Robin Williams and the 70 percent solution

An Aug. 13th article in The New York Times on the death of actor-comedian Robin Williams carried this striking statistic:

“More than 70 percent of all suicides in the United States are white men, most of them in their middle years, and many take their lives in the wake of some loss, whether professional, personal or physical.”

Notice the demographic. It’s the group that has held power in American society, a power that’s been eroding as an increasingly multicultural coalition – women, blacks, Latinos, Asians – takes form. While often independent, these minorities certainly came together to elect Barack Obama president and defeat the predominantly white male Tea Party – twice.

The white American male, then, is going the way of the dinosaur. But that’s not the reason he represents the majority of suicides. Indeed, that overrepresentation is not about the loss of power but about the nature of power itself – a self-deluding, all-consuming and ultimately self-defeating pursuit.

For power is about its maintenance. Think of it in terms of tennis, as former world No. 1 Martina Navratilova once brilliantly observed. Once you’re the No. 1-ranked player in the world, what’s next? To be the No. 1-ranked player for one, two or three years? But then, you’re just running in place, aren’t you? And that gets harder to do as challengers ripen. It’s the law of diminishing returns.

In the case of Williams, he was a great aging male star – a comic “genius” in the ancient Roman sense of the word, meaning “guiding spirit” – playing a young man’s game. But at least he was blessed enough to do what he loved and was good at. Some of the captains and kings of industry make a lot of money at professions that don’t really fulfill them. Money and creativity don’t often go hand-in-hand. Sometimes, you have to choose.

And even when they do dovetail, as in Williams’ case, success can be a type of heroin: You need more and more to get the same high. Or to keep up the same appearance, perception being everything in places like Hollywood, Manhattan and Washington D.C.

The trick – and it is tricky – is to diversify your success portfolio, defining success in different ways in various areas of your life so that when failure comes along, and it will, it doesn’t shatter your identity. But that’s hard to do when your identity is defined almost exclusively by success in the workplace, as has been the case traditionally with white American males, particularly those of a certain vintage. One of the reasons that women and minorities have lower rates of suicide, I think, is because they have until recently been denied access to power – and its entrapments – which may change in the future.

Women in particular also seem to have a lot more interests and personal relationships. They seem to have a lot more to live for.

I’m not suggesting that the relative loss of star and earning power is what led Williams to take his own life. Each suicide is no doubt the result of a complex set of circumstances, not the least of which is clinical depression. But I do think a new understanding of power and success might help decrease that 70-plus percent statistic.