The Hard Lessons of Oscar Pistorius

Society often insists that its top achievers also be great human beings. It's often not the case. And the pressure put on them may make things worse.

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Reuters/Fadi Al-Assaad

The news from the South African capital of Pretoria last Thursday came as a disappointment of the highest, most crushing nature. We'd had athletes plummet to notoriety dramatically and recently, but not like this. The fall of cancer survivor-turned-Tour-de-France-champion Lance Armstrong, for example, at least offered the mercy of a gradual unveiling. By the time Armstrong himself came clean, it was almost like physically losing a father after years of Alzheimer's deterioration had already taken away the important parts.

But the news that Oscar Pistorius, the South African who became the first double amputee to compete against able-bodied runners at the London Olympics last summer, had been arrested for the murder of his supermodel girlfriend on Valentine's Day, was more brutally shocking, on several levels.

First, and most obviously, the crime of doping pales dramatically compared with murder. Second, there were no highly publicized rumors of Mike-Tyson-type bad behavior leading up to the incident, so we (the general fan/reader public) had no warning. Our image adjustment was abrupt and severe. And third, the news shattered a fantasy story—or stories—that we really, really wanted to believe.

The obvious fantasy personified by Pistorius is of the underdog overcoming overwhelming adversity to achieve triumph. A man without legs reaches the semi-finals of the 400-meter track event at the Olympics? "If that can happen," one can just hear parents around the world telling their children, "then you can do anything." Even if you're not perfect. Or you have some physical defect. Or you're sick.

It's a powerful and uplifting message that we want to believe, in all its simplicity and potential for a happy ending. Fade to credits, everyone leaves inspired.

Unfortunately, the equation of achievement is far more complex.

In a revealing profile of Michael Jordan at 50, published this week on, Wright Thompson writes that the young Jordan believed his father preferred his older brother, and spent a lifetime driven to achieve as a way of proving his worth. "This appetite to prove—to attack and to dominate and to win," Thompson notes, "... has been successful and spectacularly unhealthy."

Even Jordan acknowledged that his self-esteem has always been "tied directly to the game." Hence the drive, the rage, the relentless pursuit of victory that led to astounding feats of skill and six championship rings in his dresser drawer. But Jordan also talked to Thompson about what the process of that pursuit does to a person. "You ask for these special powers to achieve these heights, and now you got it and you want to give it back, but you can't. ... I drove myself so much that I'm still living with some of those drives. ... I don't know how to get rid of it."

It's an aspect to achievement that we often shove aside in our focus on the shining moments of record-breaking triumph. And that goes for more than just sporting feats and icons. A friend of mine, whose job gave him access to many of the top CEOs in America, told a similar tale about their motivations and demons. I'd kidded him, back in my single days, to keep me in mind if he knew an interesting CEO who was single and age-appropriate.

"I do," he answered. "But the truth is, I wouldn't wish any of them on you."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because they're generally not easy on their wives or families," he answered. He went on to explain that he'd developed a theory about top-achieving CEOs. "Almost to a person, they've been denied something that really mattered to them, early in their lives. So they spend the rest of their lives making up for it. Achieving. And not only does that make them pretty focused on themselves, it also means that no achievement is ever enough. They're driven."

That, mind you, is before you throw in the ego that develops with success or the impact that sudden wealth, power, and fame can have on people who are ill-prepared to cope with it. You spend years laser-focused on yourself and your own achievement. And then, if you're successful, suddenly everyone else is focused on you, as well. As Thompson noted, "[Jordan] is used to being the most important person in every room he enters and, going a step further, in the lives of everyone he meets." Those in Jordan's life, Thompson says, are well versed in not only his achievements, but also "his ego, his moods, and his anger."

