There is a naive belief that ego is essential to success. It's as ingrained in our cultural myth-making as the image of the starving artist or the strung-out but brilliant musician. And maybe we like these myths because they make for good movies or good excuses for our own lack of success. The Big Swinging Dick mentality might seem glamorous and special, but in reality, it's about as helpful as ... well ... a big swinging dick. (Like, constantly swinging, as in it would never stop swinging. You understand how that would be inconvenient, right?)
These beliefs persist because most of us never actually have to interact with these assholes. If we did, we'd see two things. Firstly, ego is almost always a liability and not an asset. Ask Kanye West. His ego might tell him he's the greatest rapper alive, but it's also told him he's a brilliant fashion designer -- a delusion that's cost him about $53 million which he apparently doesn't have. Secondly, the "stubborn individualism" we like to highlight in certain maverick personalities and eccentric billionaires is usually closer to malignant sociopathy and selfishness than it is the principled creativity that the Oscar-winning movies try to make it out to be.
But you don't have to take my word for it (though I did write a book about it). Let's look at the actual history. Here are five profoundly successful people, and how their enormous egos either killed them, cost them billions, ensured humiliating defeats, or generally turned them into insufferable asshats whom everyone hated.
#5. Steve Jobs
The two-sentence version of Steve Jobs for most people is: "Visionary genius starts Apple Computers and then is foolishly fired by the 'suits' who came in to run the place. He proves them all wrong by coming back -- after a brief stopover starting Pixar -- and turning Apple into the world's most valuable company."
It's the Hero's Journey, and proof that The Man always tries to keep creatives down. Except this is totally wrong. If you'd been in charge of Apple, you'd have fired Steve Jobs, too. Not because he was an asshole or acting (as one board member put it) like a "petulant brat," but because the Macintosh division, which he was in charge of, missed its sales target by 90 percent. You can suck at being a good person or you can suck at your job, but you can't do both -- I don't care how smart you are. And Jobs became increasingly terrible, because he was a walking egomaniacal dickhead.
Kinda makes you feel stupid for wasting all those perfectly good apples, huh?
A short list of examples. Jobs was asked specifically "to behave" by Apple's CEO before a meeting with Bill Glavin, the vice chairman of Xerox. Jobs started (and then immediately ended) that meeting by telling Xerox, "You guys don't have any clue what you're doing." He told said that Mick Jagger was "on drugs. Either that or he's brain damaged" because he didn't know who Jobs was ... in 1984. On a trip to Italy, Steve told the Apple general manager there that "You don't deserve to be able to sell the Mac." On another occasion, Jobs told a woman organizing an Apple press event -- after she pulled a miracle by finding, at midnight, the right type of lilies he demanded -- that her suit was "disgusting." This coming from the guy who would eventually choose a mock turtleneck and a pair of dad jeans as his official uniform, like he was perpetually on his way to Parents Weekend at his kid's mime school.
But even if he wasn't mean, his approach didn't really work. A marketing chief for Apple once described Jobs's leadership style as "management by character assassination." "[Jobs] was not the world's greatest manager," his biographer, Walter Isaacson, has said. "In fact, he could have been one of the world's worst managers." The problem was that, despite Jobs's utter and complete certainty that he was right, he was often wrong. For instance, there was the time he became convinced that all the machines in one of Apple's factories should be painted certain colors. He spent hours obsessing over the colors. He ignored warnings that repainting this high-performance machinery would damage it and overrode the manufacturing director. Guess what? It broke the most expensive machine (they renamed it "Steve's Folly"). The director quit.
At least he didn't demand that it all be done in glass.
The reason Jobs's story isn't as sad as some is that he was able to conquer some of these demons and came back to run Apple in a somewhat sane manner. He made billions as a result. But he still couldn't help himself. He was notorious for parking in handicap parking spaces at the front of Apple. Hey, Steve, you're worth billions of dollars. Why not just pull up to the front and have a valet park for you? Or build yourself an office around a parking spot? Or, I don't know, walk? There was also the time he berated a poor old lady at a Whole Foods for not making a smoothie to his liking. Look, I hate overpaying for juice and waiting in line too, but the bigger question here is, why are you getting your own smoothies, anyway?! Why can't you feel any empathy for someone not quite as brilliant as you?
