This is the age of the selfie-stick. We lionize those that clamor for our attention and impulsively beat our own chests because of an unflinching belief that we are special.
One only needs a pulse to understand the importance we place on the self. These are the fruits of narcissism. It’s easy to lament its corrosive effects on our culture; it’s much harder, however, to look inward and see how we as individuals foster and let narcissism corrode our own lives.
I think about this particularly when it comes to individuals we consider “driven”.
When we send young people out to the arena we arm them with a myth. It’s the myth of tunnel vision, of singular focus: if you sacrifice and dedicate yourself completely to an end you will emerge on the other side the victor.
Pick the arena: athletics, business, politics– within each field there exists a hero that tackles an obstacle through a singular and unyielding focus. Jordan worked harder than his competition. Zuckerberg tenaciously built an empire out of his dorm room. It’s a narrative that is easy to comprehend. Work hard, sacrifice, and you win.
What the tunnel vision myth doesn’t take into consideration is the whim of circumstance, the things that are out of our control. Markets crash, growth slows, injuries occur.
When I founded my company, I took on the role of “martyr for the mission”. No salary, working 7 days a week — every fiber in my body was dedicated to the success of the company. It sounds like a great plot line for an Aaron Sorkin script, right? Out of the spartan existence of a shared apartment, startup founder wills his way through the gauntlet of Silicon Valley.
Having tunnel vision is great when things are going well. When I received our first term sheet from a VC, I felt unstoppable. I poured all my resources into my identity as the leader of this venture and it paid off. I received funding. I was a success. I was validated.
What happens when things aren’t going well?
It turns out having tunnel vision is like investing in the stock market, but your portfolio only consists of one stock. When the stock goes up, you are a success. When things take a turn for the worse, you are stuck with the reality of your perceived failure.
I remember talking to a friend who’s company was facing some significant challenges. “You guys don’t understand my problems,” he would say. “My life, my issues. I have a lot of issues that you can’t begin to understand.” The totality of ‘his’ situation, ‘his’ drama, ‘his’ misfortune had become the filter through which he could see the world. Narcissism crept in and his esteem stock crashed.
I understood his situation all too well. I found it nearly impossible to escape my identity as a founder. I built a narcissistic fortress around that identity. It’s the inescapable pending doom scenario. Money will run out, investors won’t continue to write checks, slowing growth, big companies will sue us to the point of oblivion, founders kill each other, you name it–somehow the founder has to step in to do whatever it takes to save the company from splitting at the seams.
I am an insomniac. I’ve been an insomniac since I was 12 years old. When you are perpetually dealing with quasi crises your insomnia becomes an order of magnitude worse. Your thoughts become relentless.
Enter Mr. Sandman. I was prescribed sleeping pills for my insomnia. The pills helped me sleep, but it was all a haze. I was perpetually hungover from the prescribed pills. So what do you do when you wake up every morning with a hangover? Take stimulants of course. In fact, our whole team was taking pills to get an edge.
Downers to sleep and stimulants to be awake. I lost 25 pounds of muscle. My nervous system was a mess from the yo-yo’ing of these antagonizing chemicals in my blood stream. I was a wreck.
As the challenges of running the company amassed I became more and more isolated as I became more deeply whetted to the outcome of my startup. I became more dependent on the sleeping pills not just to sleep, but also to allow me to check out every night — a brief respite from my problems, my situation, my drama. Narcissism had turned me into a pill popper.
We do this when we have tunnel vision — we become our success and failures. We build glass castles to show the world how great we are and with one whiff of misfortune the castles turn into a personal prison of sorts. One moment you are a success, the next you are languishing in the cocoon of your circumstances and failures.
“I think, therefore I am,” Descartes famously said. The only reality that exists is our own, the only one we can experience. Sometimes we need a break from our reality. Our reality is very fickle — sometimes it provides great esteem, and sometime it saps us of it.
When we gather our identity from many sources we create a more diversified sense of esteem. We can fail or stumble at one thing and still derive esteem from something else. I can face a challenge in building a new startup, but still redeem esteem from my identity as a writer, musician, hiker, family member. When the market crashes in one aspect of my identity, investments in other aspects of my identity mitigate the losses.
This is critical. In order to prepare ourselves for the arena we have to prep ourselves for the deluge of obstacles we will find there. It requires a strong and robust constitution built on a foundation of high self-esteem; otherwise we will simply crumble when we encounter adversity. Esteem allows us to view our challenges objectively rather than catastrophically. These problems aren’t insurmountable, they are simply challenges that help us grow.