On a recent flight I watched the movie Superman, Man of Steel. As those who are familiar with the movie series are aware, Superman came to earth as a baby when his home planet imploded. He possesses super powers that include the ability to fly, x-ray vision, super strength etc. He lives amongst humans hidden in plain sight, working as a newspaper man without revealing his identity to anyone but the movies mandatory love interest.
The movie got me thinking.
What if you were granted superpowers like those of Superman and were given the option to either live out in the open where the world knows about your powers or to live completely hidden where your powers are not public.
Which would you choose and why?
A Real Dilemma
In my view, the answer to the question is not a simple one. On the one hand, it is only natural to want to share your strengths and accomplishments with others. In my opinion this is a real, legitimate human need and does not necessarily source from a ‘negative’ place—we are meant to share and participate with others.
On the other hand—and there is a powerful other hand—entering into a situation where one is powerful, idolized and generally worshipped by an adoring public is a road fraught with profound danger.
Let’s explore this more.
The Long, Slow Decline of Arnold Schwartzenegger
I remember back in the early 80’s when movie star/Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger first appeared on the movie scene with his first hit movie Conan the Barbarian. As he continued to star in movies and spent more and more time in the public eye, the public fell in love with the burly Austrian body-builder turned movie star.
He oozed charisma. It poured off him in spades, it was just impossible not to like him, both because he seemed to be fashioned of pure charisma but also because he seemed grounded and humble, aware of his modest beginnings in a lower class family in Austria. Watch footage of his interviews in his early career and you will see a young man who does not stop smiling, in the early throes of a successful movie career but also a person not yet overly impressed with himself.
As time went on, Arnold Schwartzenegger went on to become one of the most successful movie stars the world has ever seen, ultimately reaching an estimated net worth of more than $800 million.
Fast forward to 2011 and Messuer Schwartzenegger is back in the news, but this time because we learn that he fathered a child with a woman not his wife.
Who was his housekeeper.
In his house.
Right under his wife’s nose.
At the same time his wife was pregnant with his second son.
Let me repeat that one more time.
He had a child with the woman who cleaned his house, then hid it from his wife who only learned about it when a reporter broke the story in the news media.
He ultimately lost everything that mattered to him. His wife left him, and who can imagine the ‘forever’ impact it had on his relationship with his children.
How does a humble, likable, modest human being end up in a place where they could make such a decision?
Tracing the Source
In attempting to answer the question by speculating about what may have been going on in Mr. Schwartzenegger’s head to lead to such an event, I acknowledge that I am stepping squarely into ‘armchair psychologist’ territory. But, I think that there are enough instances where something like this has occurred–where we can trace the trajectory of a grounded well-adjusted celebrity in their early career to a self-absorbed individual whose personal life culminates and implodes in a spectacular manner in a shower of self-absorbed arrogance—there are enough such examples in the public domain that at some point we can make observations and draw some conclusions about the catalysts for such a transition.
A Persistent, Powerful Force that Slowly Changes the Self
In metalwork, the metalworker holds the metal in a constant, high flame, waiting until sufficient energy has acted on the metal such that it is soft enough to reshape. Once it reaches that point he reshapes the metal to the form that he wants.
Imagine that you are Arnold Schwartzenegger and everywhere you go adoring fans follow. People asking for your autograph. People tripping over themselves to do your every bidding. Pretty soon you start to believe what everyone is telling you—that the sun rises and sets by your word.
This metalworking process is the same thing that happened to Arnold Schwartzenegger. What’s important to recognize here is that there was a constant unrelenting force at work reshaping his very Self—a relentless, unending force in the form of public adoration that acted upon him and served to change his very essence.
With this understanding it is easier to comprehend how Arnold could end up in such a place. It probably started as small movements away from his humble beginnings, little decisions that flowed from a slowly changed (metal) Self, acted upon by the fire of adoration. Gradually these decisions gained in strength until finally he did what he did with his housekeeper, a decision, that, from this vantage point, could only be made in the fog of “I CAN DO WHAT I WANT, I AM ARNOLD SCHWARTZENEGGER”.
A Force to be Respected
Now, lest you think that I am sitting on a distant, high horse with my nose in the air making broad statements about how celebrities publicly implode with a “THAT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN TO ME”, in actuality, what I am saying is almost exactly the opposite.
What I mean by that is that I think the public adoration ‘force’ that comes with celebrity (and not just movie star celebrity, even mini-celebrity) is so powerful, that it is a near certainty that the individual will be changed by it. That it would take monumental focus to avoid the trap that so many celebrities fall into, where ultimately, they believe what literally everyone is telling them and soon enough their decisions reflect that distorted belief. I believe that force is so powerful that I do not believe that I would necessarily fare any better when persistently exposed to it than any of those who have so publically imploded.
Clarity on the Superman Dilemma
This brings us back to Superman.
