The Hypomanic Edge
The Link Between (A Little) Craziness
and (A Lot of) Success
by John Gartner, Ph.D. [Page 1/2]
drive, cockeyed optimism, entrepreneurial zeal, Yankee ingenuity,
messianism, and arrogance are traits that have long been attributed to
the "American character."
what is the source of this American
temperament? Is it our economic system, vast resources, teachings of
our forefathers, and national pride?
it something deeper? Are we
a nation fueled by predominating genetic characteristics predisposed to
entrepreneurialism, risky innovative ventures, and a willingness to
fail in the pursuit of an ideal?
there has never been a serious
suggestion that there might actually be a link between the talent for
being an entrepreneur and mania, the genetically based psychiatric
disorder... until now. Perhaps because I am a clinical psychologist,
it was clear to me that "manic" may have been more than a figure of
said yes. "Not really manic; not clinically, I mean" was a
typical response. They resisted applying the psychiatric diagnosis
because the entrepreneurs they had interviewed were boastful,
hyperenergized, and zany, but they "weren't crazy."
were right. Their subjects were not manic. They were hypomanic.
Hypomania is a mild non-pathological form of mania, often found in the
relatives of manic-depressives.
are brimming with infectious
energy, irrational confidence, and really big ideas. They think, talk,
move, and make decisions quickly. Anyone who slows them down with
questions "just doesn't get it."
are not crazy, but "normal"
is not the first word that comes to mind when describing them either.
suggesting that Jim Clark suffers from a mental illness, but based on
his published statements and actions, he can be described as hypomanic.
New New Thing, Michael Lewis profiled Clark as a perpetual
motion machine with a short attention span, forever hurtling at unsafe
speeds on helicopters, planes, boats, and cars.
his forward motion
is impeded, Clark becomes irritable, bored, and depressed. In his
search for the stimulation of the "new new thing," he quickly loses
interest in the companies he founds and tosses them into the laps of
his bewildered employees.
Netscape IPO is credited with starting
the Internet gold rush. After that it seemed he could do no wrong. When
he pitched a new company, Healtheon, a medical website, his only
business plan was a diagram with five words.
"magic diamond" put
Healtheon at the center of four vertices labeled "doctors, consumers,
providers and payers." That was it. His magic diamond, he claimed, was
going to "fix the U.S. healthcare system."
going to be "bigger
than Microsoft, AOL, Netscape, and Yahoo!" As Lewis wrote, "Any other
human being would have been thrown into an asylum for thinking such
who followed Clark had faith in his
messianic mission. "There was a feeling that we were about to change
the world," said one of Healtheon's chief engineers.
"flight of ideas," jumping from topic
to topic in a rapid energized way, is a sign of hypomania.
Bill Gross, CEO of Idealab. Bill Gross's job was not to build or run
companies, but just to think of ideas for them. Idealab was an
"Internet incubator" company.
Fortune's cover, next to a picture of
a cheerful Bill Gross, was the caption "I lost 800 million in eight
months. Why am I still smiling?"
author, Joseph Nocera, Fortune's
managing editor and a highly respected business correspondent, begins
his article with an unusual mea culpa. He apologizes to his readers for
his previous Fortune article that hyped Gross and Idealab just before
the Nasdaq crash. He confesses that Gross converted him into a believer:
I believed him because I was dazzled by him. A small, wiry man, Gross had an infectious boyish enthusiasm that was charming and irresistible. He spoke so rapidly — jumping from topic to topic as if he were hyperlinking — that it was hard to keep up with him, and had so much energy he seemed constantly on the verge of jumping out of his skin. He bubbled over with irrepressible optimism.
And his brain! That's what really set him apart. You could practically see the ideas bursting out of it, one after another, each more offbeat, more original, more promising than the last. The sheer profusion of ideas — and the way he got excited as he described them — was a large part of his charisma.
reason Bill Gross was still smiling was that his newest new idea
was "going to be unbelievably huge" and "revolutionize the Internet."
Eight hundred million. Eight hundred shmillion.
Gross's enthusiastic confidence. As in the case of Clark, there is no
evidence that Gross suffers from a psychiatric disorder, but he is a
was even a millionaire on paper for one exhilarating day in March 2000,
at the peak of the market, before my portfolio lost 90 percent of its
value. I began to suspect I was writing the wrong book.
placed announcements on several websites devoted to
the technology business, expressing my interest in studying
entrepreneurs and requesting volunteers.
interviewed a small sample
of 10 Internet CEOs, read them each a list of hypomanic traits I had
synthesized from the psychiatric literature, and asked them if they
agreed these traits were typical of an entrepreneur:
He is flooded with ideas.
He is driven, restless, and unable to keep still.
He channels his energy into the achievement of wildly grand ambitions.
He often works on little sleep.
He feels brilliant, special, chosen: perhaps even destined to change the world.
He can be euphoric.
He becomes easily irritated by minor obstacles.
He is a risk taker.
He overspends in both his business and personal life.
He acts out sexually.
He sometimes acts impulsively, with poor judgment, in ways that can have painful consequences.
He is fast-talking.
He is witty and gregarious.
