The Psychological Challenge of Being a Prince
Amidst the celebrations of the birth of a British prince, it is worth thinking about what this may mean psychologically for a youngster who will turn 18 in 2031.
A look back at his forebears gives a hint of the psychological challenges he will face. His great-great-great-great grandfather Edward VII was a disappointment to his parents and lived a fairly dissolute life and only found a properly adult role when he became King at the age of 60.
George V had an easier time because he was only 44 when his father died in 1910, but he did not make things easy for his son Edward VIII, saying about him: “After I am dead, the boy will ruin himself in twelve months”.
True to prediction – or was it a self-fulfilling prophecy? – Edward had abdicated after only 10 months as King. The following year he met Adolf Hitler and subsequently had to be dispatched to the Bahamas as Governor during the war to keep him from causing further problems.
The psychological challenges faced by his poor brother, the reluctant monarch George VI, have been well portrayed in the film ‘The King’s Speech’.
And that brings us to the new prince’s grandfather, Prince Charles, devotee of homeopathy and scourge of modern architecture. Famous for his frequent spidery-handwritten notes to government ministers, it must be so hard for him to avoid feeling a gnawing absence of fulfillment about being able to play a meaningful role in a world about which he feels he has such compelling insights: aged 64, his mother 60 years on the throne, no matter how wealthy and happy a life he has, an ambitious man must find it very psychologically challenging indeed to be waiting so long for a job which he might never get.
With an apparently psychologically quite balanced father and mother, the baby prince may escape many of the challenges which faced his predecessors. Key to this is likely to be having a father who is modest and in whom kingly power does not ‘go to his head’ – because when this happens, the children of powerful, successful parents can suffer long term psychological difficulties.
As I show in my book The Winner Effect: The Science of Success and How to Use It, great success and power can so inflate the ego that people begin to feel so special and uniquely endowed that the come to think that some special force in the universe – often religious – must have been involved in their achievements. The billionaire John Paul Getty Senior came to believe himself to be a reincarnation of the emperor Hadrian, for instance, and Pablo Picasso’s staff referred to him as “The Sun”, while he told his own son Paulo that he was “El Rey” – the King.
Paulo Picasso’s life was one of failure and his own son Pablito killed himself two days after his grandfather’s funeral. Being the son of an ego inflated by power and success carries major psychological risks.
This is not surprising: psychologist Fiona O’Doherty has described the phenomenon of successful parents ‘hiding the ladder’ of the origins of their own success from their children. Success usually comes from a combination of talent, practice, confidence, persisting through failure and … sheer LUCK.
But the success or power-swollen ego tends to disdain such grubby realities and wants to feel special – uniquely and personally responsible for all his (it happens to men more than women) greatness.
So what can a child of such a parent do? – If your father is “The Sun”, then there is nothing obvious you can do to achieve success – you either have it or you don’t. And so the ladder of success is hidden from you and drift and lack of purpose looms.
For a prince it is a slightly different problem – you are “El Rey”. But as we saw from Edward VII and others, a prince can be psychologically undermined by a father who exalts his own kingly prowess in the same breath as he denigrates his son’s.
There is no sign in of this in the family of the new baby, but family-based succession is never simple. For instance, businesses which pass on leadership to a son or daughter tend to drop in value compared to those where an outsider is appointed[i].
But perhaps the greatest challenge of all is that which faces all young adults – in finding a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Overwhelmingly this comes from the brain-changing experience of success arising from mastering challenges and achieving personal goals.
This is a challenge for children of any background: poverty and lack of opportunity can starve you of brain-enriching success experiences, but so can having ‘success’ handed to you on a silver plate. This will be the greatest psychological challenge for the 18 year old prince.
[i] Bennedsen M et al (2007) The Quarterly Journal of Economics (2007) 122 (2): 647-691