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Personal Growth

Avoid The Trap of Business Narcissism

When it comes to our own lives, we are often prone to thinking that every calamity or challenge that we encounter is a one-off, or "special case".


Before trying to organize the creative world at Behance, I spent almost five years in somewhat related pursuits at Goldman Sachs. I had the opportunity to be a “fly on the wall” in a lot of meetings during the dot com bubble and the more dire times of 2001 and 2002. I always found it interesting how every situation in the market – every challenge – was always presented as an unusual one-off. Proclamations would be made like, “Never before have we had a market bubble, followed by such volatility in interest rates, interspersed with terrorist concerns.” The business leaders would nod their heads in affirmation. “This is an extraordinary time,” someone else would say.

From all the times I have heard, “This is the most unusual X, the greatest period of Y, the new era of Z,” I was starting to think that, had I not been born in the last thirty years, I would have missed the most interesting years of business since the Big Bang.

And here we are again: A suffering economy and an entirely “unique” set of challenges ahead. Many leaders are relentlessly focused on the present and the future because the “uniqueness of the times” is the fuel for their focus. Nothing is more empowering than “more than ever before, this is the time of opportunity!” Of course, if you consider the greater scheme of business over centuries, you see more patterns than exceptions. There was the railroad craze, the tulip craze, the radio craze, the internet craze – and the culprits, the Carpe Diem executives that put it all on the line.

“Business Narcissism” is rampant. It is the leader’s default thinking that they are the exception to the rule. “Business Narcissism” is the tendency of all leaders and teams, across industries, to think that they are always encountering a special case.

The real unique opportunity is for leaders to internalize a grounding realization: not much is new and
yes, you can adequately learn from the past. Saying “this is the time of opportunity” is narcissistic. Instead, take some perspective. Today never feels like it will be history, but it will. And more likely than not, we will look back and realize that we should have known.

During World War II, the UK was facing not only a suffering economy but also a daily pounding of heavy explosives from the enemy. In an attempt to quell the public anxiety, the British government posted signs around the city with the sage advice, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Perhaps another reason to carry on is that, like all previous calamities, this too shall pass. And, if we keep calm, we may actually look back and gain confidence from the proof that history provides us.  Leaders today may want to hunker down and send a similar message.

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (5)
  • TubbyMike

    This is a really good insight Scott. It’s the patterns that tell us the most, not the special cases. The patterns may not give us the answer, but at least they may point us in the appropriate direction as far as business is concerned. It seems that the recent troubles of the finance sector could be due to businesses thinking that the “normal” laws of lending didn’t apply to them and that theirs was a special case. Of course, we must all beware of the pendulum swinging too far back the other way in the immediate future and the financial system becoming too rigid, as paople try to avoid getting burned. This seems like a very good time to keep calm.<br />
    <br />
    Thank you; I enjoyed this article.

  • aniqr

    Scott: I love this article. Hope the rest of the world catches on 😉

  • Rick

    Good post. Though, as I understand it, the “Keep calm and carry on” poster was never actually posted.

  • cb

    Right. The poster was designed for the contingency of German troops on British soil, and thankfully never used by the MoD.

    However, I have a copy in my office because it’s a great distillation of the idea that “failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part,” which is my work-motto.

  • Lelesurabayamadura

    nice tips and wait for us to realise it. just try!

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