Rethinking alcohol and high achievement

A rational explanation of why alcohol consumption and high-achievement so often seem to go hand-in-hand may help us find better alternatives.

Open a newspaper and we will often read of actors, sports stars, writers, artists and politicians who got ahead as heavy alcohol drinkers, albeit often with unhappy results in the long term.

Just last week Casey Legler, a French American freestyle swimmer, told of how she broke an Olympic record at the age of 19 while she was drinking a lot and suffering abuse.

On a more everyday level too we will all probably know someone—or, perhaps, be someone—who is wildly successful while also clocking up eye-watering bar bills.

The belief heavy drinking and success go together is encapsulated in the, “Work hard. Play hard,” ethos of many groups, where “playing hard” is a euphemism for sinking more than a few drinks.

It needs a rethink. There’s no problem with working hard, if you want to achieve something, but, “Work hard. Play well,” is more likely to prove a more fruitful long-term strategy.

Explaining the illogical
The combo of success and binging defies elementary explanation. Alcohol impairs brain function, lowers mood and resilience, causes accidents, and upsets sleep and erodes physical health. 

Why, then, is heavy drinking so common in those who do above averagely? Their privileged environment is often key to this, helping buffer them from the downsides.

But the unlikely pairing may also be aided by this: Drinking alcohol to soothe the side-effects of hard work, then working extra hard to soothe the side-effects of alcohol drinking.

This cycle would make sense because exceptional achievements are typically born of extra hard work, whether it is physical training or mental gymnastics.

Athletes endure endless hours of gruelling training and competition, and uncomfortable recovery. So too, in another way, do artists, entrepreneurs, scholars and ace employees.

And it works, superficially. Inebriation can feel every bit like a wholesome recovery and reward. But, alas, in reality, it is a feeling which doesn’t last long and with repercussions later.

After the feeling of inebriation is over alcohol typically increases our anxiety, lowers mood and disrupts the most reliable recovery mechanism we have, sleep.

Not realising these downsides, however, we might push ourselves harder still, feeling invulnerable to the consequences. We feel sure we will be just fine right after we hit the bar.

Ingenious creatures that we are, we might also use alcohol’s uncomfortable side-effects to our advantage too. Feeling crummy can mean we seek relief in our vocation.

Exercise and concentrated work can provide relief from hangovers and withdrawal symptoms. So alcohol may ease the side-effects of work, then work the side-effects of alcohol. 

The amazing achievements of heavy drinking heroes show this process can deliver. But later suffering and misfortune also shows it is rarely sustainable.

Going sustainable
This outline explanation alone does not offer a specific alternative route to achieving success without alcohol. It does, however, hint at the advantages of finding them.

Alcohol only softens the discomfort from our exertion. There are others ways to do this without side-effects, ones less likely to inspire us into unrealistic overtraining and overworking.

And we need not always see anxiety and low mood negatively. They can inspire action when kept at bearable levels. Low risk drinking and not drinking can help achieve this.

If we are drinking heavily, maybe having some degree of dependence, it may take between three months and a year of barely drinking to be free of low mood and anxiety.

We will not lose the motor we use to achieve our ambitions by making this investment. We can still harness the energy of our angst, most likely for far longer. ■