the importance of vision: what we can learn from total narcissists (even though they suck)
If you’ve ever been in an intimate relationship with a classic narcissist, you learn this the hard way: Narcissists suck.
Their charming façade turns out to be just that: a façade, shaped and molded to get what they want from you. They are punitive, controlling and emotionally abusive. They don’t allow you to have an identity of your own (you are an extension of them). They fall into rages over the smallest of things. They distort the truth. They have a complicated and often bizarre sense of logic.
And when they’re done with you, they cut you from their life as completely as flicking an OFF switch. If you’re lucky, you’ll get out with enough self-esteem left to build yourself anew.
And yet there’s no denying that some of them accomplish great things in the world.
Amazing game-changing things.
The paradox of what Michael Maccoby calls “the productive narcissist”: he who is an asshole to people in his private life is a hero to people in his public life.
Which is why, though assholes they may be, there are some lessons we can take from the best of them: the ability to remake a world.
The term “narcissist” is one of the most misunderstood words this culture likes to throw around. People understand ‘narcissist’ to be a wholly negative state of being, a self-obsessed, self-loving egomaniac who won’t think of anyone or anything other than himself….much less want to change the world.
But productive narcissists are the greatest visionaries you’ll ever come across.
They are also the most infuriating, because they never listen. They shut you out. They negate your opinions. They discard your thinking….unless it somehow aligns with their vision of how the world should be.
To deal with a true narcissist is to deal with an alien consciousness, which is why relationships with them can be crazy-making: you are constantly trying to interpret their actions in a way that makes sense to you, filtered through your sense of reality. Most of us share this reality, or at least enough of it to get along — and, when we don’t, understand the reasons why.
But a narcissist lives in a private world completely of his own making. A true narcissist, my therapist once explained to me, “is like somebody on a drug trip. It’s like you’re dealing with someone on acid. It’s an altered reality. It is not the same reality that you are in.”
(For example: much has been made of the movie THE SOCIAL NETWORK and the fact that it doesn’t seem to ascribe any true motivations to the Zuckerberg character, that, as one reviewer put it, “there is no why there”.
Which makes me want to say: Dudes. The guy – at least as he’s portrayed in the film – is a freaking narcissist. And narcissism makes up its own why.)
Michael Maccoby, referring to the productive narcissist as a “change the world” personality, writes:
A true narcissist is the kind of person who 1) doesn’t listen to anyone else when he believes in doing something and 2) has a precise vision of how things should be. A narcissist possesses this dual combination of traits, not one or the other; plenty of people who aren’t narcissists never listen to anyone else (they are negativistic, closed-minded, or arrogant), and plenty of people have an idea of how things should be (they are often just know-it-alls or big talkers). It is the combination of a rejection of the status quo, along with a compelling vision, that defines the narcissist.
….the difference is that the most productive narcissists, the ones who do change our world, have the charisma and drive to convince others to buy in to their vision or embrace a common purpose. They communicate a sense of meaning that inspires others to follow them, whereas the unproductive types retreat into their own world and blame others for their isolation.
Productive narcissists, he continues, “have the ability to change society. They are the people who take the risks that others can’t, or won’t dare; the most productive transform our world through politics, business, social action, or the arts.”
Lots of people like to talk about changing the world.
Narcissists believe they can do it.
So what’s my point?
Simply this: productive narcissists – from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Gates to Frank Lloyd Wright to Mother Theresa to Picasso to Steve Jobs — are walking, talking, breathing examples of the driving power of visualization to achieve huge goals.
As well as the importance of shutting out the naysayers.
What you put your attention on, grows. You become what you think about most.
Narcissists are not in love with themselves (narcissism is an escape from self, from deep shame and self-loathing instilled at a very young age). Narcissists are in love with an image of themselves that they hold in their mind and feed and nurture in as many ways as they can. It’s not that they “fake it til they make it”; in their private, altered reality, they are it, and the best of them can assemble what they need to make their vision come to pass.
They have no empathy, so they’re not afraid to make the tough decisions that success so often requires. If they hurt your feelings, tough (it’s probably your fault anyway).
They are always right, so ‘failure’ and ‘risk’ mean something entirely different to them than to the more ‘normal’ person. It’s not just that they know they will succeed; in some part of their minds, it’s like they already have. Success is the foregone conclusion. Any ‘failure’, no matter how massive or mortifying it might seem to others, is just another bump in the road, another part of the learning process, another stage that must be endured on the way to final victory.
And because their image is a matter of psychic life or death to them, they channel themselves into their work with incredible discipline and drive.
They are focused. Passionate.
If they need you, they’ll do almost anything to draw you into their world, which means that they’re usually big charmers (if only when they want to be).
And they do not, will not quit.
You don’t need me to tell you that writing, or any creative pursuit, is a long and winding and difficult road (and if you haven’t learned that yet — you will).
People will tell you that you’re crazy. They’ll laugh off your dreams, refuse to take them seriously, pat you on the head and smile politely.
You will meet with failure and rejection. Lots and lots of both.
You’ll need to constantly be learning, whether it’s technique or craft or promotion or marketing.
You’ll need focus and discipline.
But most of all: you need a vision.
As vivid and precise as you can make it.
Keep it front and center in your mind. Nurture it. Refine it — believe it — live it. Work that cliché – “fake it til you make it” – with every ounce of your glorious being.
Go forth, dear reader, and do epic shit.
I just remind you to also do this:
Be good to people.