John D. Rockefeller: Turning Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Into Success

John D. Rockefeller: Turning Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Into Success

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John D. Rockefeller: Turning Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Into Success


John D. Rockefeller, the Standard Oil magnate who, by the time of his
death in 1937, was probably worth close to a billion dollars, is perhaps
one of the best historical examples of an obsessive-compulsive. An
obsessive-compulsive is one who is driven to an act or acts, generally
being asocial. By his own fixations and by nature of his peculiar psyche
he must balance these actions with others more socially acceptable. There are
abundant examples of Rockefeller's deeds fitting these clinical
characteristics, and John D. Rockefeller is today generally regarded as an
obsessive-compulsive. The roots of this disorder are traceable back to his
childhood. While much of Rockefeller's business history remains a mystery
today, it is apparent that much of his success is attributable to his
obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Franz Alexander and Louis B. Shapiro's description of the obsessive-
compulsive disorder from their book Neuroses, Behavior Disorders, and
Perversions0 is a frequently used summary of the commonly agreed-upon
characteristics. It states: "Full blown cases of obsessive-compulsive
states present a dynamic equilibrium in which obsessive preoccupation with
ego-alien fantasies... are precariously balanced by rituals representing an
exaggeration of social standards, such as cleanliness, punctuality,
consideration for others. The dynamic formula is similar to bookkeeping in
which on the one side of ledger are the asocial tendencies which the
patient tries to balance precisely on the other side with moralistic and
social attitudes... Every asocial move must be undone by an opposing
one..." The term "ego-alien" refers to thoughts, emotions or material which
are consciously detestable to the patient (though not he may not
necessarily be conscious of the reason). This summary is important, and we
will return to it later.

Rockefeller was born in 1839 and raised in a troubled, then broken, home.
His father, who sold quack "quick-heal" ailment medicines, was often away
for months at a time. Rockefeller was raised essentially by his mother.
Eventually his father consummated a bigamous marriage with a teenage
Canadian and left Rockefeller and his mother and siblings.

At an early age, it became apparent that young John was not quite like
the other children. For instance, he adamantly refused to play with other
children unless he could choose the game. In almost every description of
him as a child, he is often described as "thinking". He married Laura
Celestia Spelman, a girl who was strikingly similar to his mother, which is
never a good sign; and when he decided to go into business, he borrowed
$1000 from his father- at ten percent interest.

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Ten percent was well above
the going rate; Rockefeller's father essentially loansharked his son.
Rockefeller was apparently disturbed by his childhood; he absorbed his
cutthroat business techniques from his shyster father, and at some point
other influences at a young age probably began to develop his obsessive-
compulsive disorder. Unfortunately, few intimate accounts of his early life
and family exist, so it is difficult to pinpoint these influences.

Rockefeller seemed to make his fortune with hardly any effort; a brief
outline is appropriate. After dropping out of high school and serving a
clerical apprenticeship, Rockefeller went into business, forming a produce
house with one partner and $4,000 of capital between them. In its first
year its gross income was $450,000, with a net income of $4,400- better
than one hundred percent return. After flourishing through the Civil War
boom, Rockefeller's company bought its first refinery. Rockefeller soon
gave up his original partnership to concentrate on the oil business. In
1870, with a capital of better than one million dollars, Rockefeller
reformed his company as the Standard Oil Company of Ohio. Buying the means
to control production from the smallest detail (he even built his own
barrels to save money) Rockefeller soon managed to dominate the nationwide
oil market. In 1879 Standard Oil controlled 95 percent of oil production in
the United States.

Like all successful businesses of the time, Rockefeller's company did a
fair amount of illegal dealing; and while Standard Oil was perhaps not
quite as crooked as its competitors, it is in this fact that we see the
first facet of Rockefeller as an obsessive-compulsive. While Rockefeller
encouraged illegal railroad rebates and even invented a few new ones (such
as the "drawback", a variation on the kickback) he was an adamant
churchgoer. He strongly disapproved of: smoking, drinking, card playing,
dancing, merriment, "wenching", theatre going, concert going, banqueting,
idling, socializing in general and "good fellowship". He took no vacations,
no time off. He did nothing in his small amount of free time except go to
church two or three times a week. These are the "rituals representing an
exaggeration of social standards" mentioned by Drs. Alexander and Shapiro.
Rockefeller, who as an obsessive-compulsive had to balance his asocial acts
(the seamy and/or illegal acts of Standard Oil) by social acts, in this
case presenting (to himself as well as others) a facade of deep morality.

In the anti-corporation hue and cry of the late 1800's and early
twentieth century, Rockefeller was assaulted by the courts in an attempt to
reduce his virtual monopoly. In 1892 he was ordered to dissolve his trust,
one of his inventions which allowed him control over a number of subsidiary
companies. He simply placed relatives and friends at the helms of the
newly-freed subsidiaries. In 1906 Standard Oil's railroad rebate schemes
were discovered and the company was fined $29.2 million. The judge, luckily
for Rockefeller, had made an incompetent decision (his fine was too high by
at least an order of magnitude) and the decision was reversed in a higher
court. Standard Oil paid nothing. In the year following the 1892 decision,
Rockefeller donated over $1.5 million to charities. While he had been
donating money since his teenage years, this amount was three times as
large as any sum he had ever donated in one year. In 1907, after the second
major court case, he donated over $39 million. This was also the largest
amount he had ever donated, by a large margin. We can say with some
assurance that these hefty donations were a result of Rockefeller's
obsessive-compulsive disorder; he was simply balancing the guilt he felt
from his business practices with philanthropy.

To what extent was Rockefeller's obsessive-compulsive disorder
responsible for his phenomenal success? Rockefeller was unquestionably a
financial genius, obsessive-compulsive or no. However, clearly
Rockefeller's disturbance was responsible for his illegal activities that
continued into the 1900's, after he had made more money than he could
possibly use, and when he donated a large percentage of his personal income
to various charities. Rockefeller's tactics put left tens of thousands of
workers (at least one estimate is even over one hundred thousand) after the
turn of the century after he had accumulated a staggering amount of wealth.
It would probably be safe to say, at the very least, that any fortune
generated by illegal activities after the mid 1890's was the result of his
obsessive-compulsive complex; perhaps his obsession for money spurred him
on from his very first business venture through the last days of Standard
Oil. Too few records exist of Standard Oil and Rockefeller for us to be
sure at what point Rockefeller's obsessive-compulsive disorder became the
dominant force.

John D. Rockefeller is, by all historical accounts, a clear-cut case of
an obsessive-compulsive, one who commits asocial acts and feels a need to
balance these actions with more socially becoming conduct. The origins of
Rockefeller's disorder appear to have occurred in his childhood; the
obsessive-compulsive syndrome that resulted was probably responsible for
most of his financial ambition and subsequent success.
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