Do You Have to Be a Jerk to Be Great?

Navigating the tension between work and relationships.

Soren Kierkegaard asked God to give him the power to will one thing. Amid all the distractions of life he asked for the power to live a focused life, wholeheartedly, toward a single point.

And we’ve all known geniuses and others who have practiced a secular version of this. They have found their talent and specialty. They focus monomaniacally upon it. They put in the 10,000 hours (and more) that true excellence requires.

I just read “You Must Change Your Life,” Rachel Corbett’s joint biography of the sculptor Auguste Rodin and his protégé, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and they were certainly versions of this type.

The elder Rodin had one lesson for the young Rilke. “Travailler, toujours travailler.” Work, always work.

This is the heroic vision of the artist. He renounces earthly and domestic pleasures and throws himself into his craft. Only through total dedication can you really see deeply and produce art.

In his studio, Rodin could be feverishly obsessed, oblivious to all around him. “He abided by his own code, and no one else’s standards could measure him,” Corbett writes. “He contained within himself his own universe, which Rilke decided was more valuable than living in a world of others’ making.”

Rilke had the same solitary focus. With the bohemian revelry of turn-of-the-century Paris all around him, Rilke was alone writing in his room. He didn’t drink or dance. He celebrated love, but as a general outlook and not as something you gave to any one person or place.

Both men produced masterworks that millions have treasured. But readers finish Corbett’s book feeling that both men had misspent their lives.

They were both horrid to their wives and children. Rodin grew pathetically creepy, needy and lonely. Rilke didn’t go back home as his father was dying, nor allow his wife and child to be with him as he died. Both men lived most of their lives without intimate care.

Their lives raise the question: Do you have to be so obsessively focused to be great? The traditional masculine answer is yes. But probably the right answer is no.

In the first place, being monomaniacal may not even be good for your work. Another book on my summer reading list was “Range,” by David Epstein. It’s a powerful argument that generalists perform better than specialists.

The people who achieve excellence tend to have one foot outside their main world. “Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least 22 times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician or other type of performer,” Epstein writes.

He shows the same pattern in domain after domain: People who specialize in one thing succeed early, but then they slide back to mediocrity as their minds rigidify.

Children who explore many instruments when they are young end up as more skilled musicians than the ones who are locked into just one. People who transition between multiple careers when they are young end up ahead over time because they can take knowledge in one domain and apply it to another.

A tech entrepreneur who is 50 is twice as likely to start a superstar company than one who is 30, because he or she has a broader range of experience. A survey of the fastest-growing tech start-ups found that the average age of the founder was 45.

For most people, creativity is precisely the ability to pursue multiple interests at once, and then bring them together in new ways. “Without contraries is no progression,” William Blake wrote.

Furthermore, living a great life is more important than producing great work. A life devoted to one thing is a stunted life, while a pluralistic life is an abundant one. This is a truth feminism has brought into the culture. Women have rarely been able to live as monads. They were generally compelled to switch, hour by hour, between different domains and roles: home, work, market, the neighborhood.

A better definition of success is living within the tension of multiple commitments and trying to make them mutually enhancing. The shape of this success is a pentagram — the five-pointed star. You have your five big passions in life — say,

  1. family,
  2. vocation,
  3. friends,
  4. community,
  5. faith —

and live flexibly within the gravitational pull of each.

You join communities that are different from one another. You gain wisdom by entering into different kinds of consciousness. You find freedom at the borderlands between your communities.

Over the past month, while reading these books, I attended four conferences. Two were very progressive, with almost no conservatives. The other two were very conservative, with almost no progressives. Each of the worlds was so hermetically sealed I found that I couldn’t even describe one world to members of the other. It would have been like trying to describe bicycles to a fish.

I was reading about how rich the pluralistic life is, and how stifling a homogeneous life is. And I was realizing that while we’re learning to preach gospel of openness and diversity, we’re mostly not living it. In the realm of public life, many live as monads, within the small circles of one specialty, one code, no greatness.

Psychological Disorders as Success Criteria in the Computing Industry

“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.”
       Ayn Rand. 1905-1982.

