Does success strain mental health?
Does extraordinary achievement have a dark side? The FT's Emma Jacobs speaks to Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former head of communications, and Oliver James, a psychologist, about whether success leads to mental health problems.
Produced by Vanessa Kortekaas. Filmed by Steve Ager and Nicola Stansfield. Additional footage by Getty.
Contentment to me is perilously close to complacency.
The dark triad, as it's called, is much commoner in leaders.
I think the fear of failure is far more driving than the joy they get from winning.
Does extraordinary achievement have a dark side? Can you be driven while also content and of sound mind? I met Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair's former head of communications, who has spoken openly about his battle with depression, and Oliver James, a psychologist, to discuss this. I began by asking them whether success leads to mental health problems.
My mother always used to say to me when I was restless, and troubled, and striving, and all of that, she said, why can't you just be content? And I would say, because I don't want to be content. Contentment to me is perilously close to complacency, and not thinking there are things that you can do. And I think this point about happiness and mental illness is that there is another way, you talk about looking things the long way around, I think the other thing we do too much is look at all mental illness as being necessarily terrible. Some of the greatest artists, musicians, writers-- if you think, I wrote a book about winning recently, which was about sport, business, and politics, and the what characteristics make somebody want to be a winner and be a winner. And I pointed out, America's greatest president, in most people's eyes, was Lincoln. Britain's greatest Prime Minister, in most people's eyes, was Churchill. Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, all people who had what we would define as mental illness. And I would argue that part of what the-- when Charles Kennedy died for example, and I can remember Shirley Williams and I were doing a tribute thing. And she said, if it hadn't been for Charles's problem with alcohol, he could have been a great politician. And I said, well hold on a minute. What made him the special politician that he is is that he did have these flaws, and these faults, and these weaknesses, that made him a more rounded person. So I don't think we should always see it as bad.
I take the view that the sort of people who are prepared to work incredibly hard, which you have to do to be successful, and you are very, very motivated, are a self-selected group of people who are at higher risk of suffering all sorts of problems. For instance, there is good evidence that the average chief executive in America is six times more likely to qualify for a diagnosis of psychopathy. You know it's cold, callous, ruthlessness, Machiavellianism--
--or did he become president?
Well it a bit of a case study at the moment.
Absolutely. Than the general population, only 1%, versus 6% of CEOs. That's in the case of business, senior managers in this country you could study showing they're much more likely to qualify for a diagnosis of narcissism, but with a more Machiavellian. You know, the triad of narcissism, psychopathy and sociopathy perhaps, and Machiavellian, that triad, the dark triad as it's called, is commoner in leaders -- so I think people get it the wrong way around. Of course, there are exceptions where the talent is the key thing, but the talent itself, in most cases, only results from 10,000 hours of practise in the case of piano players, as we know, chess players, or whatever. So in most cases, exceptional achievement is the product of exceptional motivation and drive and hard work.
I mean, when you've met all politicians, and sportsmen, and so on, have you met people that are just content yet also happy and successful and--?
Have you ever?
No. Absolutely. I'm trying to think of something, for example, if you look at Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, look his face when he's watching a football game, is he happy? He's absolutely wracked. And he actually said, you know, I think a lot of these people in sports in particular, I think the fear of failure is far more driving than the joy they get from winning.
But if you see your kid striving for success, how do you guide them, do you think? How do you stop them becoming unhappy?
You know, my son wants to be a premiership footballer and my daughter wants be a model, you know. Age 12 and 15, so I've completely failed. But I think, how do you deal with it? I think it's got to be about intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. So you know, really would, you really might have crashed and burned if you hadn't been intrinsically motivated. A key question in you and your child would be, to what extent did your striving to succeed, your huge skill at reading how words and behaviour will be seen, you know it was one of your great skills, not the only one of course. Where did this come from? I would contend it must have come from you seeking a niche within your family and being able to convert that and dealing with difficult experiences and feelings when you're very small, and turning them into something very productive. But above all that it's intrinsic motivation. In other words, that it's driven by yourself, that it's self-motivated, self-determined.
I never felt pushed by my parents. I felt supported, but I didn't feel pushed. In fact, my mother especially was, if anything, trying to stop me pushing myself, because she felt it was unhealthy. Or she didn't understand it.
A great deal of high achievement is that somebody has managed, through various accidents or their family history to channel-- and David Bowie, I wrote a book about, called Upping your Ziggy, about David Bowie, the idea that all of us have a Ziggy within us, so to speak. And that he embraced his madness, the fear of madness that came from his family. He had three psychotic aunts, a half brother who committed suicide. And this all very preoccupied him with the greatest songs and the period he was greatest music in most people's opinion. He embraced it through this character of Ziggy Stardust, life imitating art. So he tried to live out that problem that he felt he had, that he knew he was exceptional, he knew always that he was going to be famous and amazing, he just didn't know how he was going to handle it. And he actually handled it through inventing this character, and all of us can learn from that. The persona--
That whole thing about creativity, I think, is incredibly important. I'm not comparing myself remotely to David Bowie or Ziggy Stardust, but the first novel I wrote, called All in the Mind, it's about my depression, my psychosis, my drink problem, but I'm putting them into different people.
And ends with a suicide. And I think it's the suicide that I--
Could have done.
--could have done. And in a way, I'm doing it, but I'm keeping going.