In one of the Greek myths, the exquisitely handsome hunter Narcissus, son of a river god and a water nymph, comes upon his reflection in a pond and falls hopelessly in love. Seeking to merge with this beautiful image of the Other, he falls in and drowns.
It’s easy to assume that extraordinarily attractive people are shallow narcissists. Everyone else is in awe of their beauty so they must be smitten, as well. We also expect that one day they will get their comeuppance – given how the news is littered with stories of the ‘ride that goeth before the fall’ among the beautiful, rich, and famously addicted.
That’s why it comes as a disconcerting surprise when someone with an unusual level of external beauty turns out to be beautifully deep on the inside, as well. But where do the people who ‘have it all’ turn for their inspiration?
The rich and famous Matthew McConaughey, in his acceptance speech for the 2014 Oscar for Best Actor, recounted how – when asked as a teenager who his boyhood hero was – replied that it was his vision of himself 10 years in the future. He was evidently living intentionally toward the fulfillment of that ideal image.
Taking inspiration from oneself turns out not to be a singular quirk of this man with the beauty of a fashion model and the talent of a top actor – among his other quite enviable attributes. But why would that be? A group of scientists set out to find answers to that alluring question.
"Powerful people draw inspiration from their own experiences, not from those of others," said Professor Gerben van Kleef of the University of Amsterdam, lead researcher on the study of why people who seem to have it all don’t need to look elsewhere to incite them to exceed themselves. "In contrast, people with less power are more likely to draw inspiration from others."
A large group of undergrads at the University of Amsterdam and the University of California at Berkeley were surveyed to discover how powerful they felt and how influential over others they perceived themselves to be. As it turns out, the ones who rated themselves as powerful and influential found greater inspiration in their own side of a conversation – and in telling tales from their own lives – than they did in the conversation and true life stories shared by their less confident counterparts.
It would seem to go without saying that those who rated themselves as powerful also felt more happy, hopeful and positive about themselves and their lives. The researchers offered several hypotheses about why this would be so. Among these was the perceived tendency of the powerful to inflate their own attributes and minimize those of others. Such people also seem less susceptible to the social pressure to keep their bragging to a minimum. [Not surprisingly, both Mark Twain and Teddy Roosevelt were the star attractions at their daughters’ weddings].
Scientists were as yet unable to determine whether powerful and influential people are more narcissistic, or whether people who sing their own praises also exert a greater influence over others. But here’s another option to consider: Children who receive a steady flow of unconditional love, validation, wise guidance, fair leadership – and plenty of opportunities to develop themselves and become self-sufficient – are more likely to feel good about themselves and to constantly endeavor to fulfill their potential. Those who did not – do not. And given that ‘nothing succeeds like success,’ it makes perfect sense that successful people would be self-referential and look to their own past experiences rather than to those of the less fortunate folk who struggle with a debilitating sense of inadequacy.
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