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Lessons from a dry entrepreneur: How overcoming alcoholism started my road to $200m

From 1982 to 1987 I travelled a wild and rocky road on Wall Street. My five years as a futures trader at the epicentre of capitalism were stressful, and to deal with it I played hard. I was young and impressionable and was taken in by all the temptations the city could offer, like a kid in a candy store. It took overcoming alcoholism to boot me in the right direction.
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My life very quickly became a blur of trading tickets and cocktails and the whole thing nearly killed me. By 1987, I was burned out, broke and with nowhere to go – and moreover, my life felt unfulfilled. Overcoming alcoholism and other addictions took me six years. Only then did I feel ready to start my life and career over again.

I was still about as far from being a successful business leader as anyone could be, but I had been accepted to graduate school to get an MBA and I thought that would be my path to success. As it transpired, I never did make it to grad school, and a trip to Estonia in 1992 took my life in a very different direction.

Get sober or get out

I couldn’t have continued burning the candle at both ends as I had been doing on Wall Street. Most of my colleagues knew when to stop – many of them got married and started families. I just wanted to keep going, but by then I was struggling with addictions and alcoholism so my performance at work suffered and I was fired.

Being fired was in retrospect very good for me, since it forced me to confront my problems. On one hand, my compulsion to push things to their limits lent itself very well to trading and risk taking. On the other hand, the tunnel vision encouraged by Wall Street gave me the perfect excuse to drink and party hard.

I wasn’t able to limit myself to just a social drink or two. I couldn’t stop. It wasn’t until after overcoming alcoholism that I considered it could negatively impact your performance.

Your body is your temple

An entrepreneur must treat their mind the same way an athlete treats their body. Your mind is your performance in business. You need to think clearly, interpret information quickly and make big decisions. While I thought I could make decisions on the trading floor just as quickly while hungover, I was wrong. After overcoming alcoholism I found out most of the top-performing guys on the trading floor were completely teetotal.

Alcohol gives us feelings of relaxation, and also makes us think slower. The effects of intoxication can take 48 to 72 hours to disappear, so even recreational drinking could impact your performance in subsequent days at work.

Leading by example

My trip to Estonia after overcoming alcoholism was important to me. It was the country my father came from after the war, so it felt like the kind of journey of self-discovery that would give me a clean break from my previous career and get my mind set for grad school. I arrived in a strange city, knowing nobody, with my last $400 in the pocket of my jeans. Over the course of 16 years though, I built real estate businesses across Central and Eastern Europe worth $200m.

I knew very little about real estate, the local market, or even the language. But I was an entrepreneur, and sobriety had helped me regain clear thinking. I made new friends and contacts, and was able to spot an opportunity. But I couldn’t create a business alone – I needed to lead a group of people, and to share my vision in a way that attracted and inspired them to work hard to make it reality. I couldn’t have done this if my mind had still been fogged with drink and drugs. I needed to show I was 100 per cent committed to my plan, and to excite them about joining me.

Setting yourself up to succeed

To succeed in business, or to lead in any capacity, you must find a balance between being in control and letting go. You need a relief from stress or you will burn out.

If your chosen method of stress release is having a negative impact on your performance at work, it might feel like you’re taking two steps forward and one step back. I could never have succeeded on such a scale if I’d been drinking or doing drugs. Alcohol clouded my mind, it destroyed my creativity and it drained my energy. You can’t afford to lose the most important things you will need as a business leader.

Paul Oberschneider is The BIG CHANGE Entrepreneur. He is a successful entrepreneur, speaker and the best-selling author of new book, Why Sell Tacos in Africa?, published by Harriman House. For more information or to download four free chapters go to www.pauloberschneider.com

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