Hidden Motives

A look at the hidden factors that really drive our social interactions

Ambition's Illness

"John Henryism" and other syndromes

A team of psychologists set out to study the resilience of high-achieving disadvantaged youths, starting with the assumption that their “success stories also translated into physical health benefits.” As the New York Times put it in its account of the research, “These young people were achieving success by all conventional markers: doing well academically, staying out of trouble, making friends and developing a positive sense of self.” 

“When we looked beneath the surface, though, these apparently resilient young people were not faring well. Compared with others in the study, they were more obese, had higher blood pressure and produced more stress hormones (like cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline). Remarkably, their health was even worse than peers who, at age 11, had been rated by teachers as aggressive, difficult and isolated.” 

The researchers speculated about the causes: The students felt tremendous internal pressure to succeed as they were the first in their families to attend college. Then, many felt socially isolated and disconnected from peers as a result of racism and ethnic discrimination. (See, “Can Upward Mobility Cost You Your Health?”) 

One of the study’s authors, Sherman A. James, a sociologist at Duke University, calls this single-minded determination to succeed and uncompromising work ethic, even in the face of overwhelming odds, “John Henryism,” after the legend of a black railroad worker who defeated a steam-powered drill only to drop dead of exhaustion.

But is this true only for African-Americans? And what about other minority groups? To be sure, Professor James’ speculations seem plausible, but there may well be additional consequences and other causes: peer group disapproval of those who excel, as well as the inherent pressure of competition itself and the fact that those who achieve high grades at school know that they face life-long pressures to continue achieving in highly competitive careers. 

And what about parental ambivalence? I recall that though my father insisted his son get the education that had been unavailable to him in “the old country,” he felt threatened by my success and never asked a question about what I did. 

And then there are the more subtle consequences that show up years later as self-defeating behaviors, depression, anxiety, and exhaustion, as well as parental neglect or over-involvement.

Counseling can be valuable, but there is a cost to progress, and sometimes it is a price we have to pay. 

Ken Eisold is a psychoanalyst and organizational consultant whose book about the unconscious, What You Don't Know You Know, came out in January.

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