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Narcissism

Its impact on my life and others’. Next steps.

  • In a way, I feel lucky to have been a narcissist. It led me to obsess over some of the biggest problems in the world. (And even make some progress!)
  • But I also feel incredibly unlucky. It poisoned relationships with my family and many others, and it made me obsessive, cold-hearted, and unsafe, rather than calm, loving, and capacious.

Overall, I don’t recommend it.

I owe some of you an explanation. To others, I owe much more. This essay is the explanation part… If you’re someone I owe more to, I’m ready to face you humbly and to do whatever’s possible.

Below, I’ll go through how I operated, and how it made life hell for me and others. I’ll throw out some guesses about how I got that way, and how I got out. And I’ll close by sharing steps I’m taking to clean up my life.

Scope and Impact

To begin, I’ll give an overview of how this has affected my life at every level, and what I have in front of me to apologize for and to clean up. Narcissism warped my interpersonal interactions, my relationships, my ideas, and my life situation. Readers who’ve met me may recognize some of the below.

If I left something out about how I mistreated you or someone you know, please leave a comment!

  • Interpersonal interactions. One cringeworthy aspect of my narcissism was believing I had an important part to play in almost every interaction, and framing interactions so others would see that importance. I developed tactics which put me in a superior position in conversations: arguing needlessly, questioning others’ psychology, and imagining I knew the way forward for whoever I was talking with. These tactics led many people to feel knocked-off-center and disoriented. Others, including some in my close family, would just read me as arrogant and condescending.
  • Relationships. Most people use their intuition to gauge how important they are in any given relationship. But I would imagine I was important in every relationship. So, with some people, instead of allowing my natural gravity (or non-gravity) to shape things, I tried to make things happen — to make things “special” and to play a special role in their lives. Instead of letting things unfold naturally, I drove them to work towards whatever I thought should happen between us. These relationships were forced and exhausting. Simultaneously, I was neglectful in other relationships, because they didn’t fit into my big visions. And there was a third group of people with whom I was misleading and irresponsible, dragging them into my hype.
  • My ideas. The obsessive need to make big, world-changing contributions led me, at times, to bullshit myself and other people. To create hype. To be always around the corner from some breakthrough. To overweigh and over-claim the impact of my inventions. Occasionally, I’ve dragged other people into this hype — for instance, the investors of my previous startup, Groundcrew. But the same obsessive need to be world-changing, at other times, led me to work which was actually very impactful. One hard part of my current situation is sorting through my work, seeing what’s valuable and where I was hyping things up. Thankfully, most of Human Systems — my current project — seems to belong in the “valuable” bin.[1] But I’ve just begun the sorting, and I’ll be slowly rewriting many of my essays to make them much more conservative in places, and apologizing to people I misled.
  • My life situation. One consequence of my overhyped way of speaking was that I couldn’t be part of academic discourse, especially in what has become my favorite field, political philosophy. The norms of academic writing are to be charitable to others’ ideas and to make minimal claims, and I couldn’t do that. I guess that I also subconsciously resisted having my ideas too tightly scrutinized by the academic community, for fear I’d discover my own hype. And I didn’t just miss out on academia — there were many other areas of life I cut off because I considered only impacts that matched my need for importance. With my startup Groundcrew, there were many practical pivots I didn’t consider because I didn’t view them as world-changing enough. This led eventually to its failure and to a worse outcome for myself, my investors, and my employees. This is one example of many — there were countless other such failures to live up to my responsibilities.

Despite the above, I still managed to make real, die-hard friends and some intellectual contributions. How the hell did this happen?

I’m lucky. But also, I think—like the spine of a person with scoliosis—some opposing personality traits grew in me as a way to make up for my narcissism. In particular, I’ve believed in really listening to people, learning what brings them joy and what they find meaningful, [2] in testing my theories with experiments, [3] and in approaching life sincerely, living deeply, loving deeply, growing as a person, responding to those around me, etc.

Because of these traits, my life has only been somewhat empty and harmful in the way narcissists lives are.

(It also probably helped that my philosophical branch is pragmatism, following John Dewey and Charles Taylor. In this tradition wisdom is considered widespread, and emerging from socially embedded practices. It’s very focused on other people’s experience.)

The Mind of a Narcissist

The core of my narcissism seems to be a really bad idea I had as a child.

When I was young there were times it seemed like no one believed in me. When I tried to use the situations around me — in school and at home — to sense my own importance, my sense from others and the situation left me feeling unimportant and unseen, and it hurt.

So I formulated an idea like this:

I will decide my importance by myself, and establish it in the future. [4]

Whereas most people use their intuition to sense how important they are in any given social situation, as a child, I decided to turn this intuitive sense off. It hurt too much to look to others to gauge the importance of my role in this or that situation. I wouldn’t consult them, or my intuition. I would just declare my importance.

Now only that, I told myself I’d eventually establish my importance for others. I’d prove my importance, eventually. This means that questions of self-knowledge, acknowledging my limits, etc—are all in the future. It meant that I never really had to face the present of who I was.

This seemed the only way to proceed without getting shut down or hurt. The only way to make room for who I hoped to be. But of course it’s an awful way to live.

These misunderstandings were rooted in my childhood. But my narcissism really flourished once I moved to San Francisco, when I was 32. There, I was a startup founder. My identity was all about impact and world-changing. I had investors and employees that seemed to depend on my hype.

