I often think of The Great Gatsby. While everything in it has been said before, it seems like a particularly easy-to-understand piece on human nature – not least because it seems to be reflective of what our society looks like almost 100 years on. Gatsby was great because he was motivated by love and incredibly focused and resourceful in his quest. There were also many reasons why he wasn’t great: he lied about his origin, he lied about his name, he was a criminal, he had no problem seducing a married woman with a child… Most of all he got carried away from reality. He didn’t see Daisy for who she really was even though it should have been obvious. He suffered from infatuation, limerence and obsession.
There’s an interesting dichotomy that arises from obsession. On the one hand, it is a way to get motivated like nothing else. I was recently listening to an interview with Travis Kalanick, the CEO and co-founder of Uber, who talked about how he chose his idea. He said he was in love with the idea of Uber. He also said that after you fall in love with your idea the hard part is to adjust it to the world so that it is exactly the best it can be. It seemed that all great entrepreneurs develop their businesses for some kind of personal reason. Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook was something he would have wanted to use for himself. He seems fascinated with how people have huge areas of the cortex dedicated to deciphering the meaning of facial expressions, seemingly minor detail. The kind of motivation that’s required to spend every waking hour you’re not doing coursework in one of the top universities working on social websites means intense interest. Whether it is obsession or not, it’s close to it. Our culture seems to value obsession. In fact, the word has connotations of real dedication and martyrdom. There are gyms called Crossfit Obsession. A “normal” person couldn’t have the level of dedication that these entrepreneurs have, or a particular variety within the men and women of Crossfit – we’ve all met them. A healthcare professional would surely class them as having traits of OCPD, or find a way in which their activity is a form of escapism.
However, all great entrepreneurs are sufficiently in touch with reality so as to know how to adapt. This brings me to the second part – obsession needs to be balanced with reality. For anyone who knows the feeling, they know that this is much easier said than done. When one tries to reflect on reality, it is easy to slip into denial. Alternatively, it can be easy to see the flaws, decide that you obsession is silly and give up on it. It is much harder to see the flaws and incorporate this information meaningfully into your quest.
This idea of either idealising or damning your quest first came to me when I was dealing with patients who had emotionally unstable personality disorder as a doctor. People with EUPD tend to undergo something called splitting: something/someone is either perfect, or they aren’t worth thinking about at all. In fact, this is characteristic of many personality disorders. For example, people with narcissistic traits are very quick to decide that someone’s opinion is worthless if they don’t like something about this person.
How is it that some people are able to benefit from the momentum of obsession, but not dragged down by the unhelpful ignoring or reality or give up on their idea at the first sign of imperfection?
Are these great entrepreneurs necessarily all free from toxic personality traits? Not at all. It must be possible, however, to be sufficiently self-aware so as to let those parts of your personality that you need the most at a given moment to fully express themselves. After all, all these personality traits that we regard as vulnerable – and put them down as traits of personality disorders – evolved for a reason. They made sense in a context. They are only called abnormal because they stopped being adaptive when the environment changed, but the person who developed them lacks the self-awareness required to acknowledge that they are using legacy software – never mind adjust again. So it’s not like there’s just one personality type, not one strategy that will carry you through, but like Darwin said – it is the most adaptable that makes it through. Adaptability is completely a function of self-awareness.
So, how could we hook up with some of that self-awareness? My hypothesis is, as always, by paying attention to it. It is surprising how commonly people are unable to describe how they feel. How do you feel right now? Is it easy for you to answer? In normal life – and in psychiatry – I’ve met pretty high functioning people who are unable to answer that question. Really and truly, they look at you like you are an alien, look away and after about 10 seconds they say, I don’t really know. It’s obviously a spectrum and it’s not uncommon. Some of these people will try and assess how they should feel, making cognitive judgements about their circumstances. It’s called alexithymia. I think this is the first step. Ask the question – how does it feel? Putting words on it is a good place to start. Tackling physical sensations first could be an even better idea. When you notice that you are hungry – how does it feel? Is there a pain in your abdomen? Where? What kind of pain? Is it a cramp or a dull ache? Is there some nausea that comes with it? Does your abdomen feel warm or cold? Essentially, it is a form of mindfulness. With some practice it will be easier to put words on your feelings, or your inner state. It’s not a case of needing to soul-search. It’s not cognitive, it’s all about feelings. Whether we like it or not, emotions play a decisive role in our behaviour – they give rise to our behaviour, that’s what the word means. I think that mindfulness has the potential to increase self-awareness like no other instrument at our disposal. Mindfulness is known to increase empathy. Self-awareness is no less important. People who lack empathy are probably lacking insight into their own feelings to begin with. It may even make sense to think of self-awareness as a form of inner empathy.
If there was one thing that I think would advance someone’s personal development by leaps and bounds – it would be self-awareness. It doesn’t matter that you aren’t the strongest, the tallest, the smartest – or whatever, but if you able to be sufficiently self-aware so as to surround yourself with the right people – you can compensate for those weaknesses – and focus on your strengths.