An ambitious person is someone who wants to rise socially. Ambitious people want the power, property, and prestige that go along with being in a higher social rank. Ricky Gervais’s character David Brent, from the BBC television series The Office and the movie Life on the Road, is ambitious. In The Office, Brent wanted other people to look up to him as a philosopher and an inspiring leader, to like him as a friend, and to laugh at his jokes. In Life on the Road, Brent pursues his dream of being a successful singer/songwriter. Yet Brent did a poor job as the manager of the sales office of a paper company, and his music career is going nowhere. Psychiatrists have a word to describe people who are trying to occupy a higher social rank than other people think they deserve: narcissist. By studying David Brent’s failures, you can figure out how to succeed. I explain this in more detail in my book Don’t Feed the Narcissists! The Mythology and Science of Mental Health.
Narcissists are people who think that they are smarter, more talented, more beautiful, and above all more deserving than other people think they are. For example, David Brent clearly thinks that he is smarter, wiser, funnier, and sexier than the other people think he is. As a result, he is always trying to amuse or inspire other people. Yet his jokes and his song lyrics offend people. Brent cannot even maintain a good working environment within the office. Worst of all, he consistently fails to learn from his own mistakes.
Brent is clearly a narcissist, but he is one of the nicest narcissists you could ever hope to meet. His ambitions are harmless, and his expectations are surprisingly low. Mainly, he wants to be popular, and he tries to use humor and music to achieve that harmless goal. He is using the “class clown” tactics that probably worked well for him when he was about 12 years old and that still work for him among his small circle of friends. Unfortunately, he is no longer playing mainly to an audience of 12-year-olds. Brent genuinely feels that sexism and racism are bad. However, he is so socially clumsy that he does and says things that come across as sexist or racist, or at least insensitive. For these reasons, he is annoying but not dangerous.
Other narcissists are not so nice. Narcissists have high self-esteem. However, they do not have what it takes to earn other people’s esteem. As a result, the narcissist is continually feeling unfairly disrespected and short-changed. Narcissists want and expect the royal treatment. If you give them this kind of worshipful treatment, you reassure them that you are beneath them. This reassurance is called narcissistic goods or narcissistic supply. On the other hand, the narcissist will feel threatened by anyone who seems (to the narcissist) to pose any challenge to his or her social dominance. This perception of threat is called narcissistic injury. The narcissist may react aggressively. This kind of aggression is called narcissistic rage. Narcissistic rage can lead to violence, even murder. At the very least, it causes pointless conflict. Fortunately, David Brent does not rage. Even when he is clearly jealous of someone, he merely becomes even more of a class clown.
David Brent is suffering from a problem called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Brent’s social skills are so poor that he does not realize how poor they are. Since he is so poor at noticing or understanding how people react to him, he cannot learn from experience. He is puzzled by or even oblivious to the nonverbal feedback that other people give him. Even when people try to explain things to him directly, he ignores what they are saying. As a result, he fails to learn from his mistakes.
Fortunately, we can learn from Brent’s mistakes. By watching The Office and Life on the Road, we can see the kinds of mistakes that Brent makes. More importantly, we can study how other people react to his mistakes. Watch David Brent, but also watch the other characters. Watch their facial expressions and their body language. Listen to what they say while Brent is within earshot, and compare it to what they tell the interviewer when Brent is not around. Then, start studying how people respond to what you do and say.
Gervais has become world-famous for portraying characters who desperately want to be famous. He succeeds where his characters fail because he does something that they do not. He studies how people react to him, and he refines his act in response to the feedback that he gets. Even if you are not a comedian, you can do the same thing. It is the secret to success.
Photo by djtomdog