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11 Know Your Limits
The Law of Grandiosity
We humans have a deep need to think highly of ourselves. If that opinion of our goodness, greatness, and brilliance diverges enough from reality, we become grandiose. We imagine our superiority. Often a small measure of success will elevate our natural grandiosity to even more dangerous levels. Our high self-opinion has now been confirmed by events. We forget the role that luck may have played in the success, or the contributions of others. We imagine we have the golden touch. Losing contact with reality, we make irrational decisions. That is why our success often does not last. Look for the signs of elevated grandiosity in yourself and in others—overbearing certainty in the positive outcome of your plans; excessive touchiness if criticized; a disdain for any form of authority. Counteract the pull of grandiosity by maintaining a realistic assessment of yourself and your limits. Tie any feelings of greatness to your work, your achievements, and your contributions to society.
The Success Delusion
By the summer of 1984, Michael Eisner (b. 1942), president of Paramount Pictures, could no longer ignore the restlessness that had been plaguing him for months. He was impatient to move on to a bigger stage and shake the foundations of Hollywood. This restlessness had been the story of his life. He had begun his career at ABC, and never settling too comfortably within one department, after nine years of various promotions he had risen to the position of head of prime-time programming. But television began to seem small and constricting to him. He needed a larger, grander stage. In 1976 Barry Diller—a former boss at ABC and now the chairman of Paramount Pictures—offered him the job of heading Paramount’s film studio, and he jumped at the chance.
Paramount had long been in the doldrums, but working with Diller, Eisner transformed it into the hottest studio in Hollywood, with a string of remarkably successful films—Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Flashdance, and Terms of Endearment. Although Diller certainly played a part in this turnaround, Eisner saw himself as the main driving force behind the studio’s success. After all, he had invented a surefire formula for creating profitable films.
The formula depended on keeping costs down, an obsession of his. To do so, a film had to begin with a great concept, one that was original, easy to summarize, and dramatic. Executives could hire the most expensive writers, directors, and actors for a film, but if the underlying concept was weak, all the money in the world would be wasted. Films with a strong concept, however, would market themselves. A studio could churn these relatively inexpensive films out in volume, and even if they were only moderate hits, they would ensure a steady flow of income. This thinking went against the grain of the blockbuster mentality of the late 1970s, but who could argue with the undeniable profits Eisner had generated for Paramount? Eisner immortalized this formula in a memo that soon spread around Hollywood and became gospel.
But after so many years of sharing the limelight with Diller at Paramount, trying to please corporate CEOs, and pushing back against marketing directors and finance people, Eisner had had enough. If only he could run his own studio, unfettered. With the formula he had created and with his relentless ambition, he could forge the greatest and most profitable entertainment empire in the world. He was tired of other people piggybacking on his ideas and success. Operating on top and alone, he could control the show and take all the credit.
As Eisner contemplated this next critical move in his career that summer of ’84, he finally settled upon the perfect target for his ambitions—the Walt Disney Company. At first glance, this would seem a puzzling choice. Since the death of Walt Disney in 1966, the Walt Disney film studio seemed frozen in time, getting weirder with each passing year. The place operated more like a stodgy men’s club. Many executives stopped working after lunch and spent their afternoons in card games, or would lounge about in the steam room on site. Hardly anyone was ever fired. The studio produced one animated film about every four years and in 1983 produced a meager three live-action films. They had not had a single hit film since The Love Bug in 1968. The Disney lot in Burbank almost seemed like a ghost town. The actor Tom Hanks, who worked on the lot in 1983, described it as “a Greyhound bus station in the 1950s.” Given its dilapidated condition, however, this would be the perfect place for Eisner to work his magic. The studio and the corporation could only move up. Its board members were desperate to turn it around and avoid a hostile takeover. Eisner could dictate the terms of his leadership position. Presenting himself to Roy Disney (Walt’s nephew and the largest shareholder of Disney stock) as the company’s savior, he laid out a detailed and inspiring plan for a dramatic turnaround (greater than Paramount’s), and Roy was won over. With Roy’s blessing the board approved the choice, and in September 1984 Eisner was named chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company. Frank Wells, the former head of Warner Bros., was named president and chief operating officer. Wells would focus on the business side. In all matters Eisner was the boss; Wells was there to help and serve him.
Eisner wasted no time. He embarked on a major restructuring of the company, which led to the departure of over a thousand employees. He started filling the executive ranks with Paramount people, most notably Jeffrey Katzenberg (b. 1950), who had worked as Eisner’s right-hand man at Paramount and was now named chairman of Walt Disney Studios. Katzenberg could be abrasive and downright rude, but no one in Hollywood was more efficient or worked harder. He simply got things done.
Within months Disney began to churn out a remarkable series of hits, adhering to Eisner’s formula. Fifteen of its first seventeen films (such as Down and Out in Beverly Hills and Who Framed Roger Rabbit) generated profits, a run of success almost unheard of for any studio in Hollywood.
One day, as Eisner explored the Burbank lot with Wells, they entered the Disney library and discovered hundreds of cartoons from the golden era that had never been shown. There on endless shelves were stored all of the great Disney classic animated hits. Eisner’s eyes lit up at the sight of this treasure. He could reissue all of these cartoons and animated films on video (the home video market was in the midst of exploding) and it would be pure profit. Based on these cartoons, the company could create stores to market the various Disney characters. Disney was a virtual gold mine waiting to be exploited, and Eisner would make the most of this.
Soon the stores opened, the videos sold like crazy, the film hits kept pumping profit into the company, and Disney’s stock price soared. It had replaced Paramount as the hottest film studio in town. Wanting to cultivate a more public presence, Eisner decided to revive the old The Wonderful World of Disney, an hourlong television show from the fifties and sixties hosted by Walt Disney himself. This time Eisner would be the host. He was not a natural in front of the camera, but he felt audiences would grow to like him. He could be comforting to children, like Walt himself. In fact, he began to feel the two of them were somehow magically connected, as if he were more than just the head of the corporation but rather the natural son and successor to Walt Disney himself.
Despite all his success, however, the old restlessness returned. He needed a new venture, a bigger challenge, and soon he found it. The Walt Disney Company had plans to create a new theme park in Europe. The last one to open, Tokyo Disneyland in 1983, had been a success. Those in charge of theme parks had settled upon two potential sites for the new Disneyland—one near Barcelona, Spain, the other near Paris. Although the Barcelona site made more economic sense, since the weather there was much better, Eisner chose the French site. This was going to be more than a theme park. This was going to be a cultural statement. He would hire the best architects in the world. Unlike the usual fiberglass castles at the other theme parks, at Euro Disney—as it came to be known—the castles would be built out of pink stone and feature handcrafted stained-glass windows with scenes from various fairy tales. It would be a place even snobby French elites would be excited to visit. Eisner loved architecture, and here he could be a modern-day Medici.
As the years went by, the cost of Euro Disney mounted. Letting go of his usual obsession with the bottom line, Eisner felt that if he built it right, the crowds would come and the park would eventually pay for itself. But when it finally opened as planned in 1992, it quickly became clear that Eisner had not understood French tastes and vacation habits. The French were not so willing to wait in line for rides, particularly in bad weather. As in the other theme parks, no beer or wine was served on the premises, and that seemed like sacrilege to the French. The hotel rooms were too expensive for a family to stay there more than a night. And despite all the attention to detail, the pink stone castles still looked like kitschy versions of the originals.
