The blogger Michael Segal asks an interesting question: Is ambition an addiction worth having?
As some of you know from a few earlier posts, Emmett Wilson essentially drank himself to death at age 35 on May 29, 1918.
Behind the drinking, I think, was another addiction: Ambition.
Part of a eulogy I was able to find described Emmett, his life, and career as ‘meteoric.’ Indeed. It came and went fast; this was a man who was the youngest District Attorney in the United States at one point (age 24); and in a few years the youngest U.S. Congressman (age 29).
In between these key points in his life were significant professional achievements, all coming together for a young man who had no wealth to speak of, no family of his own, no prior experience in politics other than the fact he was related to individuals who were considered important in Florida’s legal and political world at that time.
I don’t know about you, but I remember when I was 29. I was also living in Washington, D.C. at the time. I was certainly not wealthy, I had no local family members, and, I definitely was not interested in politics. Even if I had been, I cannot imagine what it must have been like to live in Emmett’s world.
My point is, I believe Emmett was pressured to do well and to achieve big things very early on by family and friends, and to become one of the key cogs in the family political machinery. In an earlier blog, I had mentioned his grandfather, Augustus Emmett Maxwell, who was looked upon as the rock of the Maxwell Dynasty in Florida. He, his nephew Judge Evelyn Maxwell, and Emmett’s brother, State Senator Cephas Wilson, had big dynastic dreams, which, no doubt included having a county named for the family one day. By the way — in the 1920s there was a plan to name a county “Wilson” (after Woodrow Wilson), but instead, it was named Gilchrist in honor of Albert Gilchrist, who was a close friend of Cephas, Emmett, and Evelyn Maxwell.
I say all of this because I believe Emmett saw the successes of his brother and family friends; he was told to work hard and fame, fortune, and prominence would be his, too. And then, of course, Emmett’s grandfather (for whom Emmett was named) saw in the young man potential, promise, and the next generation of the Maxwell Dynasty at greater heights. Family and friends encouraged Emmett: He had a taste of success and it was heady, sweet, and addicting. That, in my view, is how the foundation for Emmett’s other addiction — alcohol — eventually was put into place. Addiction research bears out that a person with what is called an “addictive personality” often has more than one ‘intoxicant’ working behind the scenes; one can easily lead to the other.
Addiction is subtle, cunning, baffling. It can creep into a person’s life without notice and sometimes, without being checked, even by loved ones. For instance, workaholism is considered the ‘respectable addiction,’ especially here in Washington, D.C. Often, if you want to make your place in your profession, you have to put in a lot of overtime. For some, that can become addicting — we achieve, we feel good about our results, we are praised for working 80 hours a week (i.e., often held up as examples to slacker colleagues and students), and voila, before we know it, we have become workaholics. According to this article from Psychology Today, the seeds of workaholism and ambition are often planted in childhood. Emmett certainly had this modeled for him with his family members. It makes sense he’d want to follow their example.
The ambition and workaholism definitely shaped Emmett; he became prominent and successful very quickly. The problem was that ambition, then workaholism, then alcoholism, created an incredible tug-of-war within Emmett, and it ultimately destroyed him.
At the end of Segal’s article, he asks, “Is ambition an addiction worth having? Does it lead to happiness, or to a life focused on the wrong values?” I know that Emmett’s life at the end was not a happy one.
I wonder if he ever felt like his ambition had been all worth it in the end; or if he had embraced the wrong values as he lay dying. Unfortunately, this is something I’ll never know.