If we believe that the ‘public adoration force’ is indeed as powerful as we describe, then our dilemma about being a public Superman vs. a private one becomes pretty clear. When we weigh the pros and cons of being public vs. private, in choosing private, the inability to share our strengths and abilities with the world is, as mentioned above, a legitimate loss. But the risk of exposing ourselves long-term to the ‘adoration force’ is, in my opinion, one that is wholly unacceptable. You’d have to be a Superman of an entirely different kind to avoid being seriously negatively affected by being a Superman living amongst mere men.
(Incidentally, this thought process has inadvertently proven the adage that although everyone desires fame and fortune, they very much do come with their own set of challenges. Sometimes it really is “be careful what you wish for…”)
Being Ready for the Public Superman in Each of Us
I want to now take this line of thinking a step further. Although some of you may have been faced with a decision to be a public or private Superman at some point in your lifetime, for most of us, it does not have very practical applications. (If, you have, in fact, ever been faced with such a dilemma, please tell the rest of us about it in the comments!)
There are several different systems psychology uses to classify humans. The most well-known might be the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator that classifies people as being one of four types:
- Extraversion (E) (I) Introversion
- Sensing (S) – (N) Intuition
- Thinking (T) – (F) Feeling
- Judging (J) – (P) Perception
Each type suggests that the members of that group view the world in a specific way. For example, although a bit of an oversimplification, those in the Extraversion group interface with the world as extraverts, while those who are Thinking do so in a more internal, thought-focused manner and so on. Other psychology schemas use similar personality classification methods.
Psychology turns to classifications as a way of thinking about personalities because, as a science, it craves classification, and organization. But in classifying personalities, in positioning Sarah in the ‘Extraversion’ group, what they are really saying is “Sarah is particularly strong as an Extrovert”.
It would not be a stretch to say that when it comes to Extraversion they are saying Sarah is a Superman, particularly when compared to others classified in other groups. I don’t mean this as a touchy feely “WE ARE ALL SUPERMEN!”, I mean it as a legitimate statement–in at least one area of personality, we are all Supermen, if by Supermen we mean we excel far more than the mean at something. (This is what the psychology classification is really telling us—that each person excels at something to such a degree that they could be classified as being dominantly ‘that character trait’).
And, our own human observations support this view. It comes into particularly sharp focus as a parent raising children. For example, although I want to avoid buttonholing my children into personality boxes, it is clear that one is gifted when it comes to social interaction, while another is the kind of Thinker that exceeds his peers etc.
This means that in some way, we are all actually ‘Public Supermen’. And that means that we will all be exposed, in varying degrees, to an ‘adoration force’—a force where people repeatedly tell us how good we are at our ‘superstrength’. Believing the hype can result in distortion on a micro-level, it need not take on the thoroughness of an Arnold Schwartzenegger to be damaging.
This presents a problem that pretty much every person on earth faces, since everyone has a strength that they can call their own. Smart people throughout human history much smarter than your author have written about the challenge of maintaining humbleness and I am no less a beginner on the subject than the next person.
But, I do want to close with one thought.
That is, if we think about two ‘public Supermen’–one who enters his public Superman experience knowing that what is coming is a steady, unrelenting ‘force’, a metalworkers fire, that, left unchecked, will have its way with his healthy, grounded view of himself and shape him into a bloated self-important distortion of his self—and one who enters his ‘public Superman’ experience oblivious to what is coming, we would conclude that the one who enters with an awareness of what is coming has a much better chance of coming out, well, not necessarily unscathed, but hopefully far less ‘scathed’.
We would argue that the active and conscious mental ‘checking’ process that the aware public Superman would hopefully use—the mental reminders that giving in and believing the hype is a road that leads nowhere fast.
We could further argue that the challenge the aware Superman actually faces is identical, in many ways, to the challenge the recovering drug addict faces, in not giving in to the pull of the temporary ‘high’ of the drug (believing the hype) for the sake of the long-term health of sobriety (a non-distorted sense of self).
In the end, the state in which the public Superman emerges from his public Supermanhood may be utterly dependent on the awareness of the effects of the ‘adoring force’ and the commitment to actively ‘check it’. If we agree that we are each, in some way ‘Public Supermen’, then awareness of our ‘Public Supermenhood’ is key to maintaining a healthy and grounded sense of Self.
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- About the Author
Nathan Safran is a former Analyst at Forrester Research where he covered the Digital Home. While at Forrester, Nathan authored research studies on trends, attitudes and behaviors of consumers toward technology adoption and use.
Nathan has been quoted as a subject matter expert in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Fortune magazine. Currently, Nathan heads the Research Department at Conductor, Inc an SEO Technology Platform firm.
Nathan writes at exceljockey.com about the intersection of Business, Technology and Psychology. See the About page for more info. Follow Nathan on Twitter: @Nathan_Safran