That inability to listen or follow basic common sense came back in a nasty way for Jobs when he tried in vain to cure his own cancer with "acupuncture sessions, drinking special fruit juices, visiting 'spiritualists' and using other treatments he found on the internet." Sadly, the problem with ego is that it tells us we know better even when we don't. Fatally so.
In 480 BC, the Persian Emperor Xerxes began his famous invasion of Greece. Given his resources -- an army of some 2.5 million men held in complete obedience -- and his disorganized and puny enemy, he probably should have been able to make quick work of the bickering city states in the region. A betting man at the time would have guessed that we'd all be speaking Persian for the rest of history. But Xerxes lost. Not just lost, but in one critical battle, his entire army was humiliated by a grand total of 300 warriors who belonged to a weird military cult called "Sparta." And then he lost again at Salamis, where he fell for a ridiculous ruse by the Athenian general Themistocles, who fooled Xerxes into thinking he was actually on his side (egoists think everyone loves them). Then he lost at Plataea and limped home in complete failure (but not before getting his ass kicked a fourth time at Mycale).
He probably didn't even get to enjoy the lovely views.
One story makes it clear that Xerxes's real enemy wasn't the Greeks, but his own raging, delusional ego. As he crossed the Hellespont, a waterway separating Europe and Asia now known as the Dardanelles, the waters surged up and destroyed the bridges his engineers had spent days building. In response, Xerxes thought it would be appropriate to throw chains into the river, and ordered it be given 300 lashes and branded with hot irons. As his men delivered his punishment, they were ordered to harangue the river. "You salt and bitter stream, your master lays this punishment upon you for injuring him, who never injured you." Oh, and he also cut off the heads of the men who built the first bridges. For good measure.
The great historian Herodotus called the display "presumptuous," which is probably an understatement. I say "fucking crazy" is more appropriate. Then again, it was part of a pattern. Shortly before this, Xerxes had written a letter to a nearby mountain in which he needed to cut a canal. "You may be tall and proud," he wrote, "but don't you dare cause me any trouble. Otherwise, I'll topple you into the sea."
Yes, you read that right: Xerxes, the emperor of Persia, threatened a mountain, spanked a river, and lectured both of them like they were children in the back of a station wagon. Don't MAKE me turn this chariot around!
To be fair, Mother Nature is far easier to control than an upset toddler.
You might remember Xerxes from the movie 300. He was considered a fool long before that. Cicero paints him as an addict who never found satisfaction despite access to unlimited pleasure (which is why he overreached so badly). Montaigne called him a fool. In a long history of tyrants in the ancient world, Xerxes is singled out by historians as being particularly stupid and immature -- he's Kim Jong-un. You wouldn't think it'd be possible to be worse than his father, but somehow the son managed. Even the actor assigned this ridiculous role in 300 felt inclined to judge the man: "He's rich, he's arrogant, he's a very unstable megalomaniac. He just wants to conquer the world. His ambition is unlimited. He wants glory; he wants victory; he wants eternal fame. Underneath all that wanting, though, he's ultimately weak and very insecure." Aeschylus's play about the invasion has a better line. After hearing what his son has been up to, Xerxes's dad asks: "Tell me, wife, does not all this mean that my son was ill in his mind?"
Um, yes, your son is sick with ego. And he destroyed your empire because of it.
#3. Howard Hughes
At a business lunch in 1924, Howard Hughes, Sr. stood up and then fell dead of a heart attack. He left to his son, a young Howard Hughes, Jr., a multi-million-dollar empire with a monopoly on a critical drill bit used in the oil business. Despite what the movies and myth-making might have you believe, over the next five decades, Howard Hughes proved himself to be quite possibly the worst businessman of the 20th Century ... and a colossal and deranged egomaniac as well.
