John Gartner is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University Medical School and a graduate of Princeton University. His book, The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America, provides a unique perspective on the sources of America's wealth and achievements. It has been featured in the national press: New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, and Slate; the business press: Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Inc., Worth, and Financial Times; and the international press: International Herald Tribune, Times of London, and Toronto Star. John has appeared on numerous radio and TV stations, including ABC, CNN, BBC, and NPR. Notably, The Hypomanic Edge is to be featured in the New York Times Magazine's annual "Year in Ideas" issue, which highlights the "most innovative, controversial, and exciting ideas of the year."
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[October 2008 update: See John Gartners' new book, In Search of Bill Clinton: A Psychological Biography, released 30 September 2008.]
tompeters.com asks ...
John, what's the main idea in your book?
JG: There's a mild form of mania that is very common, but very little understood, called hypomania. It's not a pathology; it's not an illness. It's really more of a temperament. But it is genetically based, and it runs in the same families as mania. Manics and hypomanics tend to be related to one another. The difference is that it's a predominantly productive level of mania. These are people who are incredibly active. When Louis B. Mayer's doctor told him he should relax and take up golf, Mayer exhausted caddies half his age by hitting five balls down the fairway at once, in essence shooting 90 holes of golf. The doctor said, "Lou, that wasn't what I had in mind" and told him to take up racehorse breeding. Within two years, he had the second most money-winning stable in the world, and he was just doing this as a hobby. So these are people who really do give it 100 percent.
In addition to the energy, they're also very driven people with a very high level of self-motivation. They have an almost insane level of self-confidence. These are people who have incredibly ambitious, almost grandiose goals and are absolutely 100 percent confident they can achieve them. And they're people who think fast, talk fast. And by the way, thinking fast is related to their very high level of creativity. They're people who can make decisions fast, which can sometimes result in impulsive behavior and sometimes lead to seizing the moment in a very fortuitous way.
These people tend to be somewhat visionary and unconventional, and sort of rebellious against the normal structure of things. They become extremely zealous about their vision of what they're trying to create, whether it's a company or a new religion. And they tend to be charismatic, so they tend to energize other people and be very persuasive about getting them on board with their vision. And they tend to be a bit on the arrogant side.
But as you say, this has to do with craziness and success in America. You state that there tends to be a higher percentage of hypomanics among the American population than among, let's say, the European population.
JG: Yes, absolutely. The thing is that America is a great natural experiment. We were settled predominantly by a self-selected group of immigrants who are not average people.
The basic premise is that immigrants were people who had energy, who had some optimism, some risk-taking propensity, some restlessness. People who are hypomanic tend to be very restless and impatient. So the entire continent was populated with people who had these biologically, genetically based traits that you can pass down to your descendants. As a result, we have more people with this kind of temperament here in America. And people with this kind of temperament are more inclined than your average person to become entrepreneurs. Or to put it a different way, entrepreneurs almost always have this temperament.
I just got back from talking to some venture capitalists in New York, and one of them said to me, "You've just described every client I've worked with for the last 25 years."
What got you going on this project?
JG: Originally, I was writing a book about religious prophets and hypomania—actually, religious prophets and mania. This was when internet mania was at its peak, and I myself was becoming an avid technology investor. I started to realize that internet mania was more than a metaphor. The press was describing many of these entrepreneurs as manic, and I realized it was more than a figure of speech, that they really were manifesting mildly manic traits. That's what got me interested in looking at entrepreneurs, so I began to interview entrepreneurs. I started with a pilot study of ten and was shocked to find that ten out of ten said that they fit basically all the traits to an extreme degree. They became very excited and started saying this was the first time that anyone had really understood them. In a sense, they finally had a word to explain what it was that made them different.
Since I've written the book, I've spoken to hundreds, probably thousands of entrepreneurs, and I just keep getting the same feedback over and over again. This sort of temperament is the kind of person who starts a new company, not necessarily the one who manages a company or is the CEO of an existing company. In fact, hypomanics are often very bad at that.
In many ways you're describing the classic entrepreneur who starts things all over the place, but if left to manage what they started, they would manage it right into the ground because of their crazy behavior.
JG: Precisely. The same behavior, the same temperament that gets them to start something from nothing makes them very bad at managing that something once it exists.
I've been looking around your web site and read a blog post back in March that's titled "Hypomanic Chic." Do you remember that? Can you talk about that a little?
JG: Yes. Before this book came out, people really were not familiar with the term hypomania. It's not a term I invented; it's been around for a hundred years. But for some reason I've written the first book about it, and I'm trying to basically say, "Look, this is a clinical term, but it's not really all bad." In fact, it's got a lot of very positive elements. There's productivity; there's creativity. And what's funny is that the perception has almost reversed. Now a lot of people are equating hypomania with success and saying, "Gee, how can I become hypomanic?" and "I wish I were more hypomanic," and "You're lucky to be hypomanic."
The truth is that there are really costs and benefits. The benefits are this productivity, this creativity, this amazing capacity to focus a tremendous amount of energy and zeal and certainty on a goal that maybe no one else has thought of, and create something totally new or make a breakthrough. On the other hand, there are some negative elements. These people are difficult to work with. They're impatient; they're egotistical; they're volatile; and in almost any organization, they tend to get into conflict with the existing structure and procedures. So a business professor told me entrepreneurs are unemployable.
