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Why life can be difficult for the children of successful people.

September 5, 2012

ImagePresident Obama, according to the New York Times, is a hyper-competitive person who has to be best at everything, from politics to cooking chili. At one of his farewell meetings for White House interns, the NY Times reported, Mr. Obama offered this life advice to them:

“When you all have kids, it’s important to let them win,” he said with a smile. “Until they’re a year old. Then start winning.”

The Times description of him as an ‘overachiever’ is a little peculiar, given that he managed to become the most powerful man in the world, but if it is true that he has to be best at absolutely everything in life, then that is quite a burden for a person to carry – not to mention his family, and in particular his daughters.

It can be very tough for a child to have a highly successful parent, if the parent lets their success ‘go to their head’. And as the most powerful man in the world, it is almost certainly that power has changed President Obama psychologically – and indeed neurologically, as I will explain in a future PT blog. Because power is one of the most potent brain-changing of drugs.

It is very difficult for a person with so much power and so much experience of winning, not to begin to feel as if they are ‘special’ and unique. Of course President Obama is unique – being the first ever African American US President guarantees that. But the challenge for him is whether he can resist the temptation of many, many men who have become very powerful, to begin to believe in himself as in someway ‘anointed’.

The checks and balances of a democratic system, including a free press and an independent judiciary were invented largely because no man’sbrain can cope with the chemical and neurological changes that unfettered power causes in it, in part through the ramping up of the chemical messenger dopamine. President Obama is having to fight the fight of his life to serve a second term, and that is good – we all know what happens to leaders who are not constrained by constitutional rules and procedures – for instance dictators who feel themselves so indispensible to the nation that they change the constitution to allow them to remain in office – President Museveni of Uganda being an example.

But President Obama is a committed constitutionalist, a brilliant politician and a committed democrat, so in a mature democracy there is no chance of anything like this happening to him – on the contrary, his power has been severely limited by opposition in the Senate.

So there is little chance of President Obama developing the extreme delusions of powerful men such as the late J Paul Getty Senior, who wrote ‘I feel no qualms or reticence about likening Getty Oil Company to an empire, and myself to a Caesar’[i]or Pablo Picasso, whose referred to himself as “El Rey’ – The King, while his staff called him “The Sun’.

With a Caesar or sun-god for a father, there is a challenge  for any son or daughter to feel that their achievements are not paltry. For some this is not the case, but some children of life’s significant winners do well, too, if not at quite the same levels as their parents – Lachlan Murdoch, son of the media emperor Rupert Murdoch, would be one example, as would Hans Einstein, son of Albert Einstein, who became an eminent hydraulic engineer. 

Clinical Psychologist Dr Fiona O’Doherty of the Beacon Hospital in Dublin has studied the phenomenon of underachievement in the children of highly successful parents.[ii] She observed:  ‘Think of it this way: the child sees a parent high in the tree of success and wonders how he got there. The parent knows he has climbed up a difficult ladder, with many small steps, some of them luck, some perseverance and others to do with skill and application.  But something happens to some successful people – they hide the ladder. By this I mean that, in the self-satisfaction of their success, they seek to be admired for their greatness and do not wish to see this “greatness” tarnished by the true picture of a thousand small steps up a shaky ladder.’

And what better way to hide the ladder can there be than to consider your achievements as somehow ‘anointed’. For that is the delusion that some successful people succumb to.

I don’t think that President Obama has succumbed to this or will in the future, and it is easier for their children that they are daughters and not sons. But if the New York Times is right and he is so utterly competitive, then he should maybe practice not being first in everything and experience some of the intrinsic pleasure of just doing stuff for its own sake, and not to win.




[i] Getty JP As I See It: The Autobiography of J Paul Getty, Los Angeles, Getty Publications, 2003, p335

[ii] O’Doherty F (2010) Irish Medical News, September 27th 2010, p44. 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2012 3:17 pm

    There is also the simple fact that IQ regresses to the average, so the smarter the parents are the more unlikely it becomes that their children will be on the same level.

    As for Obama, I think you’re right that power can go to a person’s head, but he seems to be coping with it pretty well. Which may be why he has an edge on Romney who exudes narcissism and overconfidence. That kind of leader is more appealing in a crisis, like if there were a series of 9/11 type events. Then, I believe, people would vote for Romney.

  2. September 10, 2012 2:29 pm

    I agree about regression to the mean, which is a phenomenon that can be quite a challenge for successful parents. And I also agree with you about President Obama – he seems to be doing not badly, though I do wonder about the long term effects of the very high rate of drone strikes.

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