How to End Up Like John Edwards

Most of us won't stumble nearly as badly as John Edwards, the former political wunderkind who once seemed like White House material and is now a late-night punchline. But many ordinary people do face challenges similar to those Edwards did, with the same choices about responding recklessly or finding a way to turn difficulties to their advantage.

A lot of people are enraged that Edwards escaped legal punishment for his convoluted efforts to hide his affair with Rielle Hunter, including the baby he fathered with her while he was still married to his wife Elizabeth. But I'm more interested in his hubris. How deluded must Edwards have been to think he could hide a pregnant mistress while campaigning for president? How did he become so arrogant? Has he learned anything? Or does he still think he can game the system to his favor?

While researching my book Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success, I probed many of the character traits that differentiate people who recover from setbacks and go on to become successful, from those who keep making the same mistakes over and over and wallow in denial. Edwards seems to have innate talent, including the kind of charisma that draws loyal followers. Yet he sabotaged his own success and wasn't even aware of it, which a surprisingly large number of people do, albeit it in smaller ways.

In Rebounders, I call such people wallowers, because problems bring them down instead of providing a chance for them to rebound, learn vital things, and springboard to new success. Edwards seems to possess three traits of wallowers that many people share:

Externalizing blame. Testimony in the trial made it clear that Edwards blamed political opponents and the media for seeking to expose his affair with Hunter, instead of recognizing his own mistakes in conducting the affair and then trying to hide it. Edwards was more contrite following the trial, saying, "I did an awful, awful lot that was wrong," but that obviously came far too late to prevent a fiasco that derailed his entire political career.

Externalizing blame is a natural instinct, because it's inherently difficult and uncomfortable to acknowledge our own contribution to mistakes or bad decisions. But it's also a huge personal liability because it prevents us from seeing what is really wrong, and doing something to fix it. Getting out of a jam requires an accurate assessment of what is causing it. Successful people don't avoid problems, but they resist the knee-jerk impulse to blame others when something goes wrong, and they recognize their own contribution to a problem before it becomes debilitating. This is something just about everybody can get better at.

Loss of empathy. Edwards built his career as a politician around populist appeal, a concern for the disadvantaged and a folksy touch with voters. Yet he clearly lost this sense of empathy, at least in his personal life. Testimony revealed that Edwards became callous toward his wife Elizabeth, which was generally well-known, but also toward others, including his friend Andrew Young, who drew the unfortunate task of trying to keep Hunter underground.

Maybe Edwards is just a jerk, and it's no more complicated than that. But psychologists recognize a phenomenon known as the "paradox of power," in which the qualities that help someone become successful disappear once that person reaches a certain level of success. Such powermongerers start to believe too much in their own invincibility, forgetting that luck, hard work and help from others helped them arrive where they are. The irony of lost humility, of course, is that it can bring a lot more humility when you fall on your face and can't figure out why.

Too much success. This sounds like a problem we'd all like to have, yet it can lead to disaster. "Someone who has marched steadily through a string of successes can easily come to feel like a hero, able to fix any problem single-handedly," Joshua Margolis and Paul Stoltz wrote in a 2010 Harvard Business Review article. Edwards racked up an impressive string of career victories, first as a lawyer, then as a politician. But he completely miscalculated by assuming that he could extend his magic touch to his affair with Hunter, by concealing it and ordering aides to concoct elaborate deception schemes. It's almost laughable to think that somebody as bright as Edwards could convince himself he could get away with this, given the intense scrutiny a presidential campaign usually draws.

If there's good news for Edwards, it's that his comedown will provide all the lessons he needs in order to figure out what went wrong, and how to fix it. But he needs to pay attention and do the hard work of learning things he wishes he already knew, instead of rationalizing away his behavior. So do many others.