Face to Face

Max Carey first told us about his superman complex 11 years ago. Now he's trying to help you with yours

Eleven years ago, Max Carey came clean. In an article he wrote for Inc., the former Columbia University defensive halfback, veteran Vietnam fighter pilot, and Inc. 500 CEO admitted that he could no longer go it alone. The toll of always trying to be perfect, keeping a tight control on everything in his business, and never showing any signs of weakness was just too much, Carey wrote. So he told all, starting with that Saturday morning in 1984 when he'd found himself sobbing uncontrollably on the deck of his home. That was to be the beginning of his journey to recovering from what he calls "the superman complex."

After the story appeared, Carey, now 51, was inundated with letters from readers who shared his pain. And a curious thing happened. By discovering that there were so many entrepreneurs who had similar experiences, he felt as if an immense burden had been lifted from him. Now Carey, who continues to run his marketing-consulting company, Corporate Resource Development (CRD), in Atlanta, has written a book, The Superman Complex, in which he retells his story and offers advice on how others can try to achieve balance in their lives.

While he was vacationing with his family in Pensacola, Fla. ("It's my first vacation in 18 years where I haven't had to pack a suit and leave to go do business," he says), Carey spoke with editor-at-large Jeffrey L. Seglin.

Inc. : What if anything did you learn about yourself from the reaction you got to your story in Inc.?

Carey: That story was a pivotal event for me. It was the first time ever in my life that I had discussed with anybody, publicly or privately, any weakness or frailty that I had as a human being. As I learned how normal and widespread the superman complex was--and not just among white male Americans but other ethnic groups, and women, too--I felt a great freeing. Over time it's become OK to talk about something I once viewed as being dark and needing to be hidden.

Inc. : Do you ever catch yourself falling back into old patterns?

Carey: All the time. It's a never-ending process. I'll react instinctively. I do use intimidation, control, and omnipotence less and less. But those superman-complex characteristics are sometimes appropriate tools. They're just not universally appropriate.

Inc. : Isn't there a danger--if you see them as appropriate tools that you can turn on or off--that you're kidding yourself about recovery?

Carey: I don't think so. At this point I've come so far that I don't think I would ever relapse totally.

Inc. : Which superman-complex pattern--the Renaissance man, the know-it-all, the glutton for punishment, the lone ranger, the puppet master, or the hall of famer--was the hardest for you to break? Which do you still catch yourself falling into?

Carey: I think it would be the control freak, the puppet master. I still want to control everything.

Inc. : Were you ever afraid that in the process of coming to terms with your demons, you'd lose a professional edge?

Carey: There's no question about that. The thing that keeps you doing it all yourself is absolutely abject fear. Fear of being unmasked. Fear of not being able to be something else. Fear of giving up the things that work for you and having nothing else be there to replace it. It's all fear.

Inc. : What forces you to confront the fear and then change?

Carey: In my case there was a crisis. And crisis causes change. Either you're going to fall apart and blow away, or you're going to find a way to get through it. In some ways the crisis was a gift for me because I had to do something. For other sufferers, I say: "Listen, I don't want you to change everything you're doing. I want you to take one thing and try it. And if that thing works for you, then I want you to perfect it and take another thing." You try to get people to sort of sneak into it.

Inc. : Can you tell us about one change you've been working on?

Carey: I had to relearn how to look at new ideas. That was absolutely pivotal. When people used to bring me an idea, I'd look for the bad. I'd find it quickly and I'd discount the whole thing. Now I first look for the good. I'll give you an example. Through the years we've tried to subcontract out our training. But because our strategies are so unique, it never really worked, and it scared me from an intellectual-capital standpoint. But we're growing so fast now we have to look for some economies. So some new people I brought on came to me with an idea about outsourcing training, which in the past I would have just shredded. But instead I said: "OK, pursue it. Here's where I think the dangers are; see if you can find solutions to those concerns." That may not sound like a big change, but for me it was a very big change.