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 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. 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
. 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.