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.

Sep 29, 2010

22 comments · Add Yours

You’ve got me wanting to be a narcissist now… you had me up and until that last line!

This is eye opening. Having dealt with someone very close to me who lives in a completely different world than the rest of us, it’s scary to realize that their world is as real to them as mine is to me or yours is to you. No matter how whacked.

The one word that seems to characterize narcissists is “defiance”. An interesting characteristic to have–so long as one doesn’t become dependent on it.


damn you’re blogs are getting better.

according to Maccoby, I’m a total narcissist. NOW I need to figure out how to become a productive one.


Love this. Have a plan, go after what you want, and shut out the naysayers. You’ve gotta know when to stop, though. My guess is that no matter what they accomplish, real narcissists are never truly happy. That comes from connecting with other people, which you can’t do when your vision and needs and accomplishments are all that matter to you.


Yet another awesome and helpful post! I just completed my two week long journey to read your entire blog. And I have to say you proved your own point about the importance of an author having a blog. I wasn’t familiar with your novels until I stumbled across this blog doing a Google search for writer’s blogs. But because I got obsessed with your blog posts to the point that it interfered with my actual creative live, lol… I just sent a sample of The Uninvited to my brand new Kindle. (Not because I don’t already know I want to read the whole thing, but because I am a starving artist and can only feed my Kindle with samples and free classics right now, lol.) So blog well done!


Insecurity masked by a superiority complex. Wouldn’t it suck to have to spend your whole life searching for something bigger and bigger to try and fill a void within? Searching for that utopia that doesn’t exist. Needing constant praise in order to feel good. You’re right, they do suck.


Wow. Now I understand the person sitting across from me at the dinner table.

Okay, vision IS important. Ignore the naysayers (even if it’s that pesky, nasty internal editor) and go forth and do epic . . . stuff.

Excellent game plan.


This reminds me of “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” [George Bernard Shaw]


Very interesting post. Although I have to disagree with calling Mother Teresa a narcissist – I don’t think anyone can say she had no empathy for others. She had vision and guts and certainly an unswaying idea of what was Right, but I don’t think it had anything to with her vision of her “self” at all.


Bex — unless she saw herself and wanted to be seen/mythologized as a saint? Christopher Hitchens writes in an article in Slate:

MT was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction. And she was a friend to the worst of the rich, taking misappropriated money from the atrocious Duvalier family in Haiti (whose rule she praised in return) and from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings and Loan. Where did that money, and all the other donations, go? The primitive hospice in Calcutta was as run down when she died as it always had been—she preferred California clinics when she got sick herself—and her order always refused to publish any audit. But we have her own claim that she opened 500 convents in more than a hundred countries, all bearing the name of her own order. Excuse me, but this is modesty and humility?


Ugh, I dated one of those. I didn’t like being an “extension!” But as a first-time writer of my first “practice novel,” I can certainly see these values in my life acting themselves out. People like to tell me, ‘you’re writing a book?’ ‘it’s hard to get published you know,’ ‘you should be doing more housework,’ or my favorite, ‘why don’t you spend time on something more productive.’

Really? Just give up? Is that what they want? This is my vision, this is my goal, I have a plan, and NOTHING will stop me. And yeah, I think it will be pretty epic shit.

Thanks for the article. You truly inspire me.


Having grown up with folks who were either narcissistic or worse, schizophrenic, or both, you are absolutely right. One thing I learned from my paranoid schizophrenic mother was to pay attention to how things look, how I look. I’m not great at it but at least it occurs to me.

Thanks for writing this – love the bit about Mother Theresa. I’ve know many a ‘saint’ who have the same disorder.


What you put your attention on, grows. – you’ve nailed it in that one


My ex sent me this in an email with the subject: “Sound familiar?”

I can’t say this describes me exactly, but it definitely sounds familiar. If I’m being honest, it sounds very familiar. I know what I want and I get it. Sometimes it involves doing things other people look down on, but it gets shit done. Don’t get me wrong, I have my code, like everyone else. There are things I won’t do. But am I going to get all emotionally tormented because I had to mislead someone, whom I didn’t even like in the first place, to get what I want? No.

History is written by the victors. Since the North won the (US) Civil War, they say the war was about slavery. If the South had won, they would have said it was about political equality. Which version matters? Which one are children taught in schools? When all is said and done; if having the world at my feet means there are a few people who don’t like me anymore, I can live with that.

I know that this makes me sound like an ass to most people, but things are never as simple as they seem. I do care about people. I have friends that I would do nearly anything for. But if the time comes and I have to choose between them and my vision, I’m going to move forward. No one is irreplaceable, including me. It’s not, “I have to accomplish xyz” or “I must me known in this way.” It goes all the way to “this is the way the world needs to be.” Having said that, if I do go down trying to change things, then I’m going to make damn sure I get remembered for it.

