ENTITLEMENT, CONTROL, AND PARANOIA

 

Chapter 14

ENTITLEMENT, CONTROL, AND PARANOIA 


One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.

—BERTRAND RUSSELL

When Xerxes, the Persian emperor, crossed the Hellespont during his invasion of Greece, the waters surged up and destroyed the bridges his engineers had spent days building. And so he threw chains into the river, ordered it be given three hundred lashes, and branded it with hot irons. As his men delivered his punishment, they were ordered to harangue it: “You salt and bitter stream, your master lays this punishment upon you for injuring him, who never injured you.” Oh, and he cut off the heads of the men who had built the bridges.

   Herodotus, the great historian, called the display “presumptuous,” which is probably an understatement. Surely “preposterous” and “delusional” are more appropriate. Then again, it was part of his personality. Shortly before this, Xerxes had written a letter to a nearby mountain in which he needed to cut a canal. You may be tall and proud, he wrote, but don’t you dare cause me any trouble. Otherwise, I’ll topple you into the sea.

  How hilarious is that? More important, how pathetic?

   Xerxes’ delusional threats are unfortunately not a historical anomaly. With success, particularly power, come some of the greatest and most dangerous delusions: entitlement, control, and paranoia.

   Hopefully you won’t find yourself so crazed that you start anthropomorphizing, and inflicting retribution on inanimate objects. That’s pure, recognizable crazy, and thankfully rare. What’s more likely, and more common, is we begin to overestimate our own power. Then we lose perspective. Eventually, we can end like Xerxes, a monstrous joke.

   “The Strongest Poison ever known,” the poet William Blake wrote, “came from Caesar’s Laurel Crown.” Success casts a spell over us.

   The problem lies in the path that got us to success in the first place. What we’ve accomplished often required feats of raw power and force of will. Both entrepreneurship and art required the creation of something where nothing existed before. Wealth means beating the market and the odds. Athletic champions have proved their physical superiority over opponents.

   Achieving success involved ignoring the doubts and reservations of the people around us. It meant rejecting rejection. It required taking certain risks. We could have given up at any time, but we’re here precisely because we didn’t. Persistence and courage in the face of ridiculous odds are partially irrational traits—in some cases really irrational. When it works, those tendencies can feel like they’ve been vindicated.

   And why shouldn’t they? It’s human to think that since it’s been done once—that the world was changed in some big or small way—that there is now a magical power in our possession. We’re here because we’re bigger, stronger, smarter. That we make the reality we inhabit.

   Right before he destroyed his own billion-dollar company, Ty Warner, creator of Beanie Babies, overrode the cautious objections of one of his employees and bragged, “I could put the Ty heart on manure and they’d buy it!” He was wrong. And the company not only catastrophically failed, he later narrowly missed going to jail.

   It doesn’t matter if you’re a billionaire, a millionaire, or just a kid who snagged a good job early. The complete and utter sense of certainty that got you here can become a liability if you’re not careful. The demands and dream you had for a better life? The ambition that fueled your effort? These begin as earnest drives but left unchecked become hubris and entitlement. The same goes for the instinct to take charge; now you’re addicted to control. Driven to prove the doubters wrong? Welcome to the seeds of paranoia.

   Yes, there are legitimate stresses and anguish that come with the responsibilities of your new life. All the things you’re managing, the frustrating mistakes of people who should know better, the endless creep of obligations—no one prepares us for that, which makes the feelings all the harder to deal with. The promised land was supposed to be nice, not aggravating. But you can’t let the walls close in on you. You’ve got to get yourself—and your perceptions—under control.

   When Arthur Lee was sent to France and England to serve as one of America’s diplomats during the Revolutionary War, instead of relishing the opportunity to work with his fellow diplomat Silas Deane and elder statesman Benjamin Franklin, he raged and resented them and suspected them of disliking him. Finally, Franklin wrote him a letter (one that we’ve probably all deserved to get at one point or another): “If you do not cure yourself of this temper,” Franklin advised, “it will end in insanity, of which it is the symptomatic forerunner.” Probably because he was in such command of his own temper, Franklin decided that writing the letter was cathartic enough. He never sent it.

   If you’ve ever listened to the Oval Office tapes of Richard Nixon, you can hear the same sickness, and you wish someone could have sent him such a letter. It’s a harrowing insight into a man who has lost his grip not just on what he is legally allowed to do, on what his job was (to serve the people), but on reality itself. He vacillates wildly from supreme confidence to dread and fear. He talks over his subordinates and rejects information and feedback that challenges what he wants to believe. He lives in a bubble in which no one can say no—not even his conscience.

   There’s a letter from General Winfield Scott to Jefferson Davis, then the secretary of war for the United States. Davis belligerently pestered Scott repeatedly about some trivial matter. Scott ignored it until, finally, forced to address it, he wrote that he pitied Davis. “Compassion is always due,” he said to him, “to an enraged imbecile, who lays about him in blows which hurt only himself.“

   Ego is its own worst enemy. It hurts the ones we love too. Our families and friends suffer for it. So do our customers, fans, and clients. A critic of Napoleon nailed it when remarking: “He despises the nation whose applause he seeks.” He couldn’t help but see the French people as pieces to be manipulated, people he had to be better than, people who, unless they were totally, unconditionally supportive of him, were against him.

   A smart man or woman must regularly remind themselves of the limits of their power and reach.

   Entitlement assumes: This is mine. I’ve earned it. At the same time, entitlement nickels and dimes other people because it can’t conceive of valuing another person’s time as highly as its own. It delivers tirades and pronouncements that exhaust the people who work for and with us, who have no choice other than to go along. It overstates our abilities to ourselves, it renders generous judgment of our prospects, and it creates ridiculous expectations.

   Control says, It all must be done my way—even little things, even inconsequential things. It can become paralyzing perfectionism, or a million pointless battles fought merely for the sake of exerting its say. It too exhausts people whose help we need, particularly quiet people who don’t object until we’ve pushed them to their breaking point. We fight with the clerk at the airport, the customer service representative on the telephone, the agent who examines our claim To what end? In reality, we don’t control the weather, we don’t control the market, we don’t control other people, and our efforts and energies in spite of this are pure waste.

   Paranoia thinks, I can’t trust anyone. I’m in this totally by myself and for myself. It says, I’m surrounded by fools. It says, focusing on my work, my obligations, myself is not enough. I also have to be orchestrating various machinations behind the scenes—to get them before they get me; to get them back for the slights I perceive.

   Everyone has had a boss, a partner, a parent like this. All that strife, anger, chaos, and conflict. How did it go for them? How did it end?

   “He who indulges empty fears earns himself real fears,” wrote Seneca, who as a political adviser witnessed destructive paranoia at the highest levels.

   The sad feedback loop is that the relentless “looking out for number one” can encourage other people to undermine and fight us. They see that behavior for what it really is: a mask for weakness, insecurity, and instability. In its frenzy to protect itself, paranoia creates the persecution it seeks to avoid, making the owner a prisoner of its own delusions and chaos.

   Is this the freedom you envisioned when you dreamed of your success? Likely not.

   So stop.

MANAGING YOURSELF

It is not enough to have great qualities; we should also have the management of them.





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