Hughes started off by moving from Houston to Los Angeles and never stepping foot in his father's factory again. Trading stocks from his bedside, he lost more than $8 million in the market leading up to the Depression. He got into the movie business, whereupon his most well-known film, Hell's Angels, took over four years to make, lost $1.5 million on a budget of $4.2 million, and nearly bankrupted the tool company in the process. Then, not having learned a lesson the first time, Hughes lost another $4 million on Chrysler stock in early 1930. As you can imagine, the "responsible adults" in his life warned him against all of these moves. But he was the genius who knew better.
After all, "responsible adults" made him dress like this.
He then put all this aside to enter the aviation business, creating a defense contractor called the Hughes Aircraft Company. Howard's two contracts during World War II, worth $40 million, were massive failures at the expense of both the American taxpayers and himself. The most notable, the Hercules -- derisively referred to as the "Spruce Goose," and one of the biggest planes ever made -- took more than five years to develop, cost roughly $20 million, and flew just a single time for barely a mile, only 70 feet above the water. At his insistence and expense, it then sat in an air-conditioned hangar in Long Beach at the cost of $1 million a year for decades. Deciding to double down on the film business, Hughes purchased the movie studio RKO and proceeded to lose $22 million and 1,500 employees as he ran it into the ground over four short years. Tiring of these businesses as well, he forsook defense contracting and handed it off to those responsible adults, who managed to turn it into a real business ... almost exclusively because he wasn't there to fuck it up. The only thing Hughes really made any money off of personally was Trans World Airlines, whose stock he was forced to sell after shareholders sued him for mismanagement.
"That we have made a hero out of Howard Hughes," a young Joan Didion once wrote, "tells us something interesting about ourselves ..." She's right. It tells us that we're idiots and we pick bad heroes.
We're really good at coming up with funny nicknames for dumb shit, though.
Hughes was, among many things, a preposterous racist who believed that black people were dirty and carried diseases (and should be segregated accordingly). He didn't talk to movie star Ava Gardner for a month and a half when he found out her childhood friend was black. He was corrupt and shadowy figure who gave loads of illegal cash to Nixon (fear of the exposure of these bribes were partly responsible for the Watergate break-in). He invested in his first Las Vegas casino not because people love gambling, but because he was too lazy to vacate the hotel room he was squatting in. He staffed his company almost entirely with sycophants (usually Mormons), whom he would harangue with weird multi-page memos about Kleenex and not looking him in the eye. Then we're supposed to excuse all this because he may have had a mental illness?
There is a strong argument that Hughes' mental decline was the result of repeated head trauma ... which he caused because he was reckless and selfish. Like a plane crash near Culver City, California in which he nearly died, but which could have completely avoided if only he followed the Air-Force-approved flight plan (the pilot error, which he denied, is called a "crushing blow to Hughes' ego" by his biographers). Or a car accident after a night of drinking in Hollywood in which he killed an old man. CTE is a real disease, but it's hard to sympathize with someone who gave it to themselves by being incredibly unsafe. And even if Hughes did have it, being a drug addict certainly didn't help anything. Consuming massive, borderline lethal, amounts of codeine for decades, as well as Valium and Librium (taking them, as one biographer wrote, at "ten times the normal dose"), usually doesn't help anything.
No matter how many reminders Vegas posts.
Hughes believed that he was lucid and in control of the things he thought mattered, and bested plenty of saner people. God forbid a journalist would call him a mere "millionaire." "Goddammit," he replied, "I'm a BILLIONAIRE." Except he was probably only that rich because he never paid any taxes. In an impressive streak, Hughes once evaded paying any personal income taxes for 17 consecutive years. He would even later go as far as to create a medical foundation as a tax dodge which one biographer called "an outrageous parody." Oh, and why did he leave California in 1966? To escape state taxes.
So when Hughes died on a plane in 1976, malnourished and hooked on codeine, surrounded by hangers-on who were bleeding him of money and genius, it wasn't some accident. It was the result of a lifetime of selfish, indulgent, terrible decisions.