Attendance was only half of what Eisner had anticipated. The debts Disney had incurred in the construction had ballooned, and the money coming in from visitors could not even service the interest on them. It was shaping up to be a disaster, the first ever in his glorious career. As he finally came to terms with this reality, he decided that Frank Wells was to blame. It was his job to oversee the financial health of the project, and he had failed. Whereas before Eisner had only had the best things to say about their working relationship, now he often complained about his second-in-command and contemplated firing him.
In the middle of this growing debacle, Eisner felt a new threat on the horizon—Jeffrey Katzenberg. He had once referred to Katzenberg as his golden retriever—so loyal and hardworking. It was Katzenberg who had overseen the string of early hits for the studio, including the biggest hit of all, Beauty and the Beast, the film that had initiated the renaissance of Disney’s animation department. But something about Katzenberg was making him increasingly nervous. Perhaps it was the memo that Katzenberg had written in 1990, in which he dissected the string of flops Disney had recently produced in live action. “Since 1984, we have slowly drifted away from our original vision of how to run a business,” he wrote. Katzenberg criticized the studio’s decision to go for bigger-budget films such as Dick Tracy, trying to make “event movies.” Disney had fallen for “the blockbuster mentality” and had lost its soul in the process.
The memo made Eisner uncomfortable. Dick Tracy was Eisner’s own pet project. Was Katzenberg indirectly criticizing his boss? When he thought about it, it seemed like this was a clear imitation of his own infamous memo at Paramount, in which he had advocated for less expensive, high-concept films. Now it occurred to him that Katzenberg saw himself as the next Eisner. Maybe he was angling to take Eisner’s job, to subtly undermine his authority. This began to eat away at him. Why was Katzenberg now cutting him out of story meetings?
The animation department soon became the primary generator of profits for the studio, with new hits such as Aladdin and now The Lion King, which had been Katzenberg’s baby—he had come up with the story idea and developed it from start to finish. Magazine articles now began to feature Katzenberg as if he were the creative genius behind Disney’s resurgence in the genre. What about Roy Disney, the vice chairman of animation? What about Eisner himself, who was in charge of everything? To Eisner, Katzenberg was now playing the media, building himself up. An executive had reported to Eisner that Katzenberg was going around saying, “I’m the Walt Disney of today.” Suspicion soon turned into hatred. Eisner could not stand to be around him.
Then, in March of 1994, Frank Wells was killed in a helicopter accident while on a skiing trip. To reassure shareholders and Wall Street, Eisner soon announced that he would take over Wells’s position as president. But suddenly here was Katzenberg pestering him with phone calls and memos, reminding Eisner that he had promised him the president’s job if Wells ever left the company. How insensitive, so soon after the tragedy. He stopped returning Katzenberg’s phone calls.
Finally, in August 1994, Eisner fired Jeffrey Katzenberg, shocking almost everyone in Hollywood. He had fired the most successful studio executive in town. The Lion King had become one of the most profitable films in Hollywood history. It was Katzenberg who was behind Disney’s acquisition of Miramax, considered a great coup with the ensuing success of Pulp Fiction. It seemed like madness on his part, but Eisner did not care. Finally freed of Katzenberg’s shadow, he could relax and now take Disney to the next level, on his own and with no more distractions.
To prove he had not lost his touch, he soon dazzled the entertainment world by engineering Disney’s purchase of ABC. The sheer audacity of this coup once again made him the center of attention. Now he was forging an entertainment empire beyond what anyone had ever attempted or imagined. This move, however, created a problem for him. The company had virtually doubled in size. It was too complex, too big for one man. Only a year earlier he had undergone open-heart surgery, and he could not handle the added stress.
He needed another Frank Wells, and his thoughts soon turned to his old friend Michael Ovitz, one of the founders and the head of Creative Artists Agency. Ovitz was the greatest deal maker in Hollywood history, perhaps the most powerful man in town. Together they could dominate the field. Many within the business warned him against this hire—Ovitz was not like Frank Wells; he was not a finance guy or a master of detail, as Ovitz himself would have admitted. Eisner ignored such advice. People were being too conventional in their thinking. He decided to lure Ovitz away from CAA with a very lucrative package and offer him the title of president. He assured Ovitz in several discussions that although Ovitz would be second in command, they would eventually run the company as coleaders.
In a phone call Ovitz finally agreed to all of the terms, but the moment Eisner hung up, he realized he had made the biggest mistake of his life. What had he been thinking? They might have been the closest of friends, but how would two such larger-than-life men ever be able to work together? Ovitz was power hungry. This would be the Katzenberg problem times two. It was too late, however. He had gotten the board’s approval for the hire. His own reputation, his decision-making process as a CEO, was at stake. He would have to make it work.
He quickly decided upon a strategy—he would narrow Ovitz’s responsibilities, keep a tight leash on him, and make him prove himself as president. By doing so Ovitz could earn Eisner’s trust and get more power. From day one Eisner wanted to signal to Ovitz who was boss. Instead of moving him into Frank Wells’s old office on the sixth floor at Disney headquarters, next to Eisner’s, Eisner put him in a rather unimpressive office on the fifth floor. Ovitz liked to spread money around with gifts and lavish parties to charm people; Eisner had his team monitor every penny that Ovitz spent on such things, and watch his every move. Was Ovitz contacting other executives behind Eisner’s back? He would not nurture another Katzenberg at his breast.
Soon the following dynamic developed: Ovitz would approach him with some potential deal, and Eisner would not discourage him from exploring it. But once it came time to agree to the deal, Eisner would give a firm no. Slowly word spread through the industry that Ovitz had lost his touch and could no longer close a deal. Ovitz began to panic. He wanted desperately to prove he had been worthy of the choice. He offered to move to New York to help manage ABC, since the merger of the two companies was not working out so smoothly, but Eisner said no. He told his lieutenants to keep their distance from Ovitz. He was not a man to be trusted—he was the son of a liquor salesman in the San Fernando Valley, and like his father, Ovitz was just a smooth salesman. He was addicted to attention from the media. Within the company, Ovitz had become completely isolated.
As the months dragged on in this saga, Ovitz could see what was happening, and he complained bitterly to Eisner. He had left his agency for Disney; he had staked his reputation on what he would do as president, and Eisner was destroying his reputation. Nobody respected him any longer in the business. Eisner’s treatment of Ovitz was downright sadistic. In Eisner’s mind, however, Ovitz had failed the test he had laid out; he had not proven himself to be patient; he was no Frank Wells. In December of 1996, after a mere fourteen months on the job, Ovitz was fired, taking with him an enormous severance package. It was a dizzying and rapid fall from grace.
Finally liberated from this great mistake, Eisner began to consolidate power within the company. ABC was not doing so well. He would have to intervene and take some control. He began to attend programming meetings; he talked of his own golden days at ABC and of the great shows he had created there, such as Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days. ABC needed to go back to that earlier philosophy and create high-concept shows for the family.