“Only the paranoid survive.”
       Andy Grove. 1936-2016.
“There was something very slightly odd about him, but it was hard to say what it was.”
       Douglas Adams. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
.. Over the past thirty five years, I’ve worked with thousands of smart and successful people in the computing industry. Now that I look back on it, I am amazed by what a large percentage of them exhsibited symptoms from one or other so-called psychological “disorders”, myself being the poster boy. When I talk about psychological disorders here, I’m referring to those listed in DSM 5: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the authoritative book on the topic according to the American Psychiatric Association. I’m intentionally using quotes for the word “disorder” because I plan to argue that these once abnormal tendencies are now commonplace, at least in certain professions, and should no longer be viewed as abnormal nor should they be stigmatized. The question is not whether many of us suffer from such traits but whether we are able to function as normal and successful members of society despite them.
One obvious example of such behavior is an addiction to and an obsession for extreme sports. I claim, based mostly on anecdotal data, that a statistically aberrant percentage of successful people in the computer industry obsess over sports of one kind or another. I don’t mean running a 5K or going for a weekend hike with the dog. I mean ultra-marathoners who routinely run a hundred miles or more, IronMan triathletes, bikers who do century rides every weekend, mountain climbers who train to climb Mt. Rainier, you name it. Several articles have recently been written on this topic, highlighting surges in kiteboarding, skydiving, sports car racing, mountaineering, and other similar extreme endeavours among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. These are all extremely busy people – most of them working sixty, eighty, a hundred hours a week. Yet, they also somehow find the time to spend 24 hours running non-stop up a mountain or to bike two hundred miles from Seattle to Portland “for fun” in a single day!
This is not normal. You cannot compete in an IronMan triathlon unless you obsess over your training. You cannot run a hundred miles in a single day unless you run the equivalent of a marathon (and more) every weekend. That takes time, it takes commitment, and it takes obsession
.. Studies have also shown that autism is linked to mathematical talent and that college students opting for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) degrees have a higher than normal incidence of autism in their families. And one of the symptoms of autism is an “intense interest in a limited number of things” – in other words, obsessive behavior. The prevalence of mild autism (Asperger’s Syndrome) has been documented widely in the industry with well known examples such as Bill Gates. He is one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever met, but, according to the book, he “suffers” from a psychological disorder.

The Increasing Unfitness of Donald Trump

The West Wing has come to resemble the dankest realms of Twitter, in which everyone is racked with paranoia and everyone despises everyone else.

What made the Emperor Nero tick, Suetonius writes in “Lives of the Caesars,” was “a longing for immortality and undying fame, though it was ill-regulated.”

.. Many Romans were convinced that Nero was mentally unbalanced and that he had burned much of the imperial capital to the ground just to make room for the construction of the Domus Aurea, a gold-leaf-and-marble palace that stretched from the Palatine to the Esquiline Hill.

.. Chaotic, corrupt, incurious, infantile, grandiose, and obsessed with gaudy real estate, Donald Trump is of a Neronic temperament.

He has always craved attention.

.. Future scholars will sift through Trump’s digital proclamations the way we now read the chroniclers of Nero’s Rome—to understand how an unhinged emperor can make a mockery of republican institutions

.. He was post-Freudian. (“It makes me feel so good to hit ‘sleazebags’ back—much better than seeing a psychiatrist (which I never have!).”)

.. In due course, Trump perfected his unique voice: the cockeyed neologisms and the fractured syntax, the emphatic punctuation, the Don Rickles-era exclamations (“Sad!” “Doesn’t have a clue!” “Dummy!”).

.. Then he started dabbling in conspiracy fantasies: China’s climate “hoax,” President Obama’s Kenyan birth, “deep-state” enemies trying to do him in.

.. “Stop Being Trump’s Twitter Fool,” Jack Shafer, of Politico, advised, just after the election. Trump’s volleys were merely a shrewd diversion from serious matters.

.. “you’d expect that people would have figured out when Donald Trump is yanking their chain and pay him the same mind they do phone calls tagged ‘Out of Area’ by caller ID.”

.. Sean Spicer, the President’s first press secretary, insisted otherwise. Trump, he pointed out, “is the President of the United States,” and so his tweets are “considered official statements by the President of the United States.”

.. Trump’s tweets are most valuable as a record of his inner life: his obsessions, his rages, his guilty conscience.

.. he set a White House record with a sixteen-tweet day.

.. took credit for a year without an American air crash,

.. he continued to offer respect bordering on servility to the likes of Vladimir Putin.

.. One of his signature phrases—“fake news”—has been adopted by autocrats from Bashar al-Assad, of Syria, to Nicolás Maduro, of Venezuela. To the astonishment of our traditional allies, Trump humiliates and weakens a country he pretends to lead.

.. He surrounds himself with aides who are either wildly incompetent or utterly defeated in their attempts to domesticate the mulish and bizarre object of their attention.

.. There is no loyalty or deliberation in the White House, only a savage “Lord of the Flies” sort of chaos. Each day is at once preposterous, poisonous, and dangerous.

.. And so the West Wing in the era of Trump has come to resemble the dankest realms of Twitter itself: a set of small rooms and cramped hallways in which everyone is racked with paranoia and everyone despises everyone else.

.. Trump has reacted to Wolff’s book in the manner of a wounded despot

.. Nero had hoped to last long enough on the throne to re-brand the month of April “Neroneus” and the city of Rome “Neropolis.” He did not succeed.