It was a shit-show.

One reason I moved to Berlin was to put myself somewhere better for me.

Finding My Way Back

Things happened recently that made it possible to reconsider all of this.

  • Illness and Love. If I once thought I needed to be important to be loved, it’s now clear I don’t. Last year I developed a serious, chronic autoimmune disease and a team formed to care for me and keep me alive. This team, including an ex-girlfriend and several of my best friends, was there for me out of love for my present-time human self, not for my importance, potential, etc.
  • Relationships Based on Shared Values. Many friends in Berlin are part of the Human Systems community that’s grown up around me. Here, people are very explicit about what motivates them [5] and what shapes their interactions — especially about shared values. Because of this, it’s clear our excitement with one another comes from shared values and a desire to explore together—rather than from any kind of status, vision, or importance. It finally feels clear to me that I can have a good, rich life, full of every kind of interpersonal exploration I would like, without having anything to prove. Shared values are enough to motivate all the connections I need.
  • No Longer Special. Another thing about this community is that I’m no longer so special or necessary. The same insights and research topics which, earlier, felt like burdens to carry by myself, which only I was fully aware of, are shared now with many around me. I can just be a person again. The whole project is a team effort, and somewhat out of my hands.
  • New Responsibilities. Finally, my new responsibilities demand a different kind of character. No longer a solitary thinker, researcher, or inventor, now I’m a convener, a representative, a guardian. I must take care of my team and the others around me. These are people I want to care for well, and for that I need to be grounded and responsible above all.

I’m not sure I’m completely out of the woods, but something has shifted in me. [6] It feels okay to have an ordinary life, to not make big contributions, to be an ordinary person. I also don’t need to project the image I used to. [7] I’m getting to know my present-time self better. And my daily interactions have changed: In many social situations, I know I’m not the important player or speaker. I am breaking free of those tactics of conversational superiority.

So now there’s cleanup to do: Personal apologies and amends to make. Grieving the shallowness and pain of my life so far. There’s the challenge of developing a hype-proof, grounded, responsible way to proceed with my current startup, Human Systems. I want to stay free of the hype which colored my previous startup, and I need to steer us out of a bit of a tight funding situation that my previous, narcissistic self caused.

I’ve already surrounded myself more with critical people and feedback, but I intend to go further in this direction. I’ll sort through my writing, changing the style and removing some claims.

Eventually, perhaps, I’ll even find my way to a belated academic career. Wish me luck.

Footnotes

[1] HS seems valuable. See our Testimonials, or for more detail, this draft Interview with Serge Hunt.

[2] The religion I’ve been most fond of is Quakerism, which emphasizes listening to the inner light and unique wisdom of others. One of my heroes from literature was Robert Anton Wilson’s “Pope Stephen”.

Pope Stephen, in fact, had a habit of listening far more than he spoke, which led many to regard him as a bit aloof. Actually, he spoke little because he was so busy observing. This passion for studying other human beings had gradually turned him from a disputatious young intellectual into an almost pathologically sensitive middle-aged man, because the more he observed people, the more he liked them, and the more he liked them, the less able he was to bear seeing or hearing of injustice to anyone anywhere. — From SCHRODINGER’S CAT TRILOGY by Robert Anton Wilson

[3] In other words, I’ve been fairly turtle-y — especially in the last decade (Being Super Turtle-y ). Over time, I put most of my ideas to the test, and this saved me from drowning in my own hype.

[4] I developed false beliefs like these: “There’s no possibility for me.”, “Pretending I’m important is the way to give me room for possibility.”, “It hurts to gauge my importance based on others’ feedback.”, “I have to prove to others that I’m worth knowing.”, “It hurts to feel there’s no possibility for me.”, “Even if there’s no real possibility for me, it’s better to seem promising to myself.”, “If I do great things, then I’ll be worth knowing.”

[5] See Four Social Worlds 🕵️‍♂️🌳💍📈 for the kinds of motivations we focus on.

[6] Please let me know if you see me do something which reminds you of “the old Joe”. And if anyone else reading this is maybe an ex-narcissist, I’d love to chat

[7] An essay like this, which reveals me as deeply flawed, as struggling even to do the basic human thing adequately, seems fine to publish.

Acknowledgements

  • Thanks to the many people who gave me feedback that pushed this transformation forward in me: Anne Selke, Jess Miller, Reggie Luedtke, Tristan Harris, Nathan Vanderpool, Rob Kancler, Diane Delestre, Rory Curtin, and Chris Beiser.
  • (Apologies to those who tried to give me feedback earlier, that I was deaf to. I won’t list you here but you know who you are and I owe you one.)
  • And thanks to everyone who ever ran interference for me, found ways to support me, or said “he’s actually a nice guy underneath” while I was still a narcissist, including especially: Albert Kong, Tristan Harris, Anne Selke, Elise Lein, Eli Busquets, Sanna Radelius, Caro Goethel, Patrick Collison, Bret Victor, Tim Koelkebeck, Julie Rosskopf, Bilal Ghalib, and Marina Gruen.
  • And extra thanks to those who, through their love and care for me, helped produce this transformation, especially Anne Selke, Nathan Vanderpool, Elise Lein, and Eli Busquets.

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