Joe Polish: Changing the Conversation of Addiction

Joe Polish: Changing the Conversation of Addiction

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Joe Polish doesn’t stop. Not for a second. Even when he’s sitting still, you can almost see his brain going in a million directions at once. The man doesn’t miss a beat, doesn’t toss off a careless phrase and, from what I can tell, he might never sleep. (I can’t confirm the latter, but I’d put real money on it.) The entrepreneur behind Piranha Marketing, Genius Network, 10Xtalk.com, iLoveMarketing.com—not to mention two highly successful podcasts—isn’t just a human perpetual motion machine. It’s as if Joe Polish is singularly programmed to inspire other people. When he speaks, he does it with artful walls of words—long, thoughtful mission statements that never once sound like tired talking points. Everything Joe says has weight, purpose and, best of all, heart. Joe never abandons a sentence nor orphans an idea, which is no doubt a forced reflection of his carefully regimented life of meditation, exercise and yoga. (“I’m also one of the cleanest eaters I know,” he adds.) The most amazing part about Joe Polish, however, might be the fact that he’s never trying to win anyone over. There are no hidden fees and no fine print—there’s never any sales pitch with anything he says or does. He’s just present. Wherever Joe goes, he’s simply having a conversation and when it comes to addiction recovery, he’s succeeding in changing that conversation.

That’s what makes his two current ventures both compelling and compellingly different: Artists for Addicts (AFA) is a beautifully simple project that’s driving “art as a force for good,” while Genius Recovery is an extension of his uber-popular Genius Network, which connects high-minded entrepreneurs and innovators. In fact, “connection” might be the one keyword that best defines Joe. A brief conversation with anyone in Joe’s orbit quickly recalls something of an air-traffic diagram: floating icons, flight paths, landing strips. Everyone on Joe’s radar screen is just one degree away from greatness. “No one can touch Joe as a connector,” Jon Butcher said, claiming that Joe’s talents may lie less in world-class marketing than his ability to connect like-minded people to achieve greatness. With AFA, recovering addict/artist Butcher was the first person Joe called. Very shortly after hearing Joe’s vision, Butcher painted “Blackstar,” the effort’s inaugural work: a boldly drawn collection of celebrities lost to addiction, all shadowed by a gargantuan black star. AFA’s mission is to prove the quietly profound power of art. “Art can heal in a numbers of ways—especially when you make it. It’s a blissful experience,” Butcher observed. “It answers a lot of your human needs. It’s that simple. It can keep you occupied, fulfilled, and keep you moving as a person. You’re not focusing on your troubles and your pain.”

Not coincidentally, the print is also the subject of Akira Chan and Renee Airya’s documentary Blackstar, due out later this year. (It’s a whole new world for a production company typically steeped in raising awareness for environmental causes.) “He’s a dream for a documentary producer,” Akira laughs. “He’s always less than one or two degrees from someone. Who’s the best in this area of addiction? Who has this story? Joe knows who it is. He has that person in his phone and in a few minutes, we’re talking to that person.” His colleagues and friends call him a “force of nature,” which doesn’t quite do him justice. When I spoke with Joe, I was furtively looking for a power cord or a battery somewhere. Certainly, someone this amped-up about changing the face of recovery had to be plugged into a wall, like a smart car. Not so. Joe Polish is the real deal: a man so effortlessly thoughtful, genuine and creative that he freewheels from one great idea to the next, as if his brain is a whirling dervish of ideas—all designed to make life just a little bit better for everyone.

“I don’t call myself an addiction expert,” Joe admits, “but I know more than the average bear, having been in recovery for 20 years.” While he’s spent the last few decades building a highly successful career in marketing, his direction has changed dramatically in recent months. Joe’s now zeroing in on addiction recovery with the precision of a mathematician. And while he’s clearly absorbed all the sobering stats and facts and figures of the opioid epidemic, he knows we’ll never solve the scourge of addiction with numbers alone. It’ll take everything that’s out there, from compassion to conversation to art to very difficult interventions on the front lines of addiction. “Addiction is a solution,” he admits. “It’s just not a good one. If you survive it, it’ll get you through stuff. We just need to find a better one where people find one where they don’t resort to one that could kill them.”