.. The President sees one West Wing satrap and Cabinet official after another finding a distance from him. “Where is my Roy Cohn?” he asked his aides angrily

.. He is unfit to hold any public office, much less the highest in the land.

.. The President of the United States has become a leading security threat to the United States

Inside Trump’s Hour by Hour Battle for Self-Preservation

With Twitter as his Excalibur, the president
takes on his doubters, powered by long spells
of cable news and a dozen Diet Cokes. But
if Mr. Trump has yet to bend the presidency
to his will, he is at least wrestling it to a draw.

Mr. Trump’s uninhibited approach seems erratic to many veterans of both parties in the capital and beyond. Some politicians and pundits lament the instability and, even without medical degrees, feel no compunction about publicly diagnosing various mental maladies.

.. Before taking office, Mr. Trump told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals. People close to him estimate that Mr. Trump spends at least four hours a day, and sometimes as much as twice that, in front of a television, sometimes with the volume muted, marinating in the no-holds-barred wars of cable news and eager to fire back.

.. Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, has told associates that Mr. Trump, deeply set in his ways at age 71, will never change. Rather, he predicted, Mr. Trump would bend, and possibly break, the office to his will.

That has proved half true. Mr. Trump, so far, has arguably wrestled the presidency to a draw.

.. Mr. Kelly is trying, quietly and respectfully, to reduce the amount of free time the president has for fiery tweets by accelerating the start of his workday. Mr. Priebus also tried, with only modest success, to encourage Mr. Trump to arrive by 9 or 9:30 a.m.

.. Mr. Trump, who enjoyed complete control over his business empire, has made significant concessions after trying to micromanage his first months in office. Despite chafing at the limits, the president actually craves the approval of Mr. Kelly, whom he sees as a peer, people close to Mr. Trump said.

.. He calls Mr. Kelly up to a dozen times a day, even four or five times during dinner or a golf outing, to ask about his schedule or seek policy advice, according to people who have spoken with the president. The new system gives him “time to think,” he said when it began.

.. For most of the year, people inside and outside Washington have been convinced that there is a strategy behind Mr. Trump’s actions. But there is seldom a plan apart from pre-emption, self-defense, obsession and impulse.

.. Occasionally, the president solicits affirmation before hitting the “tweet” button. In June, according to a longtime adviser, he excitedly called friends to say he had the perfect tweet to neutralize the Russia investigation. He would call it a “witch hunt.” They were unimpressed.

He has bowed to advice from his lawyers by not attacking Mr. Mueller, but at times his instincts prevail.

.. When three former campaign advisers were indicted or pleaded guilty this fall, Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer handling the investigation, urged the president not to respond. If he did, it would only elevate the story.

Mr. Trump, however, could not help himself. He tweeted that the financial charges lodged against his former campaign manager, Paul J. Manafort, had nothing to do with the campaign and that investigators should be examining “Crooked Hillary & the Dems” instead. By the next morning, he was belittling George Papadopoulos, the campaign adviser who pleaded guilty to lying about his outreach to Russians, dismissing him as a “low level volunteer” who has “proven to be a liar.”

.. By Sunday morning, with news shows consumed by Mr. Flynn’s case, the president grew angry and fired off a series of tweets excoriating Mrs. Clinton and the F.B.I., tweets that several advisers told him were problematic and needed to stop

.. Once he posts controversial messages, Mr. Trump’s advisers sometimes decide not to raise them with him. One adviser said that aides to the president needed to stay positive and look for silver linings wherever they could find them, and that the West Wing team at times resolved not to let the tweets dominate their day.

.. The ammunition for his Twitter war is television. No one touches the remote control except Mr. Trump and the technical support staff — at least that’s the rule. During meetings, the 60-inch screen mounted in the dining room may be muted, but Mr. Trump keeps an eye on scrolling headlines. What he misses he checks out later on what he calls his “Super TiVo,” a state-of-the-art system that records cable news.

.. “I do not watch much television,” he insisted. “I know they like to say — people that don’t know me — they like to say I watch television. People with fake sources — you know, fake reporters, fake sources. But I don’t get to watch much television, primarily because of documents. I’m reading documents a lot.”

Later, he groused about being forced to watch CNN in the Philippines because nothing else was available.

.. To an extent that would stun outsiders, Mr. Trump, the most talked-about human on the planet, is still delighted when he sees his name in the headlines. And he is on a perpetual quest to see it there. One former top adviser said Mr. Trump grew uncomfortable after two or three days of peace and could not handle watching the news without seeing himself on it.