As the internet began to take off, Eisner had to get involved in a big way. He nixed the purchase of Yahoo!, pushed by his executives. Instead Disney would start its own internet portal, called Go. Over the years he had learned the lesson—it was always best to design and run your own show. Disney would dominate the internet. He had proven himself a turnaround genius twice before, and with Disney now in a slump, he would do it a third time.
Soon, however, a wave of disasters hit the corporation, one after another. After being fired, Katzenberg had sued Disney for the bonus—based on performance—he was due under his contract. When he had been president, Ovitz had tried to settle the suit before it went to court and had gotten Katzenberg to agree to $90 million, but at the last minute Eisner had nixed this, certain he did not owe Katzenberg anything. In 2001 the judge ruled in Katzenberg’s favor, and they had to settle for a whopping $280 million. Disney had poured vast resources into the creation of Go, and it was a terrific flop that had to be shut down. The costs from Euro Disney were still bleeding the company. Disney had a partnership with Pixar, and together they had produced such hits as Toy Story. But now the CEO of Pixar, Steve Jobs, made it clear he would never work with Disney again, deeply resenting Eisner’s micromanaging. ABC was underperforming. Most of the movies Disney produced were not just flops but expensive flops, culminating in the biggest one of all, Pearl Harbor, which opened in May of 2001.
Suddenly it seemed that Roy Disney had lost faith in Eisner. The stock price was plummeting. He told Eisner it would be best for him to resign. What ingratitude, what hubris! He, Eisner, was the man who had singlehandedly brought the company back from the dead. He had saved Roy from disaster and made him a fortune, Roy who had been considered Walt’s idiot nephew. And now, in Eisner’s darkest hour, Roy was going to betray him? Eisner had never felt more enraged. He quickly struck back, forcing Roy to resign from the board. This only seemed to embolden Roy. He organized a shareholder revolt known as Save Disney, and in March of 2004 the shareholders voted a stinging rebuke of Eisner’s leadership.
Soon the board decided to strip Eisner of his position as chairman of the board. The empire he had forged was falling apart. In September of 2005, with hardly an ally to lean on and feeling alone and betrayed, Eisner officially resigned from Disney. How had it all unraveled so quickly? They would come to miss him, he told friends, and he meant all of Hollywood; there would never be another like him.
• • •
Interpretation: We can say that at a certain point in his career Michael Eisner succumbed to a form of delusion when it came to power, his thinking so divorced from reality that he made business decisions with disastrous consequences. Let us follow the progress of this particular form of delusion as it emerged and took over his mind.
At the beginning of his career at ABC, young Eisner had a solid grasp on reality. He was fiercely practical. He understood and exploited to the maximum his strengths—his ambitious and competitive nature, his intense work ethic, his keen sense for the entertainment tastes of the average American. Eisner had a quick mind and the ability to encourage others to think creatively. Leaning on these strengths, he rose quickly up the ladder. He possessed a high degree of confidence in his talents, and the series of promotions he received at ABC confirmed this self-opinion. He could afford to be a little cocky, because he had learned a lot on the job and his skills as a programmer had improved immensely. He was on a fast track toward the top, which he reached at the age of thirty-four by being named head of prime-time programming at ABC.
As a person of high ambition, he soon felt that the world of television was somewhat constricting. There were limits to the kinds of entertainment he could program. The film world offered something looser, greater, and more glamorous. It was natural, then, for him to accept the position at Paramount. But at Paramount something occurred that began the subtle process of the unbalancing of his mind. Because the stage was bigger and he was the head of the studio, he began to receive attention from the media and the public. He was featured on the cover of magazines as the hottest film executive in Hollywood. This was qualitatively different from the attention and satisfaction that had come from the promotions at ABC. Now he had millions of people admiring him. How could their opinions be wrong? To them he was a genius, a new kind of hero altering the landscape of the studio system.
This was intoxicating. It inevitably elevated his estimation of his skills. But it came with a great danger. The success that Eisner had had at Paramount was not completely of his own doing. When he had arrived at the studio, several films were already in preproduction, including Saturday Night Fever, which would spark the turnaround. Barry Diller was the perfect foil to Eisner. He would argue with him endlessly about his ideas, forcing Eisner to sharpen them. But puffed up by the attention he was receiving, Eisner had to imagine that he deserved the accolades he received strictly for his own efforts, and so naturally he subtracted from his success the elements of good timing and the contributions of others. Now his mind was subtly divorcing itself from reality. Instead of rigorously focusing on the audience and how to entertain people, he started to increasingly focus on himself, believing in the myth of his greatness as promulgated by others. He imagined he had the golden touch.
At Disney the pattern repeated and grew more intense. He basked in the glow of his amazing success there, quickly forgetting the incredible good luck he had had in inheriting the Disney library at the time of the explosion of home video and family entertainment. He discounted the critical role that Wells had played in balancing him out. With his sense of grandeur growing, he faced a dilemma. He had become addicted to the attention that came from creating a splash, doing something big. He could not content himself with simple success and rising profits. He had to add to the myth to keep it alive. Euro Disney would be the answer. He would show the world he was not just a corporate executive but rather a renaissance man.
In building the park, he refused to listen to experienced advisers who recommended the Barcelona site and advocated a modest theme park to keep the costs down. He did not pay attention to French culture but directed everything from Burbank. He operated under the belief that his skills as the head of a film studio could be transferred to theme parks and architecture. He was certainly overestimating his creative powers, and now his business decisions revealed a large enough detachment from reality to qualify as delusional. Once this mental imbalance takes hold, it can only get worse, because to come back down to earth is to admit that one’s earlier high self-opinion was wrong, and the human animal will almost never admit that. Instead, the tendency is to blame others for every failure or setback.
In the grips now of his delusion, he made his most serious mistake of all—the firing of Jeffrey Katzenberg. The Disney system depended on a steady flow of new animated hits, which fed the stores and theme parks with new characters, merchandise, rides, and avenues for publicity. Katzenberg clearly had developed the knack for creating such hits, exemplified by the unprecedented success of The Lion King. Firing him put the entire assembly line at risk. Who would take over? Certainly not Roy Disney or Eisner himself? Furthermore, he had to know that Katzenberg would take his skills elsewhere, which he did when he cofounded a new studio, DreamWorks. There he churned out more animated hits. The new studio drove up the price for skilled animators, vastly increasing the cost of producing an animated film and threatening Disney’s entire profit system. But instead of a firm grip on this reality, Eisner was more focused on the competition for attention. Katzenberg’s rise threatened his elevated self-opinion, and he had to sacrifice profit and practicality to soothe his ego.
The downward spiral had begun. The acquisition of ABC, under the belief that bigger is better, revealed his growing detachment from reality. Television was a dying business model in the age of new media. It was not a realistic business decision but a play for publicity. He had created an entertainment behemoth, a blob without any clear identity. The hiring and firing of Ovitz revealed an even greater level of delusion. People had become mere instruments for Eisner to use. Ovitz was considered the most feared and powerful man in Hollywood. Perhaps Eisner was unconsciously driven by the desire to humiliate Ovitz. If he had the power to make Ovitz beg for crumbs, he must be the most powerful man in Hollywood.
