F.A.T.E. From Addict To Entrepreneur, With Joe Polish Of The Genius Network
By Michael Dash
Welcome to F.A.T.E. From Addict to Entrepreneur, where we are highlighting former addicts who are now entrepreneurs contributing great things to society. Through this we uncover the relationship between addiction and entrepreneurship.
Our first conversation was with Joe Polish, a recovering addict and extremely successful entrepreneur. Joe Polish is the Founder and President of Piranha Marketing Inc. He is also the creator of Genius Network® Interview Series, founder of Genius Network® (aka The 25K Group), and co-founder of 10XTalk.com, and ILoveMarketing.com, two highly popular podcasts on iTunes.
As we have identified through our interview series, many people who fall into addiction have had challenging childhoods filled with trauma. Joe was a perfect example of this. After losing his mother at 4 years old from stomach cancer, Joe’s father struggled with dealing with this loss. He moved Joe around from city to city every couple of years. From 8–10 years old Joe was a shy, introverted, scared, skinny kid who used to constantly get bullied. He was getting molested while being paid to keep quiet so not knowing any better he did. This left him with tremendous shame, confusion and feelings of worthlessness. The one healthy aspect of his life was when he could spend time with his dog Panther. His father knew this but their home life was extremely troubled. One day Joe came home and his beloved Panther was not there. Without any explanation, Joe’s father gave his dog away further traumatizing Joe in his early youth and showing an example of the environment Joe grew up in.
Between the ages of sixteen to eighteen years old, Joe started using a lot of drugs starting with marijuana. Marijuana, and other drugs, allowed him to transform from being the shy, scared, introverted kid to becoming one of the most popular people in his high school simply because he was a partier. The drugs opened up his ability to be social, to feel pleasure, engage with life and block out all the pain he was going through. The only way he could afford these drugs was to actually start dealing them. His entire lifestyle revolved around partying and drugs and there was no limit. He just couldn’t get enough. After marijuana he started taking pills, speed, some types of amphetamines, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol then taking acid, mushrooms, snorting cocaine, snorting crystal meth and then in his worst state when he was 18 years old, he started freebasing.
Using so many different types of drugs was very similar to my own personal experience with my own addictions. One high was never good enough. Multiple addictions tend to persist throughout addict’s lives. The addiction starts taking over your entire life which Joe knows all too well. As Joe described in our interview, “Obsessions, deprivation, there’s no middle ground. Moderation doesn’t make any sense to the addict brain, to the addict body, to the pain body that is the addiction because it just wants more. The opposite of addiction is connection and you’re just trying to connect with something.”
“Addiction is looking for love in all the wrong places. We want it, we crave it and it’s a solution whether you’re hungry, angry, lonely, tired. If you’re in pain, if you’re depressed, if you’re in anxiety, there’s nothing wrong with wanting that pain to go away. It’s just the mechanism that you use to scratch the itch, it’s like scratching with a razor blade. In my worst state, I weighed 105 pounds from freebasing cocaine. I had gone three and a half months straight smoking coke every single day. I was blowing my nose and blood was coming out every day. I was barely eating. On average I weighed about 120 pounds but there was one week where I just had not eaten at all and I got so skinny and when you’re 5”10 male, 18 years old and 105 pounds is pretty skinny. My life consisted of waking up to get high and getting high to go to bed. I mean, a lot of it was centered around the doing of drugs.”
So, what made Joe turn his life around? A lot of addicts have a rock bottom moment. Joe’s was about to come.
“I was living with a couple of roommates and one day one of the roommates who was doing coke every day ended up getting arrested,” Joe explains. “I remember coming home one day and he was freebasing over the sink in this condo where we were living. All of us were doing drugs all the time but he was going to court the next morning for cocaine possession! I’m watching this and I’m like dude “you should probably go to bed, this is not good”. I go to bed, I wake up in the morning, I go downstairs, and he’s over the sink in a three-piece suit freebasing cocaine with his lawyer waiting outside to take him to the court and it didn’t register back then but that is not choice. No person is that risky. That is a person in a lot of mental anguish and is just trying to scratch the itch.
