The story of Michael Eisner is a compelling one. It’s a story of a quick rise to become one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, and a cautionary tale of how to remain humble.
His story served as the key example in “The Law of Grandiosity” in The Laws of Human Nature by Robert Greene. As Greene tells it, Eisner’s story goes a bit like this.
After starting at ABC, Eisner moved on to become president of Paramount Pictures, helping to create successes like Grease and Saturday Night Fever and generating massive profits. He then went on to become chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Corporation – intent on working the same magic at Disney that had seen such success at Paramount.
For awhile, it worked. Disney went on a tear released very profitable films including Who Framed Roger Rabbit and re-released Disney classics on VHS – an untapped goldmine. Flush with success, Eisner went hunting for a new challenge, something bigger and grander to put his mark on.
Here’s where Eisner’s story begins to change.
He decided to create a new Disney theme park in Europe, an unusual choice given his background. After far exceeding the original budget, the theme park opened to modest attendance at most – half of what was expected. The entire project served as a money pit that only continued to grow. Deciding he couldn’t have possibly been to blame for the failure of the theme park, he blamed the entire debacle on a close colleague at Disney, Frank Wells.
The rest of Eisner’s career at Disney involved a lackluster purchase of ABC, a failed purchase of Yahoo!, a string of movies that were by all indications flops, and expensive battles with key executives at the company.
In the end, Eisner resigned from Disney in 2005.
The Law of Grandiosity
Grandiosity is a disease we’re prone to as humans. Instead of an accurate view of our skills, talents, and expertise, we fall into a trap. We developed an over-hyped view of our own power, authority, and expertise. Through this lens, we see ourselves as exceptionally powerful, capable of tackling any challenge.
There are many downsides to this new lens.
We fail to learn from our mistakes. After all, they weren’t our mistakes anyway. We don’t make mistakes.
We take on tasks beyond our current skill level. On second though, is anything beyond our current skill level?
We constantly hunt for new opportunities and challenges instead of taking the time to master skills before moving on.
Of all of the laws present in Greene’s book, the Law of Grandiosity struck me the most because of how insidious it can be. We don’t fully understand this sense of grandiosity as it develops. It only becomes obvious in hindsight.
Reflecting back on Eisner’s story, it’s easy to see how this would have developed. At Paramount, he quickly developed a formula that created massive profits. Then, he did the same during his first years at Disney. It was almost like a magic touch. Through this lens, everything could be turned to gold, which eventually resulted in his downfall.
The Success Checklist
So, how do we combat the sense of grandiosity? By developing an accurate and honest view of ourselves. By recognizing that you’re not that great.
While I was reading Eisner’s story, I created a mental checklist that can be used to evaluate each and every success you experience. Our natural tendency is to assume all the credit for a success. The goal of the checklist then is to offload the credit to others and circumstances beyond our control.
What was the role of luck? Luck plays a role in every success, but we naturally discount luck in favor of skill. With Eisner, it was sheer luck that he stumbled across the library of Disney classics that would make a fortune when sold as movies. Understand that luck plays a role in any scenario, inexplicably putting you in a specific place, time, role, or set of circumstances.
Who else played a part? Despite what we’d like to believe, we’re very rarely solely responsible for a success. Someone else usually plays a pivotal role, either aiding us along the way or clearing the path so we can shine. Don’t subtract the efforts of others. In fact, go out of your way to identify and praise them.
Who should I thank now? We’re born into this world naked and helpless. Sure, we develop our talents and aptitudes through hard work, but many times, we’re fortunate to have the help of mentors along the way. Maybe it’s an old boss that taught you how to lead others or your parents that instilled a sense of purpose and drive. Whatever the reason, it’s critical for you to understand that you didn’t do this all on your own – you did it with the help of others even if that’s not immediately visible in the moment.
I’m thoroughly enjoying Greene’s The Laws of Human Nature. It’s a dense book full of valuable lessons. The Law of Grandiosity stood out as one we all fall for at one point or another. To quote Greene:
Look for the signs of elevated grandiosity in yourself and in others—overbearing certainty in the positive outcome of your plans; excessive touchiness if criticized; a disdain for any form of authority. Counteract the pull of grandiosity by maintaining a realistic assessment of yourself and your limits. Tie any feelings of greatness to your work, your achievements, and your contributions to society.