Soon all of the problems that stemmed from his delusional thought process began to cascade—the continually rising costs of Euro Disney, the Katzenberg bonus, the lack of hits in both film divisions, the continual drain on resources from ABC, the Ovitz severance package. The board members could no longer ignore the falling stock price. The firing of Katzenberg and Ovitz made Eisner the most hated man in Hollywood, and as his fortunes fell, all of his enemies came out of the woodwork to hasten his destruction. His fall from power was fast and spectacular.
Understand: The story of Michael Eisner is much closer to you than you think. His fate could easily be yours, albeit most likely on a smaller scale. The reason is simple: we humans possess a weakness that is latent in us all and will push us into the delusional process without our ever being aware of the dynamic. The weakness stems from our natural tendency to overestimate our skills. We normally have a self-opinion that is somewhat elevated in relation to reality. We have a deep need to feel ourselves superior to others in something—intelligence, beauty, charm, popularity, or saintliness. This can be a positive. A degree of confidence impels us to take on challenges, to push past our supposed limits, and to learn in the process. But once we experience success on any level—increased attention from an individual or group, a promotion, funding for a project—that confidence will tend to rise too quickly, and there will be an ever-growing discrepancy between our self-opinion and reality.
Any success that we have in life inevitably depends on some good luck, timing, the contributions of others, the teachers who helped us along the way, the whims of the public in need of something new. Our tendency is to forget all of this and imagine that any success stems from our superior self. We begin to assume we can handle new challenges well before we are ready. After all, people have confirmed our greatness with their attention, and we want to keep it coming. We imagine we have the golden touch and that we can now magically transfer our skills to some other medium or field. Without realizing it, we become more attuned to our ego and our fantasies than to the people we work for and our audience. We grow distant from those who are helping us, seeing them as tools to be used. And with any failures that occur we tend to blame others. Success has an irresistible pull to it that tends to cloud our minds.
Your task is the following: After any kind of success, analyze the components. See the element of luck that is inevitably there, as well as the role that other people, including mentors, played in your good fortune. This will neutralize the tendency to inflate your powers. Remind yourself that with success comes complacency, as attention becomes more important than the work and old strategies are repeated. With success you must raise your vigilance. Wipe the slate clean with each new project, starting from zero. Try to pay less attention to the applause as it grows louder. See the limits to what you can accomplish and embrace them, working with what you have. Don’t believe bigger is better; consolidating and concentrating your forces is often the wiser choice. Be wary of offending with your growing sense of superiority—you will need your allies. Compensate for the drug-like effect of success by keeping your feet planted firmly on the ground. The power you will build up in this slow and organic way will be more real and lasting. Remember: the gods are merciless with those who fly too high on the wings of grandiosity, and they will make you pay the price.
Existence alone had never been enough for him; he had always wanted more. Perhaps it was only from the force of his desires that he had regarded himself as a man to whom more was permitted than to others.
—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment
Keys to Human Nature
Let us say that you have a project to realize, or an individual or group of people you wish to persuade to do something. We could describe a realistic attitude toward reaching such goals in the following way: Getting what you want is rarely easy. Success will depend on a lot of effort and some luck. To make your project work, you will probably have to jettison your previous strategy—circumstances are always changing and you need to keep an open mind. The people you are trying to reach never respond exactly as you might have imagined or hoped. In fact, people will generally surprise and frustrate you in their reactions. They have their own needs, experiences, and particular psychology that are different from your own. To impress your targets, you will have to focus on them and their spirit. If you fail to accomplish what you want, you will have to examine carefully what you did wrong and strive to learn from the experience.
You can think of the project or task ahead of you as a block of marble you must sculpt into something precise and beautiful. The block is much larger than you and the material is quite resistant, but the task is not impossible. With enough effort, focus, and resiliency you can slowly carve it into what you need. You must begin, however, with a proper sense of proportion—goals are hard to reach, people are resistant, and you have limits to what you can do. With such a realistic attitude, you can summon up the requisite patience and get to work.
Imagine, however, that your brain has succumbed to a psychological disease that affects your perception of size and proportion. Instead of seeing the task you are facing as rather large and the material resistant, under the influence of this disease you perceive the block of marble as relatively small and malleable. Losing your sense of proportion, you believe it won’t take long to fashion the block into the image you have in your mind of the finished product. You imagine that the people you are trying to reach are not naturally resistant but quite predictable. You know how they’ll respond to your great idea—they’ll love it. In fact, they need you and your work more than you need them. They should seek you out. The emphasis is not on what you need to do to succeed but on what you feel you deserve. You can foresee a lot of attention coming your way with this project, but if you fail, other people must be to blame, because you have gifts, your cause is the right one, and only those who are malicious or envious could stand in your way.
We can call this psychological disease grandiosity. As you feel its effects, the normal realistic proportions are reversed—your self becomes larger and greater than anything else around it. That is the lens through which you view the task and the people you need to reach. This is not merely deep narcissism (see chapter 2), in which everything must revolve around you. This is seeing yourself as enlarged (the root of the word grandiosity meaning “big” or “great”), as superior and worthy of not only attention but of being adored. It is a feeling of being not merely human but godlike.
You may think of powerful, egotistical leaders in the public eye as the ones who contract such a disease, but you would be very wrong in that assumption. Certainly we find many influential people, such as Michael Eisner, with high-grade versions of grandiosity, where the attention and accolades they receive create a more intense enlargement of the self. But there is a low-grade, everyday version of the disease that is common to almost all of us because it is a trait embedded in human nature. It stems from our deep need to feel important, esteemed by people, and superior to others in something.
You are rarely aware of your own grandiosity because by its nature it alters your perception of reality and makes it hard to have an accurate assessment of yourself. And so you are unaware of the problems it might be causing you at this very moment. Your low-grade grandiosity will cause you to overestimate your own skills and abilities and to underestimate the obstacles that you face. And so you will take on tasks that are beyond your actual capacity. You will feel certain that people will respond to your idea in a particular way, and when they don’t, you will become upset and blame others.
You may become restless and suddenly make a career change, not realizing that grandiosity is at the root—your present work is not confirming your greatness and superiority, because to be truly great would require more years of training and the development of new skills. Better to quit and be lured by the possibilities a new career offers, allowing you to entertain fantasies of greatness. In this way, you never quite master anything. You may have dozens of great ideas that you never attempt to execute, because that would cause you to confront the reality of your actual skill level. Without being aware of it, you might become ever so slightly passive—you expect other people to understand you, give you what you want, treat you well. Instead of earning their praise, you feel entitled to it.
In all of these cases, your low-grade grandiosity will prevent you from learning from your mistakes and developing yourself, because you begin with the assumption that you are already large and great, and it is too difficult to admit otherwise.
Your task as a student of human nature is threefold: First, you must understand the phenomenon of grandiosity itself, why it is so embedded in human nature, and why you will find many more grandiose people in the world today than ever before. Second, you need to recognize the signs of grandiosity and know how to manage the people who display them. And third and most important, you must see the signs of the disease in yourself and learn not only how to control your grandiose tendencies but also how to channel this energy into something productive (see “Practical Grandiosity,” on this page, for more on this).
