Approaching Power with Humility and Wisdom

Understanding the impact that winning and power has on your brain and behavior

by Michael Hogan, Psychology Today

Excerpt: Most of us know of the genius of Pablo Picasso, the Spanish painter, sculptor, printmaker, and ceramicist who revolutionized art in the opening decades of the 20th century. But few of us know the story of his son, Paulo Picasso. Paulo led a feckless life of drifting and heavy drinking - he could never hold down a job or forge a life independent of his domineering, neglectful father. Paulo lost his family, became live-in secretary and chauffeur to his father, and had his own son Pablito tragically commit suicide by drinking bleach two days after Pablo Picasso’s funeral in 1973. The tragic story of Paulo and his family highlights the sad and obvious truth that being born to successful parents does not guarantee success in life – becoming a ‘winner’ is not a genetic endowment that is passed from generation to generation. The children of rich and successful parents are not immune to anxiety and depression and drug abuse (Way et al., 1994). While Pablo Picasso complained that his son Paulo had no motivation and drive to achieve in life, Pablo may have failed to understand how to empower his son and approach the use of his power with humility and wisdom. Ultimately, Pablo Picasso became a winner who failed to help his son become a winner. But how do we become a winner, a good winner, a sporting winner, magnanimous in victory, and wise in the use of power? How do we approach power with humility and wisdom?

Ian Robertson, in this brilliant new book, The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain, explores these and other questions and reveals the complex and challenging nature of winning, power, and success. To begin with, Robertson notes that developing high achievement motivation can be tricky. For example, parents cannot simply reward their child with money every time they do well, expect their child to model themselves on their parent’s brilliance, or simply tell their child that they are a genius and then hope for the best. The brain networks that respond to extrinsic rewards (e.g. being rewarded with money if you do well on an IQ test) are different from the brain networks that respond to intrinsic rewards (e.g., being rewarded by a sense of achievement after doing well on an IQ test; Mizuno et al., 2008) and thus cultivating an intrinsically motivated drive to achieve involves identifying values and pursuing goals that somehow sustain a sense of achievement. Notably, David McClelland classically observed that sustained achievement and success derives from setting regular, moderately challenging targets, rather than distant and unattainably high targets (McClelland, 1961). One problem for the children of successful parents, Robertson notes, is that they may see their parent high on the tree of success and wonder how they got there. If their parents fail to inform them of the many challenging, rewarding, incremental steps that led to their success, children may assume -- and parents may reinforce the delusion -- that success is achieved in one easy step and is a function of an inherited, natural, fixed ability.

In addition to handicapping oneself by setting unattainable goals, one of the greatest impediments to achieving success and maintaining intrinsic motivation in the face of challenges is the view that abilities such as intelligence are ‘fixed’. Research shows that children who possess a view of intelligence as ‘fixed’ show less improvements in academic ability over time when compared with children who have an incremental view of intelligence as a product of ongoing learning (Blackwell et al., 2007). Students who consider intelligence to be ‘fixed’ tend to view their performance as central to their ego and self-esteem -- they are more sensitive to error feedback when compared with students who have an incremental view of intelligence (Mangels et al., 2006). Also, if they experience a performance failure on a task, rather than say “I’m not concentrating enough, I must try harder”, children with a view of intelligence as fixed may say things like “I’m no good at this, I give up”. In this worldview, failure reflects poorly on the self or the ego, rather than being seen as an opportunity to learn from experience and persevere (Covington, 2000). Rather than praise our children for being ‘bright’ or even ‘geniuses’, and thus instill in them a view of their intelligence as fixed, Robertson suggests we praise them for their effort, perseverance, ingenuity, and the consistently of their interest in the pursuit of major challenges (Duckworth et al., 2007). As Robertson notes, “Genetic fatalists, in short, believe that they have a fixed ‘dose’ of attributes – intelligence, ability, personality, self-control, happiness and this belief or ‘attribution’ automatically undermines any attempts they might make to change or improve themselves; hence it sabotages their ability to win” (p. 50). As Ericsson and colleagues have discovered, the level of performance we characteristically call ‘genius’ only ever emerges after about 10,000 hours of practice (Ericsson et al., 2003) – genius is the product of practice and perseverance...

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