.. If someone on the show says something memorable and Mr. Trump does not immediately tweet about it, the president’s staff knows he may be saving Fox News for later viewing on his recorder and instead watching MSNBC or CNN live — meaning he is likely to be in a foul mood to start the day.

..  In private moments with the families of appointees in the Oval Office, the president engages with children in a softer tone than he takes in public, and he specifically asked that the children of the White House press corps be invited in as they visited on Halloween. Yet he does little to promote that side, some longtime friends say, because it cracks the veneer of strength that he relishes.

.. Only occasionally does Mr. Trump let slip his mask of unreflective invincibility. During a meeting with Republican senators, he discussed in emotional terms the opioid crisis and the dangers of addiction, recounting his brother’s struggle with alcohol.

According to a senator and an aide, the president then looked around the room and asked puckishly, “Aren’t you glad I don’t drink?

.. Mr. Trump’s difficult adjustment to the presidency, people close to him say, is rooted in an unrealistic expectation of its powers, which he had assumed to be more akin to the popular image of imperial command than the sloppy reality of having to coexist with two other branches of government

.. His vision of executive leadership was shaped close to home, by experiences with Democratic clubhouse politicians as a young developer in New York. One figure stands out to Mr. Trump: an unnamed party boss — his friends assume he is referring to the legendary Brooklyn fixer Meade Esposito — whom he remembered keeping a baseball bat under his desk to enforce his power.

.. advisers said they saw a novice who was gradually learning that the presidency does not work that way. And he is coming to realize, they said, the need to woo, not whack, leaders of his own party to get things done.

During his early months in office, he barked commands at senators, which did not go over well. “I don’t work for you, Mr. President,” Mr. Corker once snapped back, according to a Republican with knowledge of the exchange.

.. he had become more attentive during daily intelligence briefings thanks to pithy presentations by Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director, and a deeper concern about the North Korea situation than his blithe, confrontational tweets suggest.

.. “The bigger problem, the thing people need to understand, is that he was utterly unprepared for this. It would be like you or me going into a room and being asked to perform brain surgery. When you have a lack of knowledge as great as his, it can be bewildering.”

.. In almost all the interviews, Mr. Trump’s associates raised questions about his capacity and willingness to differentiate bad information from something that is true.

.. Mr. Trump is skeptical of anything he does not learn from outside his bubble.

.. “He really loves verbal briefings. He is not one to consume volumes of books or briefings.”

Other aides bemoan his tenuous grasp of facts, jack-rabbit attention span and propensity for conspiracy theories.

Mr. Kelly has pushed out advisers like Stephen K. Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, who he believed advanced information to rile up Mr. Trump or create internal conflict.

.. Ms. Pirro whipped up the president against Mr. Mueller and accused James B. Comey, the former F.B.I.director, of employing tactics typically reserved for Mafia cases, according to a person briefed on the meeting.

The president became visibly agitated as she spoke. “Roy Cohn was my lawyer!” he exclaimed, referring to the legendary McCarthy-era fixer who mentored Mr. Trump in the 1980s, suggesting that was the type of defender he needed now.

.. Mr. Bannon has told allies that Mr. Trump only “reads to reinforce.”

.. Mr. Trump’s insistence on defining his own reality — his repeated claims, for example, that he actually won the popular vote — is immutable and has had a “numbing effect” on people who work with him, said Tony Schwartz, his ghostwriter on “The Art of the Deal.”

“He wears you down,” Mr. Schwartz said.

.. “Who is going to run against me in 2020?” he asked, according to a person in attendance. “Crooked Hillary? Pocahontas?”

.. He is less likely to tweet at this hour, when the news he would react to is mostly recycled from hours earlier. But he watches Ms. Pirro and her fellow Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, and sometimes “hate-watches” CNN to get worked up, especially Don Lemon.

Mika Brzezinski explains what President Trump’s tweets reveal about him

We’re okay. The country is not.

..  White House threatened a negative tabloid story about them unless they asked Trump — who is friendly with the National Enquirer’s publisher, David Pecker — to have the story killed.

.. Trump took to Twitter on Friday morning and called the claim “FAKE NEWS” — prompting Scarborough to accuse the president of “yet another lie.”

.. Scarborough said Friday on MSNBC that Trump “attacks women, he fears women,” and accused the president of having a “really disturbing obsession with Mika.”
.. The White House came to Trump’s defense Thursday, saying that Brzezinski and Scarborough have said far worse things about the president and his staff.
.. “Look, I don’t think you can expect someone to be personally attacked day after day, minute by minute, and sit back,” deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters. “Look, the American people elected a fighter. . . . They knew what they were getting when they voted for Donald Trump.”
.. For months, Brzezinski has raised questions about the president’s psychological health, calling him “possibly unfit mentally” and saying that he is “such a narcissist, it’s possible that he is mentally ill in a way.”