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Why do some narcissists end up being over-achievers, pillars of the community, and accomplished professionals – while their brethren fade into obscurity, having done little of note with their lives?
There seem to be two types of narcissists: those who derive ample narcissistic supply from mere appearances (“Potemkin narcissists”) and those whose narcissistic supply consists of doing substantial deeds, of acting as change-agents, of making a difference, and of creating and producing things of value. The former type aim for celebrity (defined as “being famous for being famous”) and the fostering and promulgation of an “empty brand” (name recognition without commensurate real-life accomplishments). In contradistinction, narcissists of substance strive for meaningful careers, albeit in the limelight.
We find Potemkin narcissists with empty brands in politics (the “Being There Syndrome” manifested in the likes of Obama, Palin, and Putin); in the media (where, for example, compulsively self-promoting physicists like Kaku or even Hawking are worshipped as transformative geniuses even though they are credited with a mere single, esoteric, and marginal contribution to physics, decades ago); in business (e.g. Donald Trump, or the infamous “empty suits”); and in entertainment (Paris Hilton, the Kardashians).
To create the empty brand, the narcissist cultivates a following with his alleged distinct character traits, looks, behavioral modes, daring audacity, and even shallowness (presenting his facade as proof that he is “a common man or woman, a typical member of the crowd”). He transforms himself into a fantastically grandiose cartoon, a caricature of the unfulfilled dreams, hopes, and wishes of his acolytes.
The Potemkin Narcissist accomplishes the impossible: he resonates with the shortcomings, losses, and failures of his obsequious “constituencies” or rapt audience even as he simultaneously ostentatiously flaunts his flamboyance, riches, and glamorous, meticulously documented life. This paradoxical admixture imbues his proponents, fans, followers, adherents, and admirers with hope: “We are so alike! If he made it, then, surely, so can I!” TV reality show programs like “The Apprentice” or “American Idol” capture this yearning for a breakthrough, a deus ex machina resolution and solution to the dreariness, shabbiness, and miserable hopelessness of the average spectator’s life. As the late lamented Bruno Bettelheim noted, these are the very same elements that make up great fairy tales like Cinderella or Red Riding Hood.
The celebrity narcissist has a short attention span. He rapidly cycles between the idealization and devaluation of ideas, ventures, places, and people. This renders him unfit for team work. Though energetic and manic, he is indolent: he prefers the path of least resistance and adheres to shoddy standards of production. His lack of work ethic can partly be attributed to his overpowering sense of entitlement and to his magical thinking, both of which give rise to unrealistic expectations of effortless outcomes.
The life of the celebrity narcissist is chaotic and characterized by inconsistency and by a dire lack of long-term planning and commitment. He is not really interested in people (except in their roles as instruments of instant gratification and sources of narcissistic supply). His learning and affected erudition are designed solely to impress and are, therefore, shallow and anecdotal. His actions are not geared towards creating works of lasting value, effecting change, or making a difference. All he cares about is attention: provoking and garnering it in copious quantities. The celebrity narcissist is, therefore, not above confabulating, plagiarizing, outright crime, and otherwise using short-cuts to obtain his fix.
The other strain of narcissist, the career narcissist, is very concerned with leaving his mark and stamp on the world. He feels a calling, often of cosmic significance. He is busy reforming his environment, transforming his milieu, making a difference, and producing and creating more details an oeuvre of standing value. His is a grandiose idée fixe which he cathexes. To scale these lofty self-imputed peaks and to realize his goals, the career narcissist acts with unswerving passion and commitment. He plans and inexorably and ruthlessly implements his schemes and stratagems, a workaholic in pursuit of glory and fame.
The career narcissist does not recoil from cutting the odd corner, proffering the occasional confabulation, or absconding with the fruits of someone else’s labor. But while these amount to the entire arsenal and the exclusive modus operandi of the celebrity narcissist, they are auxiliary as far as the career narcissist is concerned. His main weapon is toil.
The career narcissist is a natural-born leader. When not a guru at the center of a cult, he operates as the first among equals in a team. This is where the differences between the celebrity narcissist and the career narcissist are most pronounced: the relationships maintained by the former are manipulative, exploitative, and ephemeral. The career narcissist, by comparison, is willing and able to negotiate, compromise, give-and-take, motivate others, induce loyalty, forge alliances and coalitions and benefit from these in the long-term. It is this capacity to network that guarantees him a place in the common memory and an abiding reputation among his peers.
Not unexpectedly, the communication styles of these two types of narcissists are completely different. The Potemkin narcissist is sensitive to form, protocol, decorum, and etiquette. He is hypervigilant, constantly on the lookout for signs of disrespect, insults, and slights. He reacts with unbridled rage to any hint of disregard, disagreement, or criticism. The narcissist of appearances is vindictive, holds grudges, and obsessive-compulsive in his reactions to such misconduct and awelessness. In contrast, the narcissist of substance tends to focus on content rather than delivery. He is pragmatic and willing to compromise and reach a consensus. He does not take everything personally and to heart. He bears no grudges and is, usually, not vindictive (though he may be decisive or even punitive).
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