That’s right, if you want to be successful in business, you might as well be a psychopath. The deluge of “professional” career advice one receives these days always carries a veneer of virtue, but if you start adding it all up, it seems we are actually being told to just go ahead and check our humanity at the door. Between all this talk of focus, grit, and determination, there is an underlying messaging: If you aren’t successful, it’s because you feel too much.
Exhibit A: Psychopaths Really Do Well in Business
The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson, points out that the highest concentration of careers with psychopaths are CEOs. Are we surprised? A complete lack of empathy, human compassion, and determination for personal gain really goes a long way in making those “hard choices” that shareholders love so much.
We have no shortage of recent examples of CEOs with the valuable skill of ridding themselves of pesky distractions like a soul. Sure, you could say that their behavior must not work if we are catching them. However, I propose they are more like cockroaches: for everyone one you catch, there are thousands you haven’t.
Exhibit B: “Grit” is the Greatest Determining Factor of Success
A lot has been said lately about “grit.” Studies, like the Grit Scale developed by Angela Duckworth and Chris Peterson, show that it is the most important factor to predict success, beating out natural talent and intelligence. Common sense says that discipline is important for success in anything, yes, but there is a dark side to taking this too far.
Schools, colleges, coaches (sports and business) are now saying that grit and mental toughness, the ability to pursue a goal despite all obstacles, are to be sought like a holy grail. You know who keeps pursuing a goal despite all obstacles, objections, and criticism? Psychopaths, that’s who.
Exhibit C: Successful People are Focused and Free of Doubt
Be decisive! Focus on doing one thing well! Don’t let yourself get distracted! Thank God our modern business advisors never got ahold of Leonardo Da Vinci or Nikola Tesla, neither of whom were very “successful” from a modern business perspective. The brilliance of true creativity and innovation often comes from a distracted mind, but it does not bring monetary success. No, that comes from an undistracted mind, content to live exclusively in their selected venues.
Let’s not forget the other part of focus: certainty! A successful person isn’t burdened little distractions like matters of conscience. They are certain that they are in the right at all times; those in their way are enemies, and all who help them are friends (for now). All elements of human maturity such as self-reflection, self-examination, and self-awareness are stripped away for efficiency.
Exhibit D: Successful People Always Maintain A Well-Manufactured Image
Psychopaths exist entirely within a constructed image meticulously prepared to appeal to the masses, elevate their status, and hide their flaws. Of course, we all do this to some extent, but few of us make it as much of an artform as a truly successful businessman. There is nothing the world of business likes less than being reminded of the humanity of those they exploit.
“You are always being interviewed” or “you are always selling” is a common bit of horrifying advice young professionals now receive entering adult life. Career coaches and job placement firms are continually instructing people to hide all elements of humanity possible so that they might be accepted into the corporate hierarchy. We never really stop to think about the real message behind this: Nothing about you is of value except that which you can imitate of our own ideals.
Perhaps We Should Question Our Definition of Success?
Members of the jury, I submit to you that based on our cultural ideals, we have created a professional world that not only rewards psychopathic behavior, but produces it, and even blatantly encourages it. On the one hand, we espouse empathy and compassion as virtuous traits for society, yet we reward our ability to live without them. We mock young people who struggle with anxiety and stress because they still harbor human emotions like “sense of community” and “need for affirmation,” while we exalt the callous and self-centered as “leaders” and “paragons of enterprise.”
We all have to learn discipline and the ability to execute hard work, but do we want a world where being void of feeling is seen as a strength? Maybe instead of passing the buck to the next generation saying “they should be stronger,” maybe we should ask “it is really a virtue to make the next generation struggle as much as we did?” Maybe, just maybe, we can one day change our meaning of success to raising a generation of inspired, community minded, hard-working citizens, instead of a few king-of-the-hill psychopaths.