'Limitless,' Oprah, and Charlie Sheen: The Scary Side of Super-Sized Ambition

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Reuters/Rick Wilking

And while egocentric implosions were commodified long before Charlie Sheen cranked his delusions of grandeur up to 11, it's notable how swiftly the star's sociopathic flameout has been translated into a multi-tiered product launch—including a t-shirt line and a not-so-magical, death-of-mystery tour called the "Violent Torpedo of Truth." (We get the "violent" part, anyway.) Sure, it's a familiar story: Man loses job. Man lets loose grandiose, nonsensical tirade. Man is besieged by army of marketing yes men who set big, stupid wheels in motion overnight. How else to keep the Cristal and the high-priced hookers flowing? But has there ever been a time when merely grabbing the public's attention, largely for negative reasons, translated so rapidly into a merchandising blitzkrieg?

But it doesn't take star status to broadcast your aspirations to the world. The average Joe's focus on international success has never been quite so well documented as it is today. On Facebook and Twitter, on blogs and author websites and work profiles, individuals lay out their agonizingly detailed goals for the future with reckless abandon, taking pains to document every ego reward along the way. One author recalls the "transcendent moment" when she learned that Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote to tell her that her book was "destined to be deeply loved." "I still feel intoxicated by her words," the author gushed. Another author recently tweeted, "Yay! Just found out my paperback hit the bestseller lists in Boston, Denver, & SF. That's a happy Monday!" It's enough to make you nostalgic for the days when patting oneself on the back and other forms of self-stroking were reserved for sticky private rooms, far from the public gaze. Even the self-proclaimed enlightened elite don't seem to recognize the value of shame. One social media guru recently tweeted, "I have never, in my life, lived more honestly than I am living today." Please, consider living a little less honestly.

Who's to blame for this state of affairs? Some point to the toxic overindulgence of helicopter parents, who pumped up their children's egos without exposing them to the hardships of an unscheduled afternoon with nothing but to do but make mud pies in the backyard. Others conjure the overachievement culture incited by Tiger Moms (and dads), who create children whose Suzuki scales are as impressive as their panic attacks and acid reflux. But the concept that a rising GNP lifts all heavily-mortgaged boats founds its roots in Reaganomics, and extreme ambition hasn't loosened its death-grip on our culture since. Considering the economic rollercoaster ride of the last few decades, the obvious lack of long-term job security in this country, and the fact that, according the Economic Policy Institute, during the past 20 years, 56 percent of all income growth went to the top 1 percent of households, it's impossible for most Americans, whether working or middle class or even upper middle class, not to fixate somewhat unhealthily on finding true, lasting financial peace of mind. Instead of giving in to learned helplessness (the most logical choice, really), we cling more tightly to the myth of upwardly mobile miracles, telling ourselves pretty success stories in order to keep hope alive.

Ultimately, Limitless takes the precise shape that you'd expect from a powerless person's fantasy of power. The moral of the story seems to be that, with a few shortcuts and some help from important people, money, status, and happiness can be yours, with no emotional cost to pay on the back end. But as our world spirals closer to the moronic self-involvement of Mike Judge's Idiocracy mixed with the commercialized nightmare of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, what's lost, beyond simple good taste, is our connection to our own desires. After soaking in so many real-life tales of success and parables of excess like Limitless, it's easy to lose sight of the joys of working steadily toward a goal without undue fixation on the monetary rewards or prestige it might bequeath. Savoring the means over the ends, relishing the challenges, the wrinkles, the obstacles involved in your craft: the rewards of a dedication to something beyond the ego may be a difficult message to impart, but it's a message that needs to find its way back into our fables, our creation myths, our journalism, and into the stories we tell ourselves.

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Heather Havrilesky is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness, published by Riverhead Books in January 2011. She was TV critic at Salon.com for 7 years and co-created the cartoon Filler for Suck.com. More

Heather Havrilesky is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness, published by Riverhead Books in January 2011. She was TV critic at Salon.com for 7 years and co-created the cartoon Filler for Suck.com. She has contributed to NPR's "All Things Considered" and has written for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, New York magazine, Washington Post's Book World and The Awl. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters.
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