A couple of days later that same friend came home. I was watching TV with a friend when he ran in and started screaming and spraying lighter fluid all over. He pulled out a lighter and lit it and he’s like, “I’m going to torch this entire place”. I had lighter fluid all over me, if this guy throws this match out we’re all in flames and I’m like put that down. I’m talking this guy down and I am able to but I’m like I’ve got to get the hell out of here so I packed up. The next day I left everything and I drove to New Mexico. I ended up spending two years living in a trailer with my father. The first six months were hell because I had to get clean and sober. I didn’t have any access to drugs. I didn’t have any friends but I had to get out of the environment.”
Getting clean and stumbling into entrepreneurship:
The process an addict goes through to get clean, especially if it is drug or alcohol related, can be very physically challenging. Detoxing symptoms can include anxiety, fatigue, sweating, vomiting, depression, seizures, and hallucinations. So, it is no surprise that Joe experienced the same while he stumbled into becoming an entrepreneur as described below.
“The first 6 months I was taking aspirin or Tylenol every day because the headaches were so severe and I just had to go through the withdrawals. I was not in the hospital, I was gutting my way through it and eventually I got a job at a gym, selling gym memberships. I started working out and ended up getting in incredibly good physical shape in a short period of time. I met someone at the gym that ran a mental hospital in Las Cruces, New Mexico. I ended up getting a job as a mental health tech. I would take the vitals of people that would come in for alcoholism, cocaine, heroin. There was an adolescent ward and an adult ward and I would drive the adult patients to Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous. I would sit in on those meetings never realizing how much impact that would have on my life not only then but also later in life. After I got clean, I moved back to Arizona. My friends were blown away because I had made a complete physical transformation. I gained 45 plus pounds. I was in the best shape in my life. A friend from high school talked me into taking the money I had saved up and starting a carpet cleaning business.
It was a struggle though because I had never run a business. My friend who talked me into starting the company with him would get drunk almost nightly so I eventually had to take his name off of our partnership. I was stuck with some chemicals and equipment and the business card that said I was a professional carpet cleaner, trying to figure out how the hell to make this business work. I spent two years bumbling my way through doing hard manual labor trying to figure it out, dealing with the wreckage of my past, dealing with some still very dysfunctional relationships that I had from when I was in the “doing of drugs” world. I had to establish new relationships and also try to pay my bills so I went about $30,000 in debt, working my ass off. I learned marketing not because I ever wanted to but out of the necessity because I needed to eat. I got really good at understanding psychology because marketing is really applied psychology.
I learned marketing and I became very good at it. I turned a small carpet cleaning business around. I started selling the same methodologies to other carpet cleaners using education-based marketing, very ethical and very effective. I started teaching it to other people and low and behold it, it worked. The first year I started selling $497 courses, $597 courses out of basic and a gold version. I sold a quarter million dollars’ worth of my 250-page manual and audio cassette tapes and V.H.S. tapes on how to build and grow a professional cleaning business with all kinds of different very effective marketing strategies and in a matter of a couple of years I became the most well-known person in the world in that industry. I sold half a million dollars’ worth of these courses, by the third year I was selling over a million dollars a year and I became a millionaire by the time I was thirty years old, teaching carpet upholstery cleaners how to build and grow their businesses.”
It was an amazing transformation from being a full-blown addict to a self-made millionaire in such a short period of time. But even though Joe transitioned into entrepreneurship and was doing very well, his life was still a complete mess. See the challenge with addiction is that the majority of addicts have cross addiction challenges, something I have personally lived through. This was no different in Joe’s case. Even though he struggled with being a drug addict/alcoholic neither of these were his biggest addiction. Alcohol, for Joe, just helped him stay numb and get through life at the time he was consuming. In fact, Joe’s core addiction was actually his sex addiction which didn’t manifest until a little bit after his business was up and running. Like many others who have some sort of sex addiction, childhood trauma is a major source. See being molested as a child and growing up alone with his father, who had never remarried after his mother’s death, never provided Joe with any introduction to what a healthy relationship was. He had no idea what true healthy intimacy was which made his introduction to intimate sexual relationships very unhealthy.