So yeah, get to it, do some epic shit.


Good blog. I like it.


It’s hard to formulate a response to Christopher Hitchens without writing a huge long post, and an off topic post at that! But I just don’t agree with him. Except that I do. To explain: It’s true that Mother Teresa treated the symptoms without addressing the cure. This is a common criticism of her, and a valid one. She could have used her fame to work on actively changing policies that perpetuated a cycle of poverty. She could have changed her stance on birth control and abortion from a purely pragmatic standpoint, understanding that reproductive freedom is a very important precursor to women’s rights – and the rights of women in a society, studies have shown, have a close relationship with poverty.

So I’m not arguing whether or not she was a saint (though personally I think she was, whatever “saint” means), but that she wasn’t, in any way, a narcissist. She took the Christian (and very Buddhist) idea of “death to self” very seriously, I believe. And also the concept of being “in the world but not of the world.” To her, the world would never change. It was finite and fallen and poverty would always be there (even Jesus said that). Rather than trying to eradicate it, she simply believed that people should be treated with compassion and dignity, even if that meant just giving them a place to die peacefully instead of in the street. As for her unpopular positions on birth control, she was a true Catholic. She was unbelievably dogmatic about the faith she had chosen, and that being the case was required to have as little concept of “self” as possible. And I honestly believe she couldn’t care less about being seen as a saint.

Obviously you could argue that simply seeing yourself as God’s instrument is narcissistic, but I think true narcissism requires you to put yourself above others, whereas Mother Teresa didn’t. She just didn’t.

I actually worked with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta in 1996, in both one of the orphanages and in one of her hospices. It was, indeed, run down. But the women there, most of whom were mentally ill, very old, or very sick, received three meals a day, a bed to sleep in, and a clothes to wear. A stark contrast from the half-dead bodies littering the street.

One day I stopped at the convent. I heard Mother Teresa was in Calcutta. I rang the doorbell and asked to meet her and they brought me up and she came out, about three feet tall, all smiles and not at all bothered that I’d just come by unannounced. You can tell when you’re in the presence of a narcissist. They suck the air out of the room. But when she came in, there was none of that.

Also, I’m Jewish, not Catholic, so I don’t have hero worship for her or anything. I just respect her and what she did. Anyway, sorry for the long post! I enjoy your blog immensely and often come to it for inspiration before I sit down to write :)


Another heady and deep essay, Justine. And so much to digest.

I think about this topic all the time because I work in the Hollywood film business, and I’m surrounded by the personality you describe. I also want to match the influence these kinds of people wield and improve the world in greater degrees. But I don’t have the personality traits to do it their way. In fact, I may respect narcissists for their confidence and drive, but I also see how destructive their process can be. And I also see how the ability to persuade turns out some pretty lousy stuff and that many narcissists never apologize to anyone or admit their failures. Did these people come into the world this way or did they take on these attitudes while growing up? I suspect narcissists are born with Me-First mental weapons. I was not, and I can’t stop trying to empathize and understand the total picture, the alternate points-of-view, the feelings I may bruise while trying to get what I want. I certainly have a strong sense of what’s-right-for-me, and will fight to maintain it. But on an individual basis, as in direct confrontations, I think it’s futile to try shaping other people’s opinions. Just like me, they don’t want to be controlled. And yet, SO MANY PEOPLE ARE! Not consciously, but they are, through fearful ideas inserted into their brains.

Am I willing to do that? No. Can I compete in the race to change the world? I just don’t know. I’m stuck in paradoxes.



Awesome share! Thank you very much


Wow….what an awesome blog post. I’ve been thinking and writing about this subject a lot over the last couple of weeks, but you captured the concept so well that I can’t think of anything to add. I’m starting to become convinced that I’m a productive narcissist, at least to some extent. Now I just need a way to figure out how to overcome the problems that this personality type creates for personal relationships while retaining the benefits. Wish me luck!


Thanks for the post. I think you got it exactly right so I linked to it in my own tribute to meglomaniacs.

(And I think Christopher Hitchens—another admirable narcissist—was right about Mother Teresa.)


It is interesting to get your strong and creative take on the narcissist. And what can be taken away from it.


hi Justine , I caught your’e micro pic while I was body boarding the narccipatho afterworld blog galaxy , creative badass… the last name, niches within niches, intersections, mclaren f1s lotuses with batteries ? at what point did the fog start to lift? curiosity overload . do you have anyone that can relate to living , life where very little is as it would appear? mitch…..


Hi Mitch, I’d be happy to answer your question if it was clear what you are actually asking. :)


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