Top-level achievement requires talent, to be sure. But it also requires tremendous focus and great sacrifice. It makes sense that many of the people willing to devote that kind of effort and make those sacrifices have some driving emotional or psychological need that makes the trade-offs worthwhile. For everything in life is most assuredly a trade-off. To be a Michael Jordan or a gold-medal Olympic athlete requires such single-minded focus that it also necessarily requires trading off a whole lot of balance in life and development—a weakness that can then be amplified with the rush of fame, money, and attention that success brings. Perhaps the surprising thing is that there are actually exceptions to the rule; top athletes, celebrities and CEOs who do manage to be balanced individuals, with balanced lives and an ability to focus on others instead of themselves.

In view of all that, it's not hard to believe that a kid who had both legs amputated at age one, who was six when his parents divorced and 15 when his mom died, would possess an excruciating drive to prove or overcome the insecurities or damage from those losses. Or that the same drive and traits that got him to the Olympics might be less suited for healthy interpersonal interactions. Or that the insecurities still lurked inside—demons that only got scarier with all the world's focus on him as a perfect poster child.

So maybe we shouldn't be so shocked. But we are. Because we don't want to look at the complexity or costs of achievement. We want to paint our heroes pure, so we can indulge in our happy-fantasy hero-worship without having to feel queasy about it.

It wasn't always so. The epic journey tales—from The Odyssey to the Arthurian and Holy Grail legends to Star Wars—always told of heroes who were flawed, and whose wisdom, strength, and triumph sometimes came at a messy cost and with many scars. We too often forget that fact in our modern equation of achievement with romantic appeal. It's a bit ironic, actually. Would Oscar Pistorius have had a cover girl model girlfriend like Reeva Steenkamp if he hadn't been an Olympic celebrity? Possibly not. Many women find competence attractive. The higher the achievement, and the more lauded a man's achievements are, the more appealing he will be to a whole lot of women, regardless of his other traits. And yet, the same traits that make those men celebrity athletes or super-achievers may, in fact, make them a bad bet as an actual romantic partner.

Granted, Pistorius would appear to be an extreme case. To be clear: All charges against Pistorius are alleged, at the moment. And domestic violence, if that proves to be the cause of Steenkamp's death, cuts across all segments of society, in the U.S. as well as abroad. High achievers do not have a corner on that market. The combination of insecurity, anger, and other damaged psychological traits that lead a person to abuse or turn violent toward women exists in all too many individuals and all too many places.

But it's worth pondering for a moment: For all of Michael Jordan's ego and anger and moods, two sportscasters discussing the ESPN piece last week noted that Jordan wasn't even in the top 50 of arrogant, egotistical sports figures they'd interviewed. That should give us pause, just as my friend's comments about the motivators and costs of top achievement in the business world gave me pause. Why do we view people who achieve great personal success or achievements—especially those that involve an almost narcissistic focus on themselves—as romantic figures or role models?

We should, by all means, acknowledge great achievement. Because it does come at great cost. Nobody has it all. Nobody can have a level-10 career and excel in their personal life, as well. Not even men. They may look like they have it all, but they don't. Just ask their neglected wives and children. There are hard, firm trade-offs in where a person's time and energy get directed, and every choice has a consequence. (And there's much, much more that can and needs to be said on that subject.)

But when we look for role models, why do we gloss over all the demons, flaws, and costs, and build these singular high achievers into all-around "10s" in our images and minds? I'm not sure, but I suspect it's because we want to believe the fairy tale. We want to believe that Prince Charming actually is a great guy, through and through. We want the simple, happy ending. And, perhaps we also want to believe that we, too, can focus on ourselves and achieve whatever we want without someone else bearing the cost that achievement requires.

To admire our sports superstars while acknowledging the likelihood of the flaws that either contributed to their success or came about because of what that success required or created would take a lot of the fun out of our fantasies about them, of course. It might also make those athletes a little tougher to market. On the other hand, it might take a little pressure off of them and, as Michael Jordan put it, allow them to "breathe."

I recognize that there are far too many forces at play for that scenario to come about anytime soon, if ever. But imagine how the world might change if balance ever became as valued as singular achievement. Now, there's a fantasy I could get excited about.