Growing up, Joe’s father was very resentful that he lost the love of his life and was vocal about it. There was never anything positive about how relationships are loving and wonderful coming from Joe’s father. All Joe was exposed to was pain. He had no healthy role models. His entire environment, parent and caretakers was very unhealthy.
This created an environment where Joe never felt safe. He was always trying to get away from this dark cloud that was chasing him. That was a very difficult, stressful way to live and so he wanted to medicate and escape. Because he was never exposed to healthy relationships he didn’t know how to have them which lead to very toxic relationships in his life. Emotionally, he was not very developed and didn’t know how to interact with women. All of this was going on in Joe’s twenties and although he learned how to function normally in some areas of life like business and making money, he was having very dysfunctional love relationships.
One of these relationships was with his love and best friend at the time. The relationship lasted for six years which ended with Joe wanting to separate as they grew apart. As he was looking to end this relationship he came to find out that the woman he was with was pregnant. So, he stayed to support her through the pregnancy. He ended up staying with her for the entire course of her giving birth with intentions of raising the child together, even though he had no interest in being with her in a relationship anymore. Only five days before the child’s birth, it was revealed that Joe was not the biological father.
When Joe received the news, it was actually a time in his life that he was doing well. He was going to meetings, making sure he was engaged in recovery and while this was happening he then he found out without warning that he was not the father of a baby he thought was his. “The world didn’t make any sense to me anymore after this happened” Joe explains. “It was the worst mental pain and anguish I’d ever experienced up to that point in my life and so the only thing that made the pain go away was to have sex with a lot of women, and that’s when the real addiction started. The drug addiction was just a numbing mechanism, the real addiction was a connection was a sexual addiction and finding this out just exasperated it.”
“I started sleeping with a lot of escorts and I was just trying to get connection. I didn’t understand it at the time but I wanted love, I wanted connection. I was a young male, I wanted to be sexual but in every form of sexuality, people lied to me, and they betrayed me. It was abusive and so I ended up becoming a very functional addict. I built, and maintained a million dollar a year business but I got involved in some very toxic relationships with a lot of crazy happening. In one of those relationships, I ended up turning my company over to a woman who ended up embezzling somewhere between $50,000 to $200,000 from me.”
Through another of Joe’s many toxic relationships, he ended up being introduced to a high-profile group in the early 2000’s where he was in the company of famous actors and actresses, NBA players, NFL players, famous politicians, musicians that he grew up listening to, a couple of billionaires and people that the whole world would know. Joe would sit and watch people interact and became friends with people that the whole world would know but they couldn’t go out publicly and admit their addictions and so Joe was exposed to another side of how bad addiction can be. These were incredible people doing incredible things and the rest of the world had no idea the silent battles these people were fighting. Their fame and notoriety, their success in many ways was driven by the deep pain and trauma that they’re trying to overcome. Joe realized at that point that addiction can take form in many ways, some more respectable then others. Workaholism is an example of an addiction no one usually thinks of as being a problem. Some artists have performance addiction which is something Joe has focused on as a passion and discusses below.
“One of my projects is artist for addicts where we take a look at all the famous artists that have created amazing bodies of work that they have put out to the world but they die due to their untreated addictions and mental illnesses. One of the things that we’re doing is using art as a force for good and using that to raise money to build our educational platform which is www.geniusrecovery.com to educate people on all the different forms of treatments that have efficacy and that sort of stuff.”
Joe himself would seek out self-help through all of his addictions and recovery. He would read countless books and attend a variety of different events which he learned from and has incorporated into his life while helping others. “I spent a couple of decades where I would attend events where people would change their lives and I would end the event with a big adrenaline rush. I didn’t have any outlet for it so I would act out sexually. Now in my adult life, I am doing better than I ever have in my recovery. I never try to present myself as an expert. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about being molested as a kid and it’s even with half a million that I’ve spent on my own recovery and probably half a million spent on my addiction. I have been fortunate because I’ve learned how to make money and a lot of people don’t have the access to those resources. What I try to do is just take a look at what I was able to accomplish while in a very dysfunctional state, and think about how I would have done if I wasn’t, and how well people would do if they could take this obsession off their backs.