According to the renowned psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut (1913–1981), grandiosity has its roots in the earliest years of our life. In our first months, most of us bonded completely with our mother. We had no sense of a separate identity. She met our every need. We came to believe that the breast that gave us food was actually a part of ourselves. We were omnipotent—all we had to do was feel hungry or feel any need, and the mother was there to meet it, as if we had magical powers to control her. But then, slowly, we had to go through a second phase of life in which we were forced to confront the reality—our mother was a separate being who had other people to attend to. We were not omnipotent but rather weak, quite small, and dependent. This realization was painful and the source of much of our acting out—we had a deep need to assert ourselves, to show we were not so helpless, and to fantasize about powers we did not possess. (Children will often imagine the ability to see through walls, to fly, or to read people’s minds, and that is why they are drawn to stories of superheroes.) As we get older, we may not be physically small anymore, but our sense of insignificance only gets worse. We come to realize we are one person not just in a larger family, school, or city but in an entire globe filled with billions of people. Our lives are relatively short. We have limited skills and brainpower. There is so much we cannot control, particularly with our careers and global trends. The idea that we will die and be quickly forgotten, swallowed up in eternity, is quite intolerable. We want to feel significant in some way, to protest against our natural smallness, to expand our sense of self. What we experienced at the age of three or four unconsciously haunts us our entire lives. We alternate between moments of sensing our smallness and trying to deny it. This makes us prone to finding ways to imagine our superiority.
Some children do not go through that second phase in early childhood in which they must confront their relative smallness, and these children are more vulnerable to deeper forms of grandiosity later in life. They are the pampered, spoiled ones. The mother and the father continue to make such children feel like they are the center of the universe, shielding them from the pain of confronting the reality. Their every wish becomes a command. If ever attempts are made to instill the slightest amount of discipline, the parents are met with a tantrum. Furthermore, such children come to disdain any form of authority. Compared with themselves and what they can get, the father figure seems rather weak.
This early pampering marks them for life. They need to be adored. They become masters at manipulating others to pamper them and shower them with attention. They naturally feel greater than anyone above them. If they have any talent, they might rise quite far, as their sense of being born with a crown on their head becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unlike others, they never really alternate between feelings of smallness and greatness; they know only the latter. Certainly Eisner came from such a background, as he had a mother who met his every need, completed his homework for him, and sheltered him from his cold and sometimes cruel father.
In the past, we humans were able to channel our grandiose needs into religion. In ancient times, our sense of smallness was not just something bred into us by the many years we spent dependent on our parents; it also came from our weakness in relation to the hostile powers in nature. Gods and spirits represented these elemental powers of nature that dwarfed our own. By worshipping them we could gain their protection. Connected to something much larger than ourselves, we felt enlarged. After all, the gods or God cared about the fate of our tribe or city; they cared about our individual soul, a sign of our own significance. We did not merely die and disappear. Many centuries later, in a similar manner, we channeled this energy into worshipping leaders who represented a great cause and promoted a future utopia, such as Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution, or Mao Zedong and communism.
Today, in the Western world, religions and great causes have lost their binding power; we find it hard to believe in them and to satisfy our grandiose energy through identification with a greater power. The need to feel larger and significant, however, does not simply disappear; it is stronger than ever. And absent any other channels, people will tend to direct this energy toward themselves. They will find a way to expand their sense of self, to feel great and superior. Although rarely conscious of this, what they are choosing to idealize and worship is the self. Because of this, we find more and more grandiose individuals among us.
Other factors have also contributed to increases in grandiosity. First, we find more people who experienced pampering attention in their childhood than ever in the past. Feeling like they were once the center of the universe becomes a hard thing to shake. They come to believe that anything they do or produce should be seen as precious and worthy of attention. Second, we find increasing numbers of people who have little or no respect for authority or experts of any kind, no matter the experts’ level of training and experience, which they themselves lack. “Why should their opinion be any more valid than my own?” they might tell themselves. “Nobody’s really that great; people with power are just more privileged.” “My writing and music are just as legitimate and worthy as anyone else’s.” Without a sense of anyone rightly being above them and deserving authority, they can position themselves among the highest.
Third, technology gives us the impression that everything in life can be as fast and simple as the information we can glean online. It instills the belief that we no longer have to spend years learning a skill; instead, through a few tricks and with a few hours a week of practice we can become proficient at anything. Similarly, people believe that their skills can easily be transferred: “My ability to write means I can also direct a film.” But more than anything it is social media that spreads the grandiosity virus. Through social media we have almost limitless powers to expand our presence, to create the illusion that we have the attention and even adoration of thousands or millions of people. We can possess the fame and ubiquity of the kings and queens in the past, or even of the gods themselves.
With all of these elements combined, it is harder than ever for any of us to maintain a realistic attitude and a proportionate sense of self.
In looking at the people around you, you must realize that their grandiosity (and yours) can come in many different forms. Most commonly people will try to satisfy the need by gaining social prestige. People may claim they are interested in the work itself or in contributing to humanity, but often deep down what is really motivating them is the desire to have attention, to have their high self-opinion confirmed by others who admire them, to feel powerful and inflated. If they are talented, such types can get the attention they need for several years or longer, but inevitably, as in the story of Eisner, their need for accolades will lure them into overreaching.
If people are disappointed in their careers yet still believe they are great and unrecognized, they may turn to various compensations—drugs, alcohol, sex with as many partners as possible, shopping, a superior, mocking attitude, et cetera. Those with unsatisfied grandiosity will often become filled with manic energy—one moment telling everyone about the great screenplays they will write or the many women they will seduce, and the next moment falling into depression as reality intrudes.
People still tend to idealize leaders and worship them, and you must see this as a form of grandiosity. By believing someone else will make everything great, followers can feel something of this greatness. Their minds can soar along with the rhetoric of the leader. They can feel superior to those who are not believers. On a more personal level, people will often idealize those they love, elevating them to god or goddess status and by extension feeling some of this power reflected back on them.
In the world today, you will also notice the prevalence of negative forms of grandiosity. Many people feel the need to disguise their grandiose urges not only from others but also from themselves. They will frequently make a show of their humility—they are not interested in power or feeling important, or so they say. They are happy with their small lot in life. They do not want a lot of possessions, do not own a car, and disdain status. But you will notice they have a need to display this humility in a public manner. It is grandiose humility—their way to get attention and to feel morally superior.
A variation on this is the grandiose victim—they have suffered a lot and been the victim numerous times. Although they may like to frame it as being simply unlucky and unfortunate, you will notice that they often have a tendency to fall for the worst types in intimate relationships, or put themselves in circumstances in which they are certain to fail and suffer. In essence, they are compelled to create the drama that will turn them into a victim. As it turns out, any relationship with them will have to revolve around their needs; they have suffered too much in the past to attend to your needs. They are the center of the universe. Feeling and expressing their misfortune gives them their sense of importance, of being superior in suffering.
You can measure the levels of grandiosity in people in several simple ways. For instance, notice how people respond to criticism of them or their work. It’s normal for any of us to feel defensive and a bit upset when criticized. But some people become enraged and hysterical, because we have called into doubt their sense of greatness. You can be sure that such a person has high levels of grandiosity. Similarly, such types might conceal their rage behind a martyred, pained expression meant to make you feel guilty. The emphasis is not on the criticism itself and what they need to learn but on their sense of grievance.
