What are the determinants of high performance? My search for the factors that can fuel mastery have no limits-- I want to know all of the pathways to greatness, and how all of the various factors can combine to help us reach our personal goals. In recent years, one such factor that has received a great deal of attention is grit-- defined as passion and perseverance for long-term goals. My colleagues in positive psychology, including Angela Duckworth, Caroline Miller, and Caren Baruch-Feldman have started unpacking the measurement and development of grit, and I refer to their work for more on this topic. But today I want to touch on a specific connection that is rarely mentioned in such discussions: the possible role of narcissism in persistence.
I've been thinking about this for a long time. As a child, a learning disability caused teachers and students to treat me as unintelligent. As a result, I developed a very unstable ego. On the one hand, I had a lot of dreams about my future, and craved greater challenges, but on the other hand, I felt a constant sense of insecurity due to the way I was being treated by others. In high school, I decided I was going to break out of this cycle, and I signed up for the most challenging and advanced courses I could take. Yes, some of that motivation was a genuine intrinsic curiosity and love of learning, but I do think there was another element to the motivation: a desire to prove to myself (and others) that I was smart. Likewise, in her bestseller Grit, Angela Duckworth describes a moment freshman year in college when a poor grade and low expectations in a neurobiology class actually fueled her to immediately change her major to neurobiology!
Now, I'm not calling Angela (or myself, for that matter) a narcissist. In fact, I'm not a big fan of labels in general. What I've wondered, however, is how some pathways to high achievement can be fueled by narcissistic characteristics which exist in some degree in all of us. I've seen a lot of examples of really accomplished individuals who seem to have had serious setbacks in childhood that caused self-doubt, and yet they also had a certain ambition to achieve at the same time. What's that all about?
In recent years, psychologists have learned that narcissism is actually on a spectrum in the general population, with all of us showing some level of at least two paradoxical dimensions: grandiosity and vulnerability. Grandiosity is associated with optimism, assertiveness, and high self-esteem, and vulnerability is associated with self-doubt and hypersensitivity to criticism. Both of these dimensions vary in people, and it's possible to score high in one, and low in the other (or any other combination-- such as low in both or high in both).
Critically, either dimension alone is not conducive to high performance. Those with extremely high levels of grandiosity but no vulnerability are just delusional, and will be likely to persist despite obvious feedback that their strategies just aren't working. High vulnerability is also not conducive to high performance. As Angela notes in her book, having a growth mindset is really important for reaching your goals. If you are always so hypersensitive to the slightest criticism or indication that you aren't the best, then you will never take the really important risks that are necessary for growth.
But here's where things get really interesting: is it possible that grandiosity and vulnerability in combination can fuel grit? Perhaps a certain amount of grandiosity and self-doubt are important for high-level performance, but each one can keep the other in check. Some recent research suggests this might actually be the case.
In a recent study, Harry Manley and colleagues found across three studies that narcissistic grandiosity was only positively related to persistence to personally-relevant goals when individuals also possessed a degree of self-doubt. In the absence of vulnerability, grandiosity was unrelated to persistence. This effect was not explained by socially desirable responding or levels of self-esteem.
Now, one might counter that this doesn't speak to the adaptiveness of the persistence. It could be that people with high grandiosity and vulnerability may persevere even when they aren't getting good returns on their investment. Perhaps they just don't know when to grit, and when to quit. That's exactly what I thought, until I came across this study, which looked at the self-regulatory strategies underlying narcissism. To my great surprise, the only self-regulation strategy that was associated with both grandiosity and vulnerability was the ability to evaluate multiple goal options and actually make the right or best choice among the alternatives!
This is really interesting, because it suggests that some particularly paradoxical characteristics of narcissism, in combination, can be associated with adaptive persistence. However, before you start getting your narcissism booster shots, some really important caveats are in order. For one, these results are correlational, not causal. Although it's hard to imagine how increased persistence can increase your narcissism, it's technically possible. Since these weren't experiments, we simply don't know what is causing what.
I also want to make clear that high performance is not everything in life. It could very well be that the combination of grandiosity and vulnerability increases persistence, at the expense of positive social relationships as well as other important areas of one's life. Just because some characteristics of narcissism can increase persistence doesn't mean this is the only-- or even healthiest-- path to high performance.
In fact, a large body of research in my field suggests that harmonious passion-- being motivated by intrinsic joy, feeling in control of your work, feeling good about yourself while engaging in your activity, and finding your activity in harmony with other areas of your life-- is associated with greater levels of physical and mental health, less burn out, and ultimately a less winding and more direct route to high performance, compared to more obsessive and ego-driven aspects of passion. I also refer readers to Caroline Miller's concept of "authentic grit", and my own summary of the importance of connecting grit to authenticity.
Nevertheless, in the interest of exploring all of the different pathways to high performance, I think we'd be remiss if we didn't take a second look at some of the characteristics that are associated with narcissism. I really do think a large part of my 20s was driven by a combination of grandiosity and self-doubt. While I am much less ego-driven now, and I think my work decisions are much more harmonious, I think at least part of my academic successes in my 20s was related to my high ambitions as well as need for validation.
I'd be really interested in hearing your own thoughts and stories. Please add to the discussion below!