Joe continues, “Addicts are difficult creatures, I mean they lie, they cheat, they steal, they hurt themselves, they hurt other people. They’re very difficult to deal with but people need to understand that they’re in pain and the same stuff that they’re doing to others was probably done to them and in many cases worse. It doesn’t excuse bad behavior when it gets to the level of abuse and violence however it does make it understandable and if you don’t understand the causation of something it makes it very hard to know how to prevent it or how to treat it.
“People give love the same way that love was given to them unless they learn a different way. That’s why communities like twelve steps are so important. Being able to disclose, being able to walk into rooms where people believe in you more than you believe in yourself, that hope heals. That’s critical. Luckily, I always had a part of me that was curious and that just wanted to get better. Even when I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, even when I felt hopeless, when I felt suicidal which has happened thousands of times and I didn’t want to exist anymore. When I was successful and making money and had people admire me, I’d be like God what is wrong with me like why can’t I feel satisfied with anything.
When doing normal things like going for a walk, going to the movies, hanging out, you just want to jump out of your own skin. Normal things that most people would find pleasurable, bore an addict to tears. They need that adrenaline rush; so, finding alternative ways to get serotonin and dopamine is tough and most addicts find it through addiction.”
The link between Entrepreneurship and Addiction
Through Joe’s extremely successful business, running the highest-level marketing group in the world and his journey through addiction, he has been asked to speak all over the world. One event he spoke at, the Fortune Summit held by Fortune Magazine, revealed a telling sign to Joe. While speaking to 1000 people with the average company there being a $20 million a year company, Joe spoke primarily about business and marketing. For two minutes of the speech, he talked about addiction and how he wanted to change the global conversation about how people view and treat addicts. Even though he just briefly mentioned this in his speech over the next several days at the event, he talked to over 100 people and 9 out of 10 of those people mentioned addiction and not business at all even though this was a business centered event.
This is a small sampling of the vast overlap between business, entrepreneurship and addiction. Throughout Joe’s speaking at both business and addiction centered events he continues to see this firsthand.
“I do both of these types of talks and it finally made sense to me that there are all of these entrepreneurs pursuing self-help, looking for love in all the wrong places. They think business is going to resolve their pain. It’s better to build a successful company that puts out good products and services to the world and allows you to be financially successful than to be a strung-out addict on the streets, however the mechanisms that are driving people are very similar. The author of the book Flow said that the neural pathways that a top performer, artist or athlete gets into a state of flow are the same neural pathways that an addict uses for self-destruction. We’re using the same brain waves, it’s that one leads to massive achievement in performance, the other leads to a massive self-destruction. One drives us into hell, the other drives us to non-hell I guess.”
Joe continues, “I had great times, I did some great stuff but it wasn’t until I really started putting together all the pieces that I was able to take my marketing skills and share messages like this. This is the first time in my life that I know I have a calling for this and there are a lot of people that are suffering and I think it would be a travesty to have the platform and the skills that I have and not try to share my story. People need to realize that you’re as sick as your secrets. There is a need to give other people permission to say, “Hey man I feel fucked up, I’m not doing well”. Most people between the ages of 14 to adulthood spend minutes or hours a day, glued to a screen, looking at porn, looking at more hits, more validations, more little dopamine hits, gambling, gaming. All of the shit that people carry around in their phones, like it’s a third limb. Addiction is in the worse state it’s ever been in human history. We’ll probably have a hundred thousand people, many that won’t be reported, that will die of opiate addictions this year. adult life where I was finally feeling a sense of real, deep appreciation for who I am as a person, that I give more than I take, that I produce more than I consume.
My goal sounds weird to some people. I’m just using my marketing skills to change the global conversation about how people view and treat addicts with compassion instead of judgment. Part of that is finding the best forms of treatment that have efficacy and sharing those with the world.”
Together, we are focused on opening up the conversation and removing the stigma of addiction. If Joe can do it, and I can do it, then think of the countless others who are struggling with addiction and just need a helping hand. We can fight this together by telling our stories, encouraging others and building a supportive community.
You can watch Michael’s entire interview with Joe below: