The Hidden Costs of Entrepreneur ManiaNews, Start-ups August 30, 2013
How Psychological Imbalance Can Lead To Success — and Tragedy
Work-life balance? What’s that? To most founders, the phrase “nothing personal, just business” couldn’t be farther away from reality. But some people seem to crave the insane pressures of founding a business. They just seem to be built for the entrep’s life. In a way, they are. The high incidence of business founders with so-called “Entrepreneur mania” seems to show that there might indeed be something to that idea.
American Culture highly values individuality and entrepreneurship, especially compared with other more collectivist countries. There’s no shortage of manic, often egotistical entrepreneurial icons – Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Thomas Alva Edison, David O. Selznik, and Teddy Roosevelt are just a few American icons that have been conjectured to have had hypomania – a mild, controllable form of mania.
Manic personalities and episodes are just one side of the coin. In previous articles, we’ve discussed how failure is often part of being an entrepreneur. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that failure can sting, despite the lessons you might learn from it. Many entrepreneurs however, feel more than just a sting.
A large proportion of people with manic personalities also suffer from bipolar disorder, putting them at greater risk of having a depressive episode than the general population. An apparent spate of high-profile suicides by noted start-up founders have led some to question the mental toll entrepreneurship takes.
Are Entrepreneurs ‘Mental’?
Perhaps you remember this ad:
Of course, not all entrepreneurs and founders are “crazy” or have significant mental health issues. That ad however touches on a certain truth – a disproportionate number of entrepreneurs have a condition falling somewhere along the mania and bipolar disorder spectrums.
Bouts of mania are what characterize hypomanics and are just one part of what characterizes people with bipolar disorder. People with manic episodes commonly experience an increase in energy and a decreased need for sleep. Some sufferers often getting as little as three or four hours of sleep per night. Some can go days without sleeping. Sufferers may also experience racing thoughts, and speak very rapidly when motivated. They may also engage in risky behavior, or believe they have a “special mission” to achieve something.
If you feel this all sounds like the qualities of a stereotypical entrepreneur, you’re not alone. While it might seem fairly obvious that there may be a link between psychiatric disorders and entrepreneurial drive now, just a generation or so ago such a connection didn’t seem so clear. Entrepreneurs were more often thought to be types out of an Ayn Rand book – strong, unshakable types like Howard Roark or John Galt.
With the benefits of advances in psychology, neuroscience, testing, and hindsight we’ve finally begun to see clearer patterns between enterprise founders. Along the same lines the effects of depression, the other side of the bipolar coin, on some entrepreneurs are finally coming to light. Looking back, it seems that it’s always been there – but most successful founders adapt with a “fake it till you make it” approach. This isn’t at all different from patterns observed in people outside entrepreneurship. The “strong leader” archetype probably further obfuscated the reality of founder depression.
According to a comprehensive 2011 study, around 2.4% of people around the world have a condition along the bipolar disorder spectrum.
The figures for the United States are quite exceptional. The US has the highest lifetime rate of bipolar disorder at 4.4%, having the highest rates in every category of bipolar disorder in the world. There have been several reasons given for this, some less compelling than others:
- Americans are more aware of mental health issues and are more likely to seek treatment for psychiatric disorders
- The U.S. healthcare system is better equipped to diagnose mental illnesses
- There are actually a lot of false positives because of some conspiracy by pharmaceutical companies to sell more psychiatric meds
- Popular culture romanticizes bipolar disorder, making more people report having it – spoofing even trained psychiatrists
- The American population is mostly comprised of immigrants and their descendants – a naturally risk-taking bunch. This may mean those with bipolar disorder from other countries were much more likely to take a chance at making it in America. As the risk for bipolar spectrum disorders is genetic- this is reflected in the high rates in the general population. Similarly high rates are found in countries with high immigrant descendant populations such as Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Conversely, countries with ethnically homogenous populations that receive very little immigration such as India and Japan, have the lowest rates among countries polled.
But why are American rates so high? Sara Bodner, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, explains:
“It could be genetics; it could be environment. It also could be the way individuals in different cultures are willing to respond to this kind of an inquiry,” says “Cultural awareness plays a very big role in psychiatry. Some cultures have a huge reluctance to speak about psychiatric things. In the U.S., people with bipolar symptoms may be more likely to be diagnosed with the condition. “We’re pretty aware of [bipolar disorder],”
In the books The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America by Dr. John Gartner and Exuberance by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison both paint a very convincing picture of American entrepreneurial culture as being driven by somewhat unhinged leaders who would be all but unhireable in the successful companies they themselves build.
I couldn’t find any reliable sources on bipolar spectrum disorder rates among start-up founders and entrepreneurs (as opposed to people who just work in some management capacity after founding) but evidence seems to indicate rates are consistently higher than the general American population as they are self-selecting.
People with mania and bipolar disorders in all likelihood do not comprise the majority of entrepreneurs in the US by any means, though they are likely a significant minority – and likely the most colorful and influential one. If you’re playing the entrepreneurial field in America, or work with start-ups, you’ll probably even have personal brushes with manic entrepreneurs.
What to do
If you believe you have hypomania or bipolar disorder, or know someone who does, the best thing to do is to seek professional help as soon as possible. Timely management of these conditions is possible in a majority of cases, and the downsides to these conditions don’t have to be a barrier to your success in your chosen field.
It’s not uncommon to believe that therapists won’t be able to adequately address your needs because they don’t “get” it, but if you believe you or someone you know has one of these disorders, it’s best to at least stick it out at first and attempt to address any quality-of-life issue that might be present.
Quality-of-life is just putting it lightly. At least 25% to 50% of patients with bipolar disorder attempt suicide at least once – a rate 20 times that of the general population. In the past 10 months, we’ve lost at least three young start-up founders to suicide - Ilya Zhitomirskiy, 22-year-old co-founder of the hyped Facebook rival Diaspora, Jody Sherman, beloved founder of Ecomom, and Reddit Co-founder Aaron Hillel Swartz.
While it’s possible you might be able to manage on your own, John D. Gartner, a psychologist and author of “The Hypomanic Edge” quipped about just how thin the lines are:
“It’s about degrees… If you’re manic, you think you’re Jesus. If you’re hypomanic, you think you are God’s gift to technology investing.”
Sources and Additional Reading
4 Tips For Dealing WIth Founder Depression - Entrepreneur
Jody Sherman Death - LA Times
Fixing Mental Health - RossPW.com
US has the Highest Bipolar Rates - CNN.com
Blessed Are The Hypomanic - Forbes
Just Manic Enough – Seeking Perfect Entrepreneurs - The New York Times
The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (A Little) Craziness and (A Lot of) Success in America
Suicide and bipolar disorder; J Clin Psychiatry. 2000;61 Suppl 9:47-51; Jamison KR; Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, MD 21287, USA