If people are successful, notice how they act in more private moments. Are they able to relax and laugh at themselves, letting go of their public mask, or have they so overidentified with their powerful public image that it carries over into their private life? In the latter case, they have come to believe in their own myth and are in the grip of powerful grandiosity.
Grandiose people are generally big talkers. They take credit for anything that is even tangential to their work; they invent past successes. They talk of their prescience, how they foresaw certain trends or predicted certain events, none of which can be verified. All such talk should make you doubly dubious. If people in the public eye suddenly say something that gets them into trouble for being insensitive, you can ascribe that to their potent grandiosity. They are so attuned to their own great opinions that they assume everyone else will interpret them in the right spirit and agree with them.
Higher grandiose types generally display low levels of empathy. They are not good listeners. When the attention is not on them, they have a faraway look in their eyes and their fingers twitch with impatience. Only when the spotlight is on them do they become animated. They tend to see people as extensions of themselves—tools to be used in their schemes, sources of attention. Finally, they exhibit nonverbal behavior that can only be described as grandiose. Their gestures are big and dramatic. At a meeting, they take up a lot of personal space. Their voice tends to be louder than others, and they speak at a fast pace, giving no one else time to interrupt.
With those who exhibit moderate amounts of grandiosity, you should be indulgent. Almost all of us alternate between periods in which we feel superior and great and others in which we come back down to earth. Look for such moments of realism in people as signs of normalcy. But with those whose self-opinion is so high they cannot allow for any doubts, it is best to avoid relationships or entanglements. In intimate relationships, they will tend to demand adoring one-sided attention. If they are employees, business partners, or bosses, they will oversell their skills. Their levels of confidence will distract you from the deficiencies in their ideas, work habits, and character. If you cannot avoid such a relationship, be aware of their tendency to feel certain about the success of their ideas, and maintain your skepticism. Look at the ideas themselves and don’t get caught up in their seductive self-belief. Don’t entertain the illusion that you can confront them and try to bring them down to earth; you may trigger a rage response.
If such types happen to be your rivals, consider yourself lucky. They are easy to taunt and bait into overreactions. Casting doubts on their greatness will make them apoplectic and doubly irrational.
Finally, you will need to manage your own grandiose tendencies. Grandiosity has some positive and productive uses. The exuberance and high self-belief that come from it can be channeled into your work and help inspire you. (See “Practical Grandiosity,” on this page, for more on this.) But in general it would be best for you to accept your limitations and work with what you have, rather than fantasize about godlike powers you can never attain. The greatest protection you can have against grandiosity is to maintain a realistic attitude. You know what subjects and activities you are naturally attracted to. You cannot be skilled at everything. You need to play to your strengths and not imagine you can be great at whatever you put your mind to. You must have a thorough understanding of your energy levels, of how far you can reasonably push yourself, and of how this changes with age. And you must have a solid grasp on your social position—your allies, the people with whom you have the greatest rapport, the natural audience for your work. You cannot please everyone.
This self-awareness has a physical component to it that you must be sensitive to. When you are doing activities that mesh with your natural inclinations, you feel ease in the effort. You learn faster. You have more energy and you can withstand the tedium that comes with learning anything important. When you take on too much, more than you can handle, you feel not only exhausted but also irritable and nervous. You are prone to headaches. When you have success in life, you will naturally feel a touch of fear, as if the good fortune could disappear. You sense with this fear the dangers that can come from rising too high (almost like vertigo) and feeling too superior. Your anxiety is telling you to come back down to earth. You want to listen to your body as it signals to you when you are working against your strengths.
In knowing yourself, you accept your limits. You are simply one person among many in the world, and not naturally superior to anyone. You are not a god or an angel but a flawed human like the rest of us. You accept the fact that you cannot control the people around you and no strategy is ever foolproof. Human nature is too unpredictable. With this self-knowledge and acceptance of limits you will have a sense of proportion. You will search for greatness in your work. And when you feel the pull to think more highly of yourself than is reasonable, this self-knowledge will serve as a gravity mechanism, pulling you back down and directing you toward the actions and decisions that will best serve your particular nature.
Being realistic and pragmatic is what makes us humans so powerful. It is how we overcame our physical weakness in a hostile environment so many thousands of years ago, and learned to work with others and form powerful communities and tools for survival. Although we have veered away from this pragmatism, as we no longer have to rely on our wits to survive, it is in fact our true nature as the preeminent social animal on the planet. In becoming more realistic, you are simply becoming more human.
The Grandiose Leader
If people with high levels of grandiosity also possess some talent and a lot of assertive energy, they can rise to positions of great power. Their boldness and confidence attract attention and give them a larger-than-life presence. Mesmerized by their image, we often fail to see the underlying irrationality in their decision-making process and so follow them straight into some disaster. They can be very destructive.
You must realize a simple fact about these types—they depend on the attention we give them. Without our attention, without being adored by the public, they cannot have their high self-opinion validated, and in such cases the very confidence they depend on withers. To awe us and distract us from the reality, they employ certain theatrical devices. It is imperative for us to see through their stage tricks, to demythologize them and scale them back down to human size. In doing so, we can resist their allure and avoid the dangers they represent. The following are six common illusions they like to create.
I am destined. Grandiose leaders often try to give the impression that they were somehow destined for greatness. They tell stories of their childhood and youth that indicate their uniqueness, as if fate had singled them out. They highlight events that showed from early on their unusual toughness or creativity, either making such stories up or reinterpreting the past. They relate tales from earlier in their career in which they overcame impossible odds. The future great leader was already in gestation at a young age, or so they make it seem. When you hear such things you must become skeptical. They are trying to forge a myth, which they themselves probably have come to believe in. Look for the more mundane facts behind the tales of destiny and, if possible, publicize them.
I’m the common man/woman. In some cases grandiose leaders may have risen from the lower classes, but in general they either come from relatively privileged backgrounds or because of their success have lived removed from the cares of everyday people for quite some time. Nevertheless it is absolutely essential to present themselves to the public as highly representative of the average man and woman out there. Only through such a presentation can they attract the attention and the adoration of large enough numbers to satisfy themselves.
Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India from 1966 to 1977 and 1980 to 1984, came from political royalty, her father Jawaharlal Nehru having been the first prime minister of the country. She was educated in Europe and lived for most of her life far apart from the poorer segments of India. But as a grandiose leader who later became quite dictatorial, she positioned herself as one with the people, their voice speaking through her. She altered her language when speaking in front of large crowds and used homely metaphors when she visited small villages. She would wear her sari as local women wore them and would eat with her fingers. She liked to present herself as “Mother Indira,” who ruled over India in a familiar, motherly manner. And this style she assumed was highly effective in winning elections, even though it was pure stagecraft.
