Sunday, September 19, 2010

Brilliant Versus Crazy, Revisited.

In today's New York Times in "Just Manic Enough-- Seeking Perfect Entrepeneurs," David Segal writes about enterpreneur Seth Priebatsch:

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual — the occupation’s bible of mental disorders — these symptoms include grandiosity, an elevated and expansive mood, racing thoughts and little need for sleep.

“Elevated” hardly describes this guy. To keep the pace of his thoughts and conversation at manageable levels, he runs on a track every morning until he literally collapses. He can work 96 hours in a row. He plans to live in his office, crashing in a sleeping bag. He describes anything that distracts him and his future colleagues, even for minutes, as “evil.”

He is 21 years old.

So, what do you give this guy — a big check or the phone number of a really good shrink? If he is Seth Priebatsch and you are Highland Capital Partners, a venture capital firm in Lexington, Mass., the answer is a big check.

But this thought exercise hints at a truth: a thin line separates the temperament of a promising entrepreneur from a person who could use, as they say in psychiatry, a little help. Academics and hiring consultants say that many successful entrepreneurs have qualities and quirks that, if poured into their psyches in greater ratios, would qualify as full-on mental illness.


There are people who are bright, exuberant, fast-thinking, productive, and filled with energy and ideas. It's a question we've been asking for a while: is this a temperament or a disorder? I would contend that no one goes to a psychiatrist saying "Hey, I accomplish too much, I'm happy and have a lot of energy." People come to psychiatrists because they are suffering, or because they've moved far enough from reality that others are alarmed. We can joke an call it 'hypo-mania' but it's where we'd all like to be.

Having said that, it feels like Segal writes this from the perspective that his subject is certainly not ill. Psychiatric diagnoses are made over time and it seems perhaps irresponsible to use high-energy, successful people as examples of those who might be teetering on some genius--insanity tightrope. The answer ---if there is one-- lies in the course of a lifetime. If the same highly productive, sleep-defying entrepreneurs later become depressed, despondent, and unable to crawl out from under the covers, then it would certainly make sense to consider periods where he went 96-hours without sleep as part of the whole picture. If such a person never becomes depressed, well....they make lots of money, stay far away from shrinks, and oh, can I have a little of that energy?

Thanks to Jesse for telling me about the article. My New York Times didn't come today. You'd think with all the free publicity I give them on Shrink Rap.....


Sunny CA said...

I think the person was chosen because he sounds a bit over the top even for people in the brilliant high-energy category. I think it is worth asking, why no down time, no activities for relaxation?

HappyOrganist said...

Give him Acupuncture ;)

Anonymous said...

I think high acheiving people are apt to grossly exaggerate their energy, how long they have been working without a break, how little they sleep, etc. Granted they are more energetic and work more and sleep less than most people... but I would NOT be surprised to discover that most of what was written about the businessman above is simply fabricated (that he runs every morning to exhaustion, that he can and does work for 96 hrs w/o break, etc).

It's been shown in other studies that people will exaggerate how little they sleep... and it's also shown people who are sleep deprived will exaggerate how well they are performing. Perhaps not intentionally, but it's happening all the same.

The difference between mania and motivation is that mania is crazy and motivation is sane. If this businessman were to suddenly spin out and talk to god, he would be manic. If his business plans were to become grossly unrealistic (e.g. borrowing THOUSANDS without a clear plan and lots of sketchy ideas, grandiose to the point of obvious loss of touch with reality)... that would be manic.

His present state could hint at a vulnerability to a major mental condition but as of now it's not a major mental condition, and hypomania itself isn't pathological (assuming what the businessman has even IS hypomania, which it might not be, it might be hyperthermic temperament if it is consistent and never deviates to a lower mood state).

And people with hyperthermic temperament are prone to various mental health problems as well.

I think it's pretty obvious that a vulnerability to mania is adaptive... mania isn't (spinning out, loss of touch with reality) but the stuff it's made up of is (higher energy, creative novel thinking, disinhibition and a tendency to exhibition and risk taking, lack of giving a shit for norms).

Anonymous said...

Hahah, my shrink was highly suspicious that I had a manic episode, or perhaps more likely a hypomanic episode. But it seems we have clear guidelines.

I'm a musician - composer. This does makes me wonder how certain occupations are perceived in the psych world.

There are times in the year, rare times, where I don't sleep for a night and where my mind is blasting ideas, really good ideas. Yes, I feel energised, yes I have little sleep, yes I get racing thoughts that frustrate me as I cant jot them all down at once! Is this hypomania? Apparently the answer is YES if this carries on for FOUR days and I don't get tired ... so we do have scientific was to measure it. Do these high energy times fuel my creativity? Yes but only by a small amount, I don't need it to create masterpieces but it does make things easier.

I do wonder if certain jobs and occupations hold a great deal of manic people.

bpladybug said...

The energy, enthusiasm, and productivity of my young years of hypomania are unmatched. But of course there were dark depressions and some mania also.

I am successfully medicated on my lovely lithium/seroquel cocktail and much easier to live with for my spouse. No more mania or depressions. I miss my high energy hijinks and flights of fancy. I don't miss the inappropriate behavior, angst, and hypersensitivity. It is a trade-off.

John Gartner, Ph.D. said...

I was the author featured in that article, and as a corrollary I would like to suggest you read my latest Psychology Today blog about the overmedication of hypomanic. Are we medicating away creativity. The editors of Psychology today added this blog to their "essential papers" on creativity