Could I be any greater?

The American Psychiatric Association held their annual meeting in Honolulu last week. A primary objective for the group was outlining revisions to the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5. The book was last updated 20 years ago. Shrinks the world over use this manual for diagnosis, prescription information and countless other important matters. It’s like a bible of psychiatry.

According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, “among the myriad proposals now on the table (at the convention): reducing the number of specific personality disorders from 10 to five, a move that would eliminate the diagnosis of narcissistic disorder.” Narcissism has long been a marker for mental illness, including sociopathic behavior. In general, most societies view the behavior as a bad thing. Serial killers are said to be narcissists.

That said I think removing the classification is probably the right move. Like it or not, the world is full of narcissists. And the number is only increasing. I attribute this to two things in particular: social media and marketing.

Once we were just ordinary people. Joe from accounting. Sally, the girl next door. Minor roles in the grand scheme of things. Cogs in the proverbial wheel. But the new century changed all that. Our roles got bigger… better… and badder. Joe became a rock star. Sally a goddess. He’s got “fans.” And she has “followers.” We became main characters in the screenplay of our lives. Veritable movie stars! Now people, places and things revolve around us. Our names are like brand names, with images to think about. In other words, we became narcissists. Popular websites like Klout measure our “social currency,” giving each of us a score, which determines are sphere of influence. Basically it tabulates “fans” and “followers” and “likes.” Engagement is a major criteria. More is better. Therefore, Klout is but a measure of our narcissism.

Validate me!

That marketing feeds our desires for popularity, prestige and success is beyond debate. Of course it does. Sally wants to look more like Jane so she buys what Jane has. Jack wants to impress Joe so he drives a BMW. And so on.

Consider Apple: Imac, Ipod, Ipad, Iphone. We love “I.”

Ad copy has always played to our prurient desires, be they material or psychological. Most religions of the world consider that a sin. Whether or not that’s true is a broader discussion and one that we will all be having for the rest of our lives. Yet, while many of us are some kind of crazy we are likely not serial killers. Hence, I think it’s a good move for the APA to take narcissism off the punch list of mental disorders. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, what choice do they have?

Express yourself at your own peril

Writer at large, Tom Chiarella has an intriguing sidebar in the August issue of Esquire magazine, entitled “What Mad Men has taught me.” As we prepare for the show’s fourth season on AMC , I want to take a closer look at his commentary. Not so much to publicize the show or his remarks but to analyze them. And challenge them. He rightly claims the show has an ambiguous “moral center.” To be accurate he writes it has none. But he qualifies the remark by stating the show “is rife with lessons, public and private, cautionary and exemplary, and not just for white guys who secretly wish that all men wore hats.” While I think he’s being facetious and I know he’s being provocative, I’d like to challenge him on a couple of his points. They are as follows:

1) Don’t befriend the people who work below you. There is power in distance.

2) Don’t befriend the people who work above you. That way they will want you more than you need them.

3) Don’t ever tell anyone everything.

Basically, Chiarella is declaring self-disclosure a no-no in the office. He cites Don Draper’s adamant stance that “the past is the past” as epigram to the notion. Other cliché’s that fit would be “still waters run deep” or “always keep a stiff upper lip.” Stoicism is a virtue.

Most men, even those of us utterly unlike Don Draper, would believe there is wisdom in admiring, if not adhering to, the “strong silent type.” We’d like to think our fathers or their fathers were that way. We aspire to it, even if we fail doing so on a daily basis. That is why Don Draper is such a compelling character. Morally uncertain as he is, men nevertheless want to be him and, if the gossip magazines are correct, women most certainly want to be with him. He is the consummate anti-hero.

That’s Don Draper, the character. But what about us? I’m a creative director. I freely admit to failing the above three “rules” almost every day. I enjoy fraternizing with my “staff,” if staff is even the right word. And I look forward to friendly “face time” with management. In conversation with all parties, I self disclose. Christ, I’m doing it now in this fricking blog.

I understand this makes me vulnerable. But if at work I talk about relationship issues at home –it happens- will the listeners then have something on me? Does talking about my parent’s ancient divorce or my troubles with alcohol weaken me in the eyes of those above and below me? Are these subjects only weak men and silly women are allowed to talk about? Is not disclosing personal information a masculine virtue? In the world of Mad Men I know the answers. In real life I can’t abide. Can you?

I’d argue self-disclosure is preamble to creativity. We creatives are compelled to probe the human condition, be it ours or someone else’s well past the point of normal discourse. To do our jobs well we have to. This is why Don Draper does not exist in real life, thank God.

Recently, I wrote about various profound difficulties involving some people I care about. I shared with you my advice to them as they shared their dilemmas with me. Some of this took place in a professional environment and some of it didn’t. Of course I was discreet. But should we have all kept our mouths shut? Don Draper would have –except maybe when he was in the arms of his mistress or drunk at the club.

I do not want a mistress or to be drunk at the club. I do, however, want to relate to others as best I can. Those others are often fellow workers, above and below me. I am not one for small talk. I do not much care for rehashing golf scores. If we’re talking movies I want to know how the film made someone feel. A simple thumb up or down is not a conversation. In other words, the only way I can relate to others is by being emotionally honest.

Therefore, by Chiarella’s criteria, I am an abject failure as a man, at least as it pertains to my conduct at work. And so, it would seem, are the people who confided in me.

If Chiarella was not being glib (and even if he was), his “lessons” are something I worry and wonder about. A lot. In her philosophy of Objectivism, Ayn Rand rhapsodized about rare men who had zero interest in petty, emotional issues. I adored Rand (who didn’t?) until I realized I was a human being.

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