John D. Rockefeller: Obsession 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 but by
nature of his peculiar psyche 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
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. 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
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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