Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Robert Greene’s new book, The Laws of Human Nature.
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 primetime programming. But television began to seem so small and constricting to him. He needed a larger, grander stage. In 1976 Barry Diller—a former boss at ABC and now a chairman of Paramount Pictures—offered him the job to head 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 and critical move in his career that summer of ’84, he finally settled upon the perfect target for his ambitions—the Walt Disney Corporation. 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 1966. 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 in 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 Corporation. 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 there to help and serve him.
Eisner wasted no time. He let go of over a thousand employees and began 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 their first seventeen films generated profits (Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, et al), a run of success almost unheard of for any studio in Hollywood.
One day, as he 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 goldmine 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 the company with profit, 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 Wonderful World of Disney, an hour-long television show from the 50s and 60s 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 Disney Corporation had plans to create a new theme park in Europe. The last one to open, Tokyo Disneyland in 1983, was 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 costs for 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. They were not so willing to wait on 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 day. 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 these debts. 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 him. Whereas before he had only had the highest things to say about their working relationship, now he complained endlessly 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 budgeted 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 his 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’ 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 had 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 had 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 dealmaker 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. He 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 co-leaders.
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? How would two such larger-than-life men ever get along? 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’ responsibilities, keep a tight leash on him, and make him prove himself as president. By doing so he could earn Eisner’s trust and get more power. From day one he wanted to signal to Ovitz who was boss. Instead of moving him into Frank Wells’ old office on the sixth floor at the 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. From 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. His treatment of Ovitz was downright sadistic. In Eisner’s mind, however, he 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 and 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 but 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 by 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 price of $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. The movies Disney produced were mostly not just flops but expensive flops, culminating in the biggest one of all, the film Pearl Harbor, which opened in May of 2001.
Suddenly it seemed that Roy Disney had lost faith in him. 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 his darkest hour he was going to betray Eisner? He 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 did it all unravel 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 or madness, his thinking so divorced from reality that he made decisions with disastrous consequences. Let us follow the progress of this 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 towards the top, which he achieved at the age of 34 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 than the attention and satisfaction that came 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 at Paramount was not completely of his own doing. When he had arrived at the studio, several films were already in pre-production, including Saturday Night Fever, that 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, he had to imagine that he deserved such accolades strictly from 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 some corporate executive, but rather a Renaissance man.
In building the park, he refused to listen to experienced advisors who recommended the Barcelona site, and who 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 wildly overestimating his creative powers, and now his 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 co-founded a new studio, Dreamworks. There he churned out more animated hits. The new studio drove up the price for skilled animators, vastly increasing the costs for 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 further level of delusion. People had become mere instruments for him to use. Ovitz was considered the most feared and powerful man in Hollywood. Unconsciously he had 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 delusionary 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 delusionary process without us 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 played in your good fortune, including mentors. 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 towards 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 in which everything must revolve around you. This is seeing yourself as enlarged (the etymology of the word “grandiosity” meaning big and great), as superior, and worthy of not only attention, but of being adored. It is a feeling of not being 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 with high-grade versions of grandiosity, such as Michael Eisner, 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 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 how not only to control your grandiose tendencies, but also how to channel this energy into something productive.
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, and 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 any more, but our sense of insignificance only gets worse. We come to realize we are not only one person in a larger family, school, or city, but of 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 to 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 only know 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 in the process. 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 towards 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 level of training and experience of these experts, 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, the powers that come from technology give 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 grandiose 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 deep down what is often 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, etc. 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 to others but also to 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 themselves 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 over-identified 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 grips 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 have non-verbal 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 for those whose self-opinion is so high they cannot allow for any doubts, it is best to avoid relationships or entanglements with them. 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 comes from it can be channeled into your work and help inspire you. 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 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 not only feel 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 towards 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.