There are some traits sociopaths exhibit that lead to success - so knowing them and applying them are very useful - but it doesn't mean you half to be one...
WHAT is a sociopath? Diagnostically speaking, it is someone who possesses a mixture of the following characteristics: charm, grandiosity, bloodless rationality, impulsivity, an appetite for risk, an erratic sex-life and little capacity for remorse. A sociopath is rarely prone to introspection, which is why M.E. Thomas's "Confessions of a Sociopath" is such an odd memoir.
Ms Thomas is the pseudonym of a female law professor who is also a confirmed sociopath (as confirmed as it gets, at least, in a field of notoriously murky assessment tools: she says she was diagnosed by a professor of psychology who is also a leading researcher in the field). Blending autobiography, anecdote and research, her book is less juicy for its content than for its writing style, which amounts to an uncut expression of a sociopath's distinctive traits. There is bombast: Thomas compares herself to God, a lion tamer and a revolutionary soldier, and observes, "I have remarkably beautiful breasts". There is calculation ("Unless I am actively trying to convey a particular message or to seduce I would rather not talk to people"). There is deceit, presumably: Thomas claims to have averaged a 9.5% stock market return since 2004. And there is plenty of charm, too.
Too bad the author is anonymous. Ms Thomas’s refusal to disclose her identity may account for the book’s failure to climb bestseller lists, for which its subject and sexy cover seem well suited. Character studies are hard to pull off, and the presence of a flesh-and-blood author might have supplemented Ms Thomas’s writing, which is not quite up to the task. Still, given the stigma of a diagnosis like sociopathy, her reluctance to go public makes some sense (and this newspaper has some empathy for anonymous authors). And Ms Thomas's anonymity has an upside, as it permits readers to form their own mental rendering of her. (This reader went with a variation on Sharon Stone in the 1992 film "Basic Instinct".)
For all the book's appeal as a memoir, it is perhaps better as a self-help manual for the rest of us. As it turns out, high-functioning sociopaths are full of handy lifestyle tips. Prospero lifted the best from Ms Thomas's book, with tips on how to incorporate them into your own life.
Rule #1: Disregard unspoken rules
After being hired at an elite law firm, Ms Thomas exploited her company's "non-existent" vacation policy by taking long weekends and lengthy vacations abroad. "People were implicitly expected not to take vacations, but I had my own lifelong policy of following only explicit rules, and then only because they're easiest to prove against me," she explains.
How to apply to your own life: Ignore "suggested donation" pleas at museums, always help yourself to more food and drinks at dinner parties and recline your seat all the way back when flying.
Rule #2: Assess costs and benefits
Sociopaths, says Ms Thomas, “are incredibly sensitive to incentive structures and actively consider both actual costs and opportunity costs in their decision-making” (unlike the rest of us, to the disappointment of most economists). "I have always lived in the worst neighborhoods," Ms Thomas writes. "Rent is cheap and I figure there's no need for me to pay a safety premium if I have health insurance."
How to apply to your own life: Make spending decisions shrewdly, leveraging each discretionary dollar for its maximum happiness return.
“Sympathy makes for bad lawyering, bad advocacy, and bad rule-making,” Ms Thomas writes. Sociopaths are free of this burden. They are also, she says, excellent at reading people (useful during jury selection), immune to performance anxiety (useful during trial) and craftily seductive (useful for persuading juror and judge alike).Rule #3: The best lawyers are (probably) sociopaths
How to apply to your own life: When in need, seek sociopathic counsel.
Rule #4: Be prepared
Ms Thomas's opportunism applies to the social as much as the professional realm. "I have learned that it is important always to have a catalogue of at least five personal stories of varying length in order to avoid the impulse to shoehorn unrelated titbits into existing conversations," she writes. "Social-event management feels very much like classroom or jury management to me; it's all about allowing me to present myself to my own best advantage."
How to apply to your own life: Have a few rehearsed anecdotes on hand for awkward social occasions. Might as well score some career points while you're sweating into your cocktail napkin.
Rule #5: If you can't beat them, confuse them.
One of Ms Thomas's favourite activities is attending academic conferences. Since she doesn't teach at a top-tier school, she captures her colleagues' attention by other means: "Everything about the way I present myself is extremely calculated," she writes. "I am careful to wear something that will draw attention, like jeans and cowboy boots while everyone else is wearing business attire." The goal, Ms Thomas says, is "to indicate that I'm not interested in being judged by the usual standards."
How to apply to your own life: If you find yourself at an institutional disadvantage, set yourself apart by other means. Cowboy boots optional.