Learning to Love Your Mental Disorder: A Case for Neuro-Diversity in Business and Life

There is a great piece in today’s Sunday Business section of the New York Times titled “Just Manic Enough: Seeking the Perfect Entrepreneur.” The thrust of it is that a certain level of hypomania – mild, non-psychotic mania associated with high energy, compulsive focus and productivity, but also sometimes delusional overconfidence – may be necessary in order to succeed as an entrepreneur.

The piece describes Seth Priebatch’s impressively maniacal evangelism on behalf of scvngr.com, a company that seeks “to build a game layer on top of the world.” It’s an interesting, grandiose business mission, which is what we expect of internet startups – non-grandiose missions aren’t worth putting up on the wall.

David Segal, the author of this piece (beautifully executed, David), says,

“The hypomanic temperament is, of course, not limited to entrepreneurs. It’s found in politics (Theodore Roosevelt) the military (George S. Patton), Hollywood (the studio head David O. Selznick) and virtually any field where outsize risks yield enormous rewards.  But the business world has contributed more than its share of hypomanics, particularly the abusive, ornery kind. The most colorful of the breed was arguably Henry Ford.”

He goes on to talk about Steve Jobs as an archetypal case.

A simpler phrase for hypomania might be “high octane, reality-proof optimism” – you have to have a certain measure of this succeed as an entrepreneur. Meanwhile, a large dose of this condition makes it nearly impossible to be an effective operator – reality must pierce the semi-permeable boundary of one’s optimism if you are to generate somewhat realistic time projections, which is in turn a pre-requisite for somewhat competent manage of a team. Which is why successful companies are, more often than not, handed off from one personality type to the next at some point in the growth process.

This article fortified a belief I have had for some time now, which is that all the most common forms of “mental illnesses,” in their mild forms, confer advantages as well as disadvantages. Brains come in flavors – some of us are more anxious, some more manic, some more depressive, some more distractible – and these different flavors have been evolutionarily selected for over time because they enable success in different environments.

This is an emergent view – see the great “Science of Success” article in the Altantic last December – but it’s a radical deviation from the convention thinking of what we call, inappropriately, “the mental health profession.” The conventional assumption is that there is a single optimal type of human brain / personality, which we call “normal,” which is the right kind. Any significant deviation from that “normal” brain — which functions as a kind of Copernican sun around which mental illness rotates — is a mental disorder, a neurosis or psychosis that makes its host less functional. (SIDE NOTE: I have great respect for the mental health profession, even though I think it needs to be renamed – my mother is psychoanalyst, and she is an articulate and nuanced spokesperson for the conventional view). I would like to offer a different metaphor – just as there is no one optimal body type, but rather many body types that offer advantages for different sporting events, there is also no single optimal brain, or personality. There is certainly such a thing as a “well rounded” brain or personality that can do a lot of things well, just as there is a body type that can do a lot of sports well. But the best are specialists. Swimming selects for people with long trunks (they float better) and large feet and hands (for better propulsion). Sprinters are stouter with bulkier mucles (which have a higher percentage of fast twitch fibers) and marathon runners are lighter with endurance focused muscles (more slow twitch fibers) and massive cardio capacity relative to body weight. The ideal squash player, I have heard it said, would have short, muscular legs (for rapid acceleration) and long arms (for court coverage).

The many different mental challenges we face select for a similar variation in thinking styles / personality types /brains. What are the most successful among them? Here, it’s interesting to consult the National Institute of Mental Health’s overview of mental disorders. The NIMH website says that 26.2 percent of American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Presumably there are far more with mild cases that do not seek help, and a far higher percentage that suffer from a mental disorder, as they say, in the course of their lives. Could evolution really have screwed up this badly? Here are the most common mental disorders:

  • Mood disorders (Depression, bipolar disorder, hypomania, et al) – 9.5% of the population
  • Anxiety disorders (obsessive compulsive disorder, panic attacks, various phobias) – 18.1% of the population
  • ADHD  — 4.1% of the population
  • Personality disorders – antisocial, histrionic, narcissistic, paranoid – 9.1% of the population

The New York Times article effectively described the advantages of mild mania – more energy, more focus, more optimism. Of course these benefits come with liabilities, which is why, from a game theory perspective, it makes sense that we are not all manic. And of course I recognize that the people who suffer from the extreme forms of all these conditions do indeed suffer and need help – please understand I am talking here about the functional majority of the population, not the small minority that cannot function.

