WORK-LIFE BALANCE / MAY. 08, 2014
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Is Being a Psychopath Really the Key to Success?

silence of the lambs

Usually when people are told about the secrets to success it is something similar to ‘we learn more from our failures than our successes’ or another old cliché. However, former SAS soldier Andy McNab and Dr Kevin Sutton have quite a novel idea. Instead of the normal clichés they are putting forward the idea that the key to success is being a psychopath!

Now of course at first glance you are all thinking that these two guys have completely lost the plot and are taking crazy pills. How can becoming Hannibal Lecter help you to succeed in business? Well it is because they are not saying that you should turn into some kind of murderous psychopath. Far from it. What they are saying is that there are good psychopaths and bad psychopaths, the bad ones being like Hannibal Lector. The good psychopaths on the other hand possess many traits which can help us succeed in the business world.

According to Dr Sutton, “Whenever most of us hear the word ‘psychopath’, images of infamous serial killers flash across our minds. But psychologists use the term to refer to a much wider group of individuals who have a distinct cluster of personality traits. As you might expect, reduced empathy for others and lack of conscience are among them. But they also include ruthlessness, fearlessness, impulsivity, self-confidence, focus and coolness under pressure. Imagine each of these as a dial on one of those recording studio mixing desks. No one characteristic is necessarily ‘bad’ in itself. It’s the particular combination of levels at which they are twiddled up or down that matters.”

Our level of Psychopathy is determined by a small peanut shaped section of our brain called the amygdala. In psychopaths, this small peanut shaped part of the brain which is responsible for fear is usually underdeveloped. As such this part of our brain is involved with many of our emotions and motivations as children and adults and plays a big part in our development. For example; our levels of confidence and ruthlessness are primarily formed as children and our level of fear plays a huge factor in this.    

As you can imagine many of these traits are present in elite soldiers (such as Andy McNab) who have to shut off certain emotions such as fear and empathy during combat. But soldiers are far from the only people who possess this trait. In fact one of the world’s most elite hedge fund managers said that he made the best returns during chaotic periods of panic in the markets. 

“Take 2008, when the market was down 20 to 30 per cent. I was up 20 per cent. When markets are calm and steady, my returns are not materially different to the average. I have no advantage in that environment.”

Of course many people may feel that hedge fund managers are not particularly nice people and this may not come as much of a surprise to them. But what about a surgeon who has to turn off his compassion for his patients completely when he was in surgery otherwise he could not operate on them effectively. Apparently, in order to be an effective surgeon a certain level of psychopathy is necessary.

Another interesting point that Dr Sutton and Mr McNab made was that a good psychopath is not prone to procrastination. In the modern world roughly 25% of the population has admitted that they are prone to chronic procrastination. Psychopaths do not put things off. Instead they focus on getting the task at hand finished. A procrastinator will usually crumble in the face of a tight deadline whereas a psychopath is more likely to rise to the challenge and just roll up their sleeves.

So now can you see why being a good psychopath could be the key to success?  They are confident, fearless business people with a really good work ethic, and willing to do anything to succeed. But just remember that you have to be a good psychopath, not a bad psychopath. Being an axe murderer won’t get you very far in the business world.

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