His confidence can make him charismatic and persuasive.
He is also prone to making enemies and feels he is
persecuted by those who do not accept his vision and mission.
entrepreneurs agreed that the overall description was accurate, and
they endorsed all the hypomanic traits, with the exceptions of
"paranoia" and "sexual acting out" (these traits in particular are
viewed as very negative and thus may be more difficult to admit to).
expressed their agreement with excitement: "Wow, that's right on
target!" While I asked them to rate their level of agreement on a
standard five-point scale, many gave ratings that were literally off
the chart: 5+s, 6s.
subject repeatedly begged me to let him give a
7. I was startled by the respondents' enthusiasm, though perhaps I
shouldn't have been. As a psychotherapist, I am familiar with the way
people become energized when they feel understood, especially when it
helps them understand themselves better.
could finally explain what drove him to
impulsively send broadcast emails at three in the morning to all his
employees, radically revising the company's mission.
merely by asking these questions I had held up a mirror in which these
men could see themselves. After talking to them for just 15 minutes, it
seemed as if I was the first person to truly understand them.
talked rapidly and loudly and laughed quite often. At the same time he
was charming, witty, and engaging. The interview was a bit chaotic
because he was driving and carrying on another phone call at the same
a serial entrepreneur. After founding one successful
company, he had felt he needed to quit his own corporation because he
couldn't "make things happen fast enough," leaving him frustrated and
bored. Now he was on to a new venture.
very enthusiastic about
my research and volunteered to send me the phone numbers and email
addresses of half a dozen well-known high-tech entrepreneurs (which I
never received), who he claimed were his "very close friends."
this case. One hundred percent of the entrepreneurs I interviewed were
hypomanic! This couldn't be chance. The odds of flipping a coin 10
times and getting 10 heads in a row is less than one in a thousand.
felt as if I had tested the waters with my little pilot study and been
hit by a tidal wave. It was then that I knew I had stumbled onto
something big that had been hiding in plain sight. But I had only
scratched the surface of what I would later discover.
visited his son on the unit, he would behave in a dramatically
hypomanic fashion. He would make numerous business phone calls around
the world on the patients' pay phone, while frantically yelling "back
off" at patients or staff who tried to interrupt him.
not normal, but he had made his hypomania work for him. He was a very
is an illness. The son was disabled
— a longterm inpatient at a psychiatric hospital. Manic episodes almost
always end in hospitalization.
person who is highly energized, and
also in most cases psychotic, does bizarre things that are dangerous,
frightening, and disruptive. They urgently require external control for
everyone's safety, especially their own. Most people who have
experienced a manic episode remember it as a nightmare.
intoxicating, powerful, productive, and desirable" is how hypomanics
experience their mood, according to Frederick K. Goodwin and Kay
Redfield Jamison, authors of the definitive 900-page Manic-Depressive
hypomanic is hospitalized, or seeks outpatient treatment,
it is usually for depression. Not all hypomanics cycle down into
depression. What goes up can stay up. But if one does become depressed,
he or she will define recovery as a return to his or her old energetic
2. Decreased need for sleep (e.g., feels rested after only
3 hours of sleep)
3. More talkative than usual or pressure to keep talking
4. Flight of ideas or subjective experience that thoughts
5. Distractibility (i.e., attention too easily drawn to
unimportant or irrelevant external stimuli)
6. Increase in goal-directed activity (either socially, at
work or school, or sexually) or psychomotor agitation
7. Excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that
have a high potential for painful consequences (e.g., engaging in
unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish business
notably smaller, but
growing amount of literature on hypomania suggests that 5 percent to 10
percent of the population is hypomanic. Whatever the exact percentage,
psychiatry's most recent discovery is not a rare expression of bipolar
genes, but its most common form.
according to one school of thought, is a disease like sickle cell
anemia. Sickle-cell anemia is a blood disease that primarily affects
people of African origin. To contract the disease, you must inherit the
recessive sickle gene from both your mother and father.
people inherit only a single sickle gene from one parent, and
epidemiologists call them "carriers" because they carry the gene
without manifesting the illness.
turns out, they are much more
than that. They are the reason the gene exists. A single sickle gene
greatly enhances resistance to malaria, a deadly disease prevalent in
Africa. This gene has been favored by natural selection, even though it
causes a deadly disease, because it saves more people than it kills.
the numbers may
be more complex, the same principles could apply: a less probable
combination of genes produces the undesirable disease of mania, while a
more frequent combination produces the advantageous outcome of
could be that quantitatively more hypomanic genes are
required to produce mania. Call this the slot machine model. Three
cherries produces a moderate payout: hypomania. But once in a while you
get five cherries, and you're flooded with coins: mania.
Hypomania gives them an edge over the competition.
Continued on Page 2
~ ~ ~
D. Gartner, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry
at Johns Hopkins University Medical School. He is a graduate of
Princeton University, and widely published in scholarly journals and
book is The
The Link Between (A Little) Craziness and (A Lot
See more personal development and success articles at
"Powerful ideas are at the very heart of success"
related Talent Development Resources pages:
achievement / personal development programs.....
achievement : articles
achievement : books
~ ~ ~