last year was realizing that even without a business to worry about my mind was still prone to racing out of control and triggering anxiety. This was a deeply engrained pattern and my brain just found new objects to focus on. I realized that unlocking the full calm and happiness I wanted from life would require actual intentional work.


Gratitude is the key to happiness. You must love yourself before you will ever agree that your happiness is more important than your level of achievement. It’s an amazing feeling the first time you put your personal happiness before the needs of your business. Do it repeatedly and you’ll find yourself more able to love because it’ll become clear that you’re willing to put yourself first.