That’s what Americans are! And “nuts” is the source of our economic might according to a new book by a Johns Hopkins professor of psychiatry. I’m quite taken by John Gartner’s new The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America. Hypomania is the mild (and often constructive) cousin of true mania, a nasty genetically determined disease. We, of course, have been and continue to be a nation of immigrants, and one of Gartner’s contributions is to ice the connection between the gutsy decision to toss all aside and emigrate and the sort of mania (hypomania) that leads to a sustained national entrepreneurial instinct—Alexis de Tocqueville recognized this as long ago as 1830!
“Energy, drive, cockeyed optimism, entrepreneurial and religious zeal, Yankee ingenuity, messianism, and arrogance,” writes Dr Gartner, “these traits have long been attributed to ‘American character.’ But given how closely they overlap with the hypomanic profile, they might be better understood as expressions of American temperament—shaped in large part by our rich concentration of hypomanic genes. … A ‘nation of immigrants’ represents a highly skewed and ‘self-selected’ population. Do men and women who risk everything to leap into a new world differ temperamentally from those who stay home? … Empirical literature suggests that there are elevated rates of manic-depressive disorder among immigrants.”
The heart of The Hypomanic Edge is case studies of a few of our most potent nutters. Appropriately it begins with a true crazy … Christopher Columbus. And concludes with the hyper-confident Craig Venter, against-all-odds codifier of the human genome. The likes of Alexander Hamilton and Andrew Carnegie fit in between. Here’s how Dr Gartner concludes:
“America has been good to hypomanics—a land of opportunity that has liberated their energies and lifted their spirits. In return, hypomanic Americans have been good to America, powering a wilderness economy above every other nation on the planet in just a few hundred years. They may be our greatest natural resource. …
“Each chapter in this book is a small biography. Written by a psychologist, they are also clinical case histories that illustrate hypomania in action. These men were outrageous—arrogant, provocative, unconventional, and unpredictable. They were not ‘well adjusted’ by normal standards but instead forced the world to adjust to them. … The hubris that fuelled their improbable rise often led to their fall as well. Yet without their irrational confidence, ambitious vision, and unstoppable zeal, these outrageous captains would never have sailed into unknown waters, never discovered new worlds, never changed the course of our history.”
NB: one more reason why I’m so at odds with Jim Collins’ belief in the transformational power of “quiet, humble, stoic” leaders.
NB: and one more reason that I believe that survival-via-“gaspworthy”-innovation calls for a full house of “out there” professionals.