Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success

It is absolutely no secret I have one of those mild fascinations with psychopaths - not the kind where I have books and books and books on the topic, and spend my life trying to understand the mindset, but the kind where I legitimately find the idea of having on/off switches that control how and what we define as our personalities - I don't get it, so I'm fascinated by it. This book makes the claim there are times when a "me" focused philosophy is beneficial to your well being, and to that I say obviously. It's no secret that for years people have been saying top executives have a climb their way to the top no matter what mentality and it works.  Personally, I found the author's use of the game of chicken as a time when being a psychopath is a good thing - the person who keeps going straight wins over the person who swerves.  .... .... ... yes.  In theory. That's a great example. In terms of real world applications, I'm pretty sure when there are millions of lives at stake we don't really want this to be something that's a thing.  One reviewer said "One Cuban Missile Crisis is enough" and yeah, that.

That being said, I genuinely really really really liked this book. It was fascinating. I loved the comparison between psychopaths and Tibetan monks in their mutual ability to detect deep emotions that are invisible to others - the sense of isolation and self-focus making people more adept at being aware of others is an enticing thought to base something out of. Tibetan monks spend lifetimes learning to be in a relaxed state of mind, and the fact that psychopaths are in this state without any sort of practiced state of mind, but rather a state of mind naturally aimed at being observant specifically of other peoples weakness' is just plain interesting.  Some things were obvious (if you watch any tv crime drama), such as psychopaths not feeling any sort of normal reactions when viewing horrifying images implies an almost baffling self-mastery of emotions. This being said Dutton points out that they seem to be born with this capacity to not feel and react, but his comparison to high performing CEO's, high-stress surgeons and military/rescue strategists results in a interesting discussion on the nature vs. nurture standoff. What makes some people serial killers and others at times heros?

So the long and the short is I think this book is fascinating, and really a compelling study of psychopaths for the layman.  Psychopaths may well be all around us, and arguably they're some of the most productive members of society. Dutton points out we don't recognize them because they have“…the consummate ability to pass themselves off as normal everyday folk, while behind the fa├žade—the brutal brilliant disguise—beats the refrigerated heart of a ruthless, glacial predator.”

Dutton's writing was fantastic and verging on brilliant because he has a unique ability to make a non-fiction book interesting, accessible and informative in a way that doesn't make you feel like you're being talked down to. I've said for a while now that Normal is usually a lie, and damn if this book doesn't back it up.  That freaks me out a little more than I'm willing to admit.


*** Review is based on an advance copy from the publisher. Blah Blah this didn't affect my review. Promise.

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