ADHD is associated with creativity – it encourages swift movement between different subjects, which makes it easier to scan for interesting relationships, and ADHD is also associated with hyperfocus once the individual seizes on something that attracts their attention. A disproportionate number of people with ADHD are over-achievers, and, I suspect, a disproportionate number are also underachievers. I wouldn’t be surprised if ADHD and hypomania sometimes afflict the same individual.

I suspect that people with mild anxiety disorders, such as mild phobias and obsessive compulsive disorder, can be unusually good at detecting danger, and unusually good at persistent execution and attention to detail. Every successful business needs people in this spectrum – people hypersensitive to very small problems, who can hunt down deviations in spreadsheets, or errant zeros and ones. Who better to open hundreds of franchises across the country with unerring attention to detail, or perform other important, repetitive tasks precisely, than someone “suffering from” a mild case of obsessive compulsive disorder?

My point here is that any group of people – a society, a business, a tribe in the ancestral savanna – benefits from having a range of personality types. I learned early on that if I only hired people like me, my business would fail. I think the comparison between a modern small business trying to adapt to rapid technology change and a tribe of a few hundred people on the African savanna 100,000 years ago is actually quite relevant. In both cases groups comprised of people with different kinds of brain specialization are likely to outcompete those comprised of a single personality type.

Every group needs a range of specialists – people great at thinking up new ideas and then obsessing on them until they are perfect; people great at executing a vision in a systematic, consistent format and leading a team; anxious people who wake up in the middle of the night worrying about competing groups or threats that haven’t emerged in years. These varying, complimentary (albeit not always chummy) personality types are all highly valuable to the collective.

Alisa, my lovely, nearly perfect wife, sometimes jokingly calls herself “the watchtower woman.” If she hears a faint sound in the middle of the night she bolts upright. She periodically gets migranes which make her so sensitive to sounds and light that she has to sit in a silent dark room with a towel over her head. She has an extraordinary ability to contemplate every possible danger — not just physical danger but a broader, sophisticated risk analysis — that could beset our family. If you know her, you might not have guessed this; she is very outgoing and adventurous and at ease the vast majority of the time. But she is genetically (and culturally … I agree with you Mr. Shenk;)  wired to be a sentinal – as she puts it, the watchtower woman.

I think I have a mild case of ADHD (more on this come in a later post). Much as Alisa likes to think of her mild anxieties in the context of the positive function they perform for the group, I like to think of my ADHD  as AMPs – Absent Minded Professor Sydrome. I enjoy the advantages of the way my brain works, even as I take small steps (daily exercise, obsessive self-management systems) to mitigate the disadvantages.

It’s reasonable to ask why this matters. Mild mental disorders are not as stigmatized as they once were — references to one’s therapist have been fashionable in New York since the 1970s. Having said that, we are not quite at the point at which you can comfortably say that you have mild obsessive compulsive disorder or ADHD or hypomania in a job interview. But we should be headed in that direction. We are each better able to manage our thinking styles — to build on our strengths and compensate for our weaknesses — if we gladly own them. We are more likely to own them, even if they are called neuroses or psychoses, if we understand their benefits. And we are better able to appreciate the different (yes sometimes annoying) thinking styles of other people if we appreciate that the group, in the end, benefits.

One thought on “Learning to Love Your Mental Disorder: A Case for Neuro-Diversity in Business and Life

  1. Great post. I agree. My thinking on this subject is drawn to the evolutionary context for understanding this question of “what is normal” or the more complex question you raise of multiple funtional types each with a nice blend of partial mental disorders. I also tend to think of myself as ADHD, although am a bit jealous b/c I think you are more. In any case I think the reason so many people think they have attention deficit (if they have the attention to think about their own mental issues) is because our brains evolved in an environment in which that was a great standard frame of mind (outdoors, hunter-gatherers, constant competing stimuli). Further, as you suggest, we had little choice but to be getting lots of exercise which tends to calm the jittery mind. I think that there is a huge future business sector in video game technology that effectively brings together exercise and learning with a simulation of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle (which includeda good dose of violence). All this is why I also think we need a national program that gets “troubled” urban youth out into the wilderness for summers.


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