The trick grandiose leaders play is to place the emphasis on their cultural tastes, not on the actual class they come from. They may fly first class and wear the most expensive suits, but they counteract this by seeming to have the same culinary tastes as the public, enjoy the same movies as others, and avoid at all costs the whiff of cultural elitism. In fact, they will go out of their way to ridicule the elites, even though they probably depend on such experts to guide them. They are simply just like the common folk out there, but with a lot more money and power. The public can now identify with them despite the obvious contradictions. But the grandiosity of this goes beyond merely gaining more attention. These leaders become vastly enlarged by this identification with the masses. They are not merely one man or woman but embody an entire nation or interest group. To follow them is to be loyal to the group itself. To criticize them is to want to crucify the leader and betray the cause.
Even in the prosaic corporate world of business we find such religious-style identification: Eisner, for instance, liked to present himself as embodying the entire Disney spirit, whatever that meant. If you notice such paradoxes and primitive forms of popular association, stand back and analyze the reality of what is going on. You will find at the core something quasi-mystical, highly irrational, and quite dangerous in that the grandiose leader now feels licensed to do whatever he or she wants in the name of the public.
I will deliver you. These types often rise to power in times of trouble and crisis. Their self-confidence is comforting to the public or to shareholders. They will be the ones to deliver the people from the many problems they are facing. In order to pull this off, their promises have to be large yet vague. By being large they can inspire dreams; by being vague, nobody can hold the person to account if they don’t come to pass, since there are no specifics to get hold of. The more grandiose the promises and visions of the future, the more grandiose the faith they will inspire. The message must be simple to digest, reducible to a slogan, and promising something large that stirs the emotions. As part of this strategy these types require convenient scapegoats, often the elites or outsiders, to tighten the group identification and to stir the emotions even further. The movement around the leader begins to crystallize around hatred of these scapegoats, who begin to stand for every bit of pain and injustice each person in the crowd has ever experienced. The leader’s promise to bring these invented enemies down increases the leader’s power exponentially.
What you will find here is that they are creating a cult more than leading a political movement or a business. You will see that their name, image, and slogans must be reproduced in large numbers and assume a godlike ubiquity. Certain colors, symbols, and perhaps music are used to bind the group identity and appeal to the basest human instincts. People who now believe in the cult are doubly mesmerized and ready to excuse any kind of action. At such a point nothing will dissuade true believers, but you must maintain your internal distance and analytic powers.
I rewrite the rules. A secret wish of humans is to do without the usual rules and conventions in place in any field—to gain power just by following our own inner light. When grandiose leaders claim to have such powers, we are secretly excited and wish to believe them.
Michael Cimino was the director of the Academy Award–winning film The Deer Hunter (1978). To those who worked with and for him, however, he was not simply a film director but rather a special genius on a mission to disrupt the rigid, corporate Hollywood system. For his next film, Heaven’s Gate (1980), he negotiated a contract that was completely unique in Hollywood history, one that allowed him to increase the budget as he saw fit and to create precisely the film he had envisioned, with no strings attached. On the set, Cimino spent weeks rehearsing the actors in the right kind of roller-skating he needed for one scene. One day he waited hours before rolling cameras, just so the perfect kind of cloud could pass into frame. The costs soared and the film he initially turned in was over five hours long. In the end, Heaven’s Gate was one of the greatest disasters in Hollywood history, and it virtually destroyed Cimino’s career. It seemed that the traditional contract had actually served a purpose—to rein in the natural grandiosity of any film director and make him or her work within limits. Most rules do have common sense and rationality behind them.
As a variation on this, grandiose leaders will often rely on their intuitions, disregarding the need for focus groups or any form of scientific feedback. They have a special inside connection to the truth. They like to create the myth that their hunches have led to fantastic successes, but close scrutiny will reveal that their hunches miss as often as they hit. When you hear leaders present themselves as the consummate maverick, able to do away with rules and science, you must see this only as a sign of madness, not divine inspiration.
I have the golden touch. Those with heightened grandiosity will try to create the legend that they have never really failed. If there were failures or setbacks in their career, it was always the fault of others who betrayed them. U.S. Army general Douglas MacArthur was a genius at deflecting blame; to hear him say it, in his long career he had never lost a battle, although in fact he had lost many. But by trumpeting his successes and finding endless excuses, such as betrayals, for his losses, he created the myth of his magical battlefield powers. Grandiose leaders inevitably resort to such marketing magic.
Related to this is the belief that they can easily transfer their skills—a movie executive can become a theme park designer, a businessman can become the leader of a nation. Because they are magically gifted, they can try their hand at anything that attracts them. This is often a fatal move on their part, as they attempt things beyond their expertise and quickly become overwhelmed with the complexity and chaos that come from their lack of experience. In dealing with such types, look carefully at their record and notice how many glaring failures they have had. Although people under the influence of their grandiosity will probably not listen, publicize the truth of their record in as neutral a manner as possible.
I’m invulnerable. The grandiose leader takes risks. This is what often attracts attention in the first place, and combined with the success that often attends the bold, they seem larger than life. But this boldness is not really under control. They must take actions that create a splash in order to keep the attention coming that feeds their high self-opinion. They cannot rest or retreat, because that would cause a lapse in publicity. To make things worse, they come to feel invulnerable because so many times in the past they have gotten away with risky maneuvers, and if they faced setbacks, they managed to overcome them through more audacity. Furthermore, these daring activities make them feel alive and on edge. It becomes a drug. They need bigger stakes and rewards to maintain the feeling of godlike invulnerability. They can work twenty hours a day when under this form of pressure. They can walk through fire.
In fact they are rather invulnerable, until that fatal hubristic maneuver in which they finally go too far and it all crashes down. This could be MacArthur’s grandiose tour of the United States after the Korean War, in which his irrational need for attention became painfully apparent; or Mao’s fatal decision to unleash the Cultural Revolution; or Stan O’Neal, CEO of Merrill Lynch, sticking with mortgage-backed securities when everyone else was getting out, essentially destroying one of the oldest financial institutions in the country. Suddenly the aura of being invulnerable is shattered. This occurs because their decisions are determined not by rational considerations but by the need for attention and glory, and eventually reality catches up, in one hard blow.
In general, in dealing with the grandiose leader, you want to try to deflate the sacred, glorious image they have forged. They will overreact and their followers will become rabid, but slowly a few followers may have second thoughts. Creating a viral disenchantment is your best hope.
Grandiosity is a form of primal energy we all possess. It impels us to want something more than we have, to be recognized and esteemed by others, and to feel connected to something larger. The problem is not with the energy itself, which can be used to fuel our ambitions, but with the direction it takes. Normally grandiosity makes us imagine we are greater and more superior than is actually the case. We can call this fantastical grandiosity because it is based on our fantasies and the skewed impression we get from any attention we receive. The other form, which we shall call practical grandiosity, is not easy to achieve and does not come naturally to us, but it can be the source of tremendous power and self-fulfillment.
Practical grandiosity is based not on fantasy but on reality. The energy is channeled into our work and our desire to reach goals, to solve problems, or to improve relationships. It impels us to develop and hone our skills. Through our accomplishments we can feel greater. We attract attention through our work. The attention we receive in this way is gratifying and keeps us energized, but the greater sense of gratification comes from the work itself and from overcoming our own weaknesses. The desire for attention is under control and subordinate. Our self-esteem is raised, but it is tied to real achievements, not to nebulous, subjective fantasies. We feel our presence enlarged through our work, through what we contribute to society.
