Exceptionality and extremism

When I was a kid I remember thinking that it was strange that people were surprised when Mike Tyson turned out to not be a very nice guy. I mean, we're paying these guys to beat each other up; surely a few of them will take that violence out of the ring.

The Charlie Sheen storm has helped me finally finish evolving an idea which has been bouncing around in my head since the Tyson rape charges:

Why do we expect people who are successful because of their extreme behaviour to be normal in the other aspects of their lives?

The examples are almost endless. Ben Cousins was in the top handful of AFL players until he was suspended for recreational drug use. The drugs didn't negatively affect his playing ability; he was using when at the top of his game. Suspension for drug use, not the usage itself,  is what irreparably damaged his career. 

Cousins was extreme: in his training; in  his performance. He looked and moved like he was from a different league. That was while he was playing with and against some of the all-time greats.

In the tech business many of the massively successful people also have less acceptable extremes. At the worst, Jobs is arrogant and controlling; Gates is ruthless and underhanded; Zuckerberg is cold and impersonal. Even Woz, the most lovable of geeks, comes across as a bit of a know-it-all.

In sport you have the brilliance but borderline on-track sociopathy of Michael Schumacher; Tiger Woods; Mike Tyson; and the seemingly never-ending stream of AFL and NRL players involved in violence and drugs.

And then there's Sheen. Two and a half Men isn't exactly my sort of sitcom, but the guy knows how to do his job. Not only was he the highest paid guy on TV, but more often than not he reportedly shot his scenes in a single take. That's exceptional. 

The destructive side of success isn't universal. Some people channel their extremism into other, more acceptable areas like extreme sports. Some, like Trent Reznor, manage to pull themselves out of their destructiveness while not fundamentally damaging their success. He is still making incredible (Oscar winning!) music, albeit a lot less fucked up that early Nine Inch Nails.  But the extremism is still there.

Looking at the relationship between success and destructiveness isn't condoning it. But there's something going on here: a pattern that repeats over and over that we seem to ignore.

Exceptional people by definition are not like the rest of us. The cost of the dedication it takes to become extremely successful is not something most of us are willing, or able, to bear. And while we certainly shouldn't accept illegal behaviour, expecting normality from fundamentally abnormal people is naive. We can't in good conscience celebrate positive extremism while ignoring its related, and often destructive, flip side.

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