When Joe says he’s bringing together some of the smartest people on the planet to “change the global conversation about how people view and treat addiction,” he almost says it with a shrug. It’s a monumental task but, for Joe Polish, this is simply how things should be done. The smartest people in the world should already be engaged about recovery through art and arguments about drug policies. And while Joe might not be an expert, he’s no stranger to addiction treatments, either. Name it and he’s tried it. Go ahead. Try to stump him. (I tried, and failed.) “I’ve spent a half-million dollars on my own self-help,” he noted. “I’ve done 30 treatment centers. I’ve done three week-long intensives at different locations. Tons of therapy on human potential: the Hoffman Institute and Landmark and all those kinds of things,” he said. He even casually mentioned yoga retreats, transcendental training, and the fact that there’s a sensory-deprivation float pod in his office building. Joe knows recovery treatment methods. He knows all the criticisms against 12-step meetings (“they’re not attendance meetings—you’ve gotta do the steps”) in all the same ways he knows how biochemicals play into addiction (“there’s issues in the issues”). None of this matters without understanding what causes the “itch,” as he calls it, that addictions help to scratch.

When you ask around for candid feedback on Joe Polish, you don’t get the narrowed-eyed “Is this on record?” responses you might expect from people in the long shadow of someone so high-profile. No, with Joe, everyone’s eager to sing his praises without even knowing they’re doing so. Longtime friend and RARE Media CEO Renee Airya sees Joe in two parts: on the one hand, he’s an “intriguing, fascinating, super-powerful person on an external level” while he’s also “very deep, very complex, super-sensitive, and very vulnerable.” Where he is intense and determined, he’s also “extremely willing to share [his]faults with the world which, when you put all of that into a pot, it makes for a fascinating magnetism. You want to figure it out. “How are you all of these things all in one?” she laughs. Her partner Akira Chan echoes those sentiments, too, focusing on the fact that addiction research could be the last stop on a very lonely stretch of business investment highway—yet, for Polish, it’s not. “He’s an entrepreneur and a marketer, sure, but if you point all of those skills to a good cause—look out. This is something Joe doesn’t have to do.” He notes that Joe could otherwise keep his businesses running as they are, or even dipping a toe in social waters whatsoever. But that wouldn’t make Joe who he is. “He’s doing it,” Akira laughs. “For me, that just points to how much he cares. He deeply cares. I know it keeps him up at night.”

Between Artists for Addicts and Genius Recovery, Joe is determined to go beyond simply keeping someone sober. “If you’re just sober and have no other joy, I want to bring other elements into the picture so people have things to have to aspire to,” he said. “When you’re feeling shitty or nothing and you’d rather pain or numb, I want to bring feeling back to the numbness that causes people to seek out behaviors and chemicals.” More than that, he wants to speed up the time “by a few decades” that the number of drug offenders don’t end up in jail. The basic conversation around addicts is cartoonishly wrong, Polish argues. “If you were to look at the brain scans of serial killers, you’d re-think the death penalty,” he intones. “These are sick brains. They’re not normal. If you were to look at the brains of addicts, you’d see a lot of trauma. A lot of swiss cheese. You’d be like, “Of course.” It’d be like expecting someone with a broken ankle to run. But they’re broken, they’re hurt. I mean, how the fuck are they going run? But that’s exactly how people think of addicts. Maybe we should start to understand that they’re hurt first.”

The “Why?” behind drug addiction, though, could be actually applied to Joe Polish himself. Why has he suddenly shifted professional gears to be so laser-focused on recovery? “I’m just an extremely empathetic person. I want to reduce suffering as much as humanly possible. I want to save lives. I want to find the best forms of treatment that have efficacy—that’s the key word—and share those throughout the world through educating people.” He wants Genius Recovery to live up to its name, acting as a hub with options that include documentaries, podcasts, books, videos and everything in between. In fact, Joe sees Genius Recovery as something of a sober Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.” Instead of pulling up a barstool for a beer, though, you’ll have a place at a virtual table to help you if you relapse. “When people fall off the wagon, we minimize the time they stay in that terrible place. There’s always a place they go and everyone’s there to welcome you with open arms. When you feel like a fuck-up, you find people that believe in you more than you believe in yourself.”

The power of Joe Polish is that he’s as commanding as he is unassuming. His work speaks for itself—and for the future of millions of people who struggle with addiction. Where others have been passive and patient about the disease, he’s pensive and passionate. Whether it’s in finding freedom from addiction through the freedom of art, or getting some of the sharpest minds into the same room to out-think the problem from every angle, it’s clear that Joe Polish isn’t simply changing the conversation—he’s changing the entire language of recovery.

Photo courtesy of Joe Polish; used with permission

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Paul Fuhr is an addiction recovery writer whose work has appeared in The Literary Review, The Live Oak Review, The Sobriety Collective and InRecovery Magazine, among others. He is the author of the alcoholism memoir “Bottleneck.” He's also the creator and co-host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and recovery. Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and their cats, Dr. No and Goldeneye.