The news that David Petraeus has resigned his position as Director of the CIA, has us quietly shaking our heads. A distinguished Army commander, mentioned as a potential presidential candidate, would have his career cut short by scandal and his legacy in serious question. He’s certainly not the only public figure to have suffered this fate. Just in recent memory, such names as John Edwards, Bernie Madoff, Bernie Ebbers and Lance Armstrong have been inextricably and eternally associated with a dramatic fall from grace. While not without their detractors, each of these men were highly respected “super achievers” in their respective fields, having attained dramatic wealth, power and fame. Each man, as well, was guilty of a serious personal or professional transgression, or committed an outright criminal act that led to their dramatic downfall.
Over two thousand years ago in Ancient Greece, a popular art form had developed that had story lines that could have been culled from the pages of today’s newspapers. The style of theater known as Greek tragedy, told similar tales of accomplished heroes who inevitably met a disastrous end as a result of self-destructive actions. Each tragedy followed a formula. The hero had a fatal flaw known as hamartia, that led to a moral transgression, ill-conceived action or simply an unwitting mistake. The hero proceeded down his path of doom because of his hubris, or self-defeating arrogance. This reckless, self-destructive behavior was termed atë, named for the Greek goddess of mischief, delusion and folly. Ultimately, the hero had a fatal downfall, referred to as nemesis, named for the Greek goddess of divine retribution.
It’s little wonder that Greek tragedies such as Oedipus the King have remained a mainstay of classical study for over two centuries. They convey a timeless message that dramatizes the dangerous cocktail mixed from arrogance, blind ambition and reckless behavior. They recognized the universal nature of human behavior across classes, time periods and cultures. The modern day tragedies of a Petraeus or Armstrong (minus emails and steroids!) could have easily been covered by Sophocles in one of his classic works.
Like the audiences at the great theater of Epidaurus, we are captivated by stories of scandal, but are these tales really surprising? The qualities that propel people to the highest rungs of politics, sports, or the corporate world include ambitiousness, competitiveness, confidence and a penchant for risk taking. It is precisely this set of qualities that can lead to the hubris and atë that the ancient Greeks described in their tragic dramas.
Without the benefit of modern scientific research, the ancient Greeks were left to explain the behavioral flaws of man as driven by mythological Gods. Today, we understand that people have been hard wired by evolution to have particular behavioral tendencies. One of the cornerstone ideas of evolutionary psychology is that our behaviors were shaped by the overwhelming pressures of survival and reproduction. In prehistoric settings, over thousands of generations, those folks with the greatest ability to find food, avoid predators and secure mates had the best chance of passing down their genetic traits. Included in these genetic traits were the behavioral tendencies that led to their reproductive success.
One of these key behavioral traits involved the tendency to favor short term rewards. In an uncertain world of dangerous predators, food shortages and competition for mates, those folks that acted quickly and decisively were most successful. If there’s a potential predator, run away fast. If there’s available food, eat it now. If there’s a potential reproductive partner, with no nearby rivals, mate now. Those concepts that involved deferring gratification such as dieting or saving for the future were meaningless in this setting.
Research appears to show that modern day humans are heavily inclined to prefer short term gratification over long term benefits. Unfortunately, this tendency is not limited to the rich and famous. In the real world, it can be seen in a number of unfortunate behaviors. We pay high rates of interest to get that big screen TV today. We eat that delicious slice of cheese cake now; swimsuit season is months away. We defer our annual physical (“I have better things to do and feel healthy anyway”). For most situations that involve a tradeoff of the pleasures of today vs. some future benefit, we are wired to choose the former. Research psychologists refer to this tendency by the term temporal myopia (literally near sightedness regarding time).
So, is there a defense, a set of practices, that can help us combat our innate tendencies and avoid the fate of a Petraeus or an Oedipus? Given that this challenge hasn’t been solved for thousands of years of recorded history, I’d be arrogant to claim I have a definitive and foolproof answer. There are however some well regarded strategies that can help you behave in ways that are more beneficial to your long term success.
Self-awareness – Your best defense is having an understanding that you have these natural tendencies to favor immediate over deferred gratification. Recognizing your counterproductive behaviors and consciously weighing the costs and benefits of actions can provide some counterbalance to impulsiveness.
External view – Stepping outside yourself is a clever way to analyze sticky decisions. When confronted with a tempting scenario, pretend you are not directly involved. Instead, imagine that a good friend is asking you for advice. Consider what you would recommend to your friend and how you would justify your advice. Oftentimes, we are better at recognizing the poor judgement and folly of others.