I started writing a column for The New York Times about a decade ago, and I endured a tough first few months. That was, in part, because, like anybody starting a new job, I wasn't sure I could pull it off.
So, especially early on, I was preoccupied with myself: How am I doing? There was no answer to that question that wouldn't make me crazy. I was always looking for some ultimate validation, which, of course, can never come. But, after a little while, I settled into a routine and my focus shifted to the actual subjects I was writing about. This shift from performance to subject may not have made the columns any better, but it sure did improve my psychic equilibrium.
That period was a lesson in the perils of self-preoccupation.
I think of this because of the news Monday about Alex Rodriguez's suspension from baseball through the 2014 season. Judging from the outside, the rest of us are pikers of self-preoccupation next to A-Rod. When you see him standing on deck or running off the field at the end of an inning, you see a man who seems to be manufacturing his own persona, disingenuously crafting a series of behaviors designed to look right.
When he gives a news conference, he doesn't look like a man giving a news conference. He looks like a man giving a performance of giving a news conference. Even his off-the-field life -- dating Madonna, partaking in soft-core kabbalah, dragging along his publicists and entourage -- leaves the impression that he is always observing himself and measuring to see if he lives up to the image of a superstar.
Mr. Rodriguez was a baseball prodigy from his earliest years. He batted an insane .505 his senior year in high school and had up to 100 scouts at every game. When he was drafted first overall by the Seattle Mariners, he hired the superagent Scott Boras, who damaged whatever chances Mr. Rodriguez had of becoming a normal human being.
Mr. Boras turned him into a corporate entity. In her book "A-Rod," Selena Roberts reported that, in the middle of his first contract negotiations, Mr. Boras had Mr. Rodriguez read a statement accusing the Mariners of being "low class." In other words, he was told to attack his first organization in order to squeeze a few dollars out of them. From the beginning, Mr. Rodriguez's preoccupation was not with team, it was with self.
Mr. Rodriguez then retained a guru named Jim Fannin, who further isolated him from his teammates and who molded him according to a self-conscious, prefab self-help formula.
By the time Mr. Rodriguez became a free agent, he was the marketing facade of A-Rod Inc. When negotiating with the New York Mets, Mr. Rodriguez's handlers asked for the use of a private jet, a special hotel suite when on the road and a personal marketing staff. By the time he reached the Texas Rangers, according to Ms. Roberts, a clubhouse attendant was required to put a dab of toothpaste on his toothbrush after every game.
Of course, this sort of egomaniacal behavior alienated him from his teammates, isolating him in the zone of his own self-concern. He was always the most talented player on the field but never a leader. He developed a reputation for caring more about personal stats than team wins.
Even when he tried to be a good teammate, there was little naturalness or spontaneity. Self-preoccupied people hit the right notes, but often so hard that they sound tinny. Self-preoccupation creates an ego that is at once overinflated, insatiable and overly sensitive. Self-preoccupation also seems to make it hard for supremely talented people like A-Rod to deal with their own talents.
One of the mysteries around Mr. Rodriguez is why the most supremely talented baseball player on the planet would risk his career to allegedly take performance-enhancing drugs.
My theory would be that self-preoccupied people have trouble seeing that their natural abilities come from outside themselves and can only be developed when directed toward something else outside themselves. Enclosed in self, they come to believe that their talents come from self, are the self. They have no outside criteria that tells them what their talents are for or when they are sufficient. Locked in a cycle of insecurity and attempted self-validation, their talents are never enough, and they end up devouring what they have been given.
As Mr. Rodriguez's former manager, Joe Torre, once wrote, the really good hitter has to "concern himself with getting the job done, instead of how it looks. ... There's a certain free-fall you have to go through when you commit yourself without a guarantee that it's always going to be good. ... Allow yourself to be embarrassed. Allow yourself to be vulnerable."
At every step along the way, Alex Rodriguez chased self-maximization, which ended up leading to his self-destruction.opinion_commentary
David Brooks is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times. First Published August 7, 2013 4:00 AM