Although the precise way to channel the energy will depend on your field and skill level, the following are five basic principles that are essential for attaining the high level of fulfillment that can come from this reality-based form of grandiosity.
Come to terms with your grandiose needs. You need to begin from a position of honesty. You must admit to yourself that you do want to feel important and be the center of attention. This is natural. Yes, you want to feel superior. You have ambitions like everyone else. In the past, your grandiose needs may have led you into some bad decisions, which you can now acknowledge and analyze. Denial is your worst enemy. Only with this self-awareness can you begin to transform the energy into something practical and productive.
Concentrate the energy. Fantastical grandiosity will make you flit from one fantastic idea to another, imagining all the accolades and attention you’ll receive but never realizing any of them. You must do the opposite. You want to get into the habit of focusing deeply and completely on a single project or problem. You want the goal to be relatively simple to reach, and within a time frame of months and not years. You will want to break this down into mini steps and goals along the way. Your objective here is to enter a state of flow, in which your mind becomes increasingly absorbed in the work, to the point at which ideas come to you at odd hours. This feeling of flow should be pleasurable and addicting. You don’t allow yourself to engage in fantasies about other projects on the horizon. You want to absorb yourself in the work as deeply as possible. If you do not enter this state of flow, you are inevitably multitasking and stopping the focus. Work on overcoming this.
This could be a project you work on outside your job. It is not the number of hours you put in but the intensity and consistent effort you bring to it.
Related to this, you want this project to involve skills you already have or are in the process of developing. Your goal is to see continual improvement in your skill level, which will certainly come from the depth of your focus. Your confidence will rise. That should be enough to keep you advancing.
Maintain a dialogue with reality. Your project begins with an idea, and as you try to hone this idea, you let your imagination take flight, being open to various possibilities. At some point you move from the planning phase to execution. Now you must actively search for feedback and criticism from people you respect or from your natural audience. You want to hear about the flaws and inadequacies in your plan, for that is the only way to improve your skills. If the project fails to have the results you imagined, or the problem is not solved, embrace this as the best way to learn. Analyze what you did wrong in depth, being as brutal as possible.
Once you have feedback and have analyzed the results, you then return to this project or start a new one, letting your imagination loose again but incorporating what you have learned from the experience. You keep cycling endlessly through this process, noticing with excitement how you are improving by doing so. If you stay too long in the imagination phase, what you create will tend to be grandiose and detached from reality. If you only listen to feedback and try to make the work a complete reflection of what others tell you or want, the work will be conventional and flat. By maintaining a continual dialogue between reality (feedback) and your imagination, you will create something practical and powerful.
If you have any success with your projects, that is when you must step back from the attention you are receiving. Look at the role that luck may have played, or the help you received from others. Resist falling for the success delusion. As you now focus on the next idea, see yourself back at square one. Each new project represents a new challenge and a fresh approach. You might very well fail. You need the same level of focus as you had on the last project. Never rest on your laurels or let up in your intensity.
Seek out calibrated challenges. The problem with fantastical grandiosity is that you imagine some great new goal you will achieve—that brilliant novel you will write, that lucrative start-up you will create. The challenge is so great that you may start, but you will soon peter out as you realize you are not up to it. Or if you are the ambitious, assertive type, you might try to go all the way, but you will end up in the Euro Disney syndrome, overwhelmed, failing in a large fashion, blaming others for the fiasco, and never learning from the experience.
Your goal with practical grandiosity is to continually look for challenges just above your skill level. If the projects you attempt are below or at your skill level, you will become easily bored and less focused. If they are too ambitious, you will feel crushed by your failure. However, if they are calibrated to be more challenging than the last project, but to a moderate degree, you will find yourself excited and energized. You must be up to this challenge so your focus levels will rise as well. This is the optimum path toward learning. If you fail, you will not feel overwhelmed and you will learn even more. If you succeed, your confidence increases, but it is tied to your work and to having met the challenge. Your sense of accomplishment will satisfy your need for greatness.
Let loose your grandiose energy. Once you have tamed this energy, made it serve your ambitions and goals, you should feel safe to let it loose upon occasion. Think of it as a wild animal that needs to roam free now and then or it will go mad from restlessness. What this means is that you occasionally allow yourself to entertain ideas or projects that represent greater challenges than you have considered in the past. You feel increasingly confident and you want to test yourself. Consider developing a new skill in an unrelated field, or writing that novel you once considered a distraction from the real work. Or simply give freer rein to your imagination when in the planning process.
If you are in the public eye and must perform before others, let go of the restraint you have developed and let your grandiose energy fill you with high levels of self-belief. This will animate your gestures and give you greater charisma. If you are a leader and your group is facing difficulties or a crisis, let yourself feel unusually grandiose and confident in the success of your mission, to lift up and inspire the troops. That was the kind of grandiosity that made Winston Churchill such an effective leader during World War II.
In any event, you can allow yourself to feel ever so godlike because you have come so far with your improved skills and actual achievements. If you have taken the time to properly work through the other principles, you will naturally return back down to earth after a few days or hours of grandiose exuberance.
Finally, at the source of our infantile grandiosity was a feeling of intense connection to the mother. This was so complete and satisfying that we spend much of our time trying to recapture that feeling in some way. It is the source of our desire to transcend our banal existence, to want something so large we cannot express what it is. We have glimmers of that original connection in intimate relationships and in moments of unconditional love, but these are rare and fleeting. Entering a state of flow with our work or cultivating deeper levels of empathy with people (see chapter 2) will give us more such moments and satisfy the urge. We feel oneness with the work or with other people. We can take this even further by experiencing a deeper connection to life itself, what Sigmund Freud called “the oceanic feeling.” Consider this in the following way: The formation of life itself on the planet Earth so many billions of years ago required a concatenation of events that were highly improbable. The beginning of life was a tenuous experiment that could have expired at any moment early on. The evolution since then of so many forms of life is astounding, and at the end point of that evolution is the only animal we know to be conscious of this entire process, the human.
Your being alive is an equally unlikely and uncanny event. It required a very particular chain of events leading to the meeting of your parents and your birth, all of which could have gone very differently. At this moment, as you read this, you are conscious of life along with billions of others, and only for a brief time, until you die. Fully taking in this reality is what we shall call the Sublime. (For more on this, see chapter 18.) It cannot be put into words. It is too awesome. Feeling a part of that tenuous experiment of life is a kind of reverse grandiosity—you are not disturbed by your relative smallness but rather ecstatic at the sense of being a drop in this ocean.
Then, overwhelmed by the afflictions I suffered in connection with my sons, I sent again and inquired of the god what I should do to pass the rest of my life most happily; and he answered me: “Knowing thyself, O Croesus—thus shall you live and be happy.” . . . [But] spoiled by the wealth I had and by those who were begging me to become their leader, by the gifts they gave me and by the people who flattered me, saying that if I would consent to take command they would all obey me and I should be the greatest of men—puffed up by such words, when all the princes round about chose me to be their leader in the war, I accepted the command, deeming myself fit to be the greatest; but, as it seems, I did not know myself. For I thought I was capable of carrying on war against you; but I was no match for you. . . . Therefore, as I was thus without knowledge, I have my just deserts.
—Xenophon, The Education of Cyrus
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