In fact it seems that, in this day and age, if you're not creative, you're nothing. So hypomanic sort of equals creative and innovative, right? But I noticed what you wrote about Craig Venter's reaction to being diagnosed as Bipolar Type II. He had never been diagnosed before and felt that it characterized some pretty big stretches of his life. But he was bummed out to be so textbook. Here's a guy who's off in this little class, with not a huge number of people, and he didn't like the fact that it could be defined and labeled. He, and these other people I think, just want to be indefinable.
JG: Well, I think he was sort of joking when he said that.
What if he wasn't?
JG: That's a good question. Sometimes it's hard to know if people are joking or being serious. For the most part, I think that people find it energizing to achieve a higher level of understanding, either of themselves or someone they work with. The first thing Craig Venter said to me when I interviewed him was, "Wow, that is really amazing, because I always thought I was kind of borderline manic-depressive." In other words, he's had these thoughts about himself, but he'd never really been able to put it together because he was a Bipolar II, not a traditional manic-depressive. A traditional manic-depressive is someone who swings between depression and mania—a psychotic state that gets you hospitalized—and depression. But Bipolar IIs are people who swing between this milder, more adaptive form of mania and depression. He'd never heard that term, so it was a relief to actually understand, to validate in essence, a large part of his experience and give some explanation to it.
I recently spoke with Steve Shapiro, who has written a book that's coming out in January called Goal-Free Living. He was living a high-stress life as an innovation guy with Accenture. Then he jumped off the wheel, and now he's espousing this goal-free life that isn't driven by "You're going to achieve this and be that in five years." He's saying, "Let life come to you." His assertion is that you can achieve greater things by not having specific goals in place because they may become limiters. He said he didn't really expect he could convince people to become goal free, but what he's finding is that, for some people, the book defines the way they've been living. So it's validation for a lot of people; they can then pick up this book and say, "Oh yeah, that's what I've been doing. I just didn't have a term for it." In some ways, it seems like that's what you've done here as well. A lot of people have been living this way and now you've validated who and what they are.
JG: Exactly. And given them some capacity to understand it. Or perhaps to understand a co-worker. I talked to someone who works for a very high profile, flamboyant public figure, whose name I won't mention. So the person I was talking with said to me, "I'm resigning; I'm quitting. But I read your book and it was unbelievable. Every page was just like my boss." So he was emailing me "to show you the resignation letter I wrote before I read your book and the one I wrote after I read your book." The letter before he read my book was basically four pages of hate mail—"You are such a jerk, let me count the ways," you know? But the second letter was more like, "I really want you to read this book by Dr. Gartner. It helps me understand that a lot of the things that have made you great are also things that make you difficult to deal with." It was a much more forgiving letter.
Exactly. More understanding.
JG: I think it's very important for people to understand. This is not just the flavor of the week, sort of the type A personality of this particular week. This is actually a biological neurologically based thing that is in people's genes. People are born this way. Every one of the subjects I've talked to will tell you they've been this way as long as they can remember. So it's true that sometimes they behave badly, and while everyone's responsible for their own behavior, it helps them and others to understand that (A) they're born this way, and (B) what makes them talented is connected to what makes them difficult.
Right, but I think your implication is that the upside of this is much higher than the downside is down.
JG: Exactly. In aggregate, there is a profit. There is overall more productivity than destruction. For one thing, the ones who really make it big—the Henry Fords, the Andrew Carnegies, the Steve Jobs—create so much value and make such huge breakthroughs that they literally transform the planet. You know, before mass production, a car cost $2,000 to make and took ten days. With Henry Ford's mass production, the car cost $200 and one came off the assembly line every second. When his technique was then used to mass produce every manufactured good, he basically made everyone rich. Suddenly, you could buy anything. And of course, the personal computer is a huge revolution.
So these people at the very top, who really create whole revolutions, make up for some of the aggravating wannabes or might-have-beens. The ones who really make it big are actually culture changers. They are revolutionaries who change the zeitgeist of the paradigm or raise the whole culture to a higher level of productivity than was even dreamed possible before.
I loved your profile of Alexander Hamilton. I happened to go to a place called Hamilton College, which was, of course, named after him. So, we regularly defaced his statue on the college grounds instead of really appreciating the history. But it's a fascinating story, that rags to riches to early death syndrome.
JG: Right. An amazing rise and fall.
The influence he had on the whole structure of American capitalism is quite fascinating.
JG: Yes, he really is the father of our economy. He was, in fact, one of the only founding fathers that "got" capitalism.
Yes, and to think it was because his mother got credit from some guy on the Caribbean Island of Nevis.
JG: Exactly. It's amazing. Alexander Hamilton is a great example of someone who basically shaped the entire nation. But when you read that chapter, you see that if it weren't for his hypomania, he would not have accomplished any of those things. He probably wouldn't have gotten killed in a duel, but he also wouldn't have laid the groundwork for American capitalism.
I was absolutely fascinated by your accounts of his going off and writing the Federalist Papers, or just the number of words he would produce in a couple of days in what must have been a heated frenzy of writing.
JG: Yes, absolutely.
I read a Boston Globe article that includes some comments by people who disagree with you. John McClellan, for example, says it's a bit of a stretch to use a few fascinating cases to explain an entire country's economic behavior. I'm sure he's not the only person saying that, so how do you respond to those critics?
JG: Well, first of all, there are more than just a few cases. I'll give you some statistics that I think are very revealing. The countries that lead the world in new company creation per capita are, in order, America, Canada, Israel, and Australia. Now, what do those four countries have in common? They're all nations of immigrants. And the ones that are in the middle in new company creation per capita are the European nations. What do they have in common? They're actually in the middle in terms of their rate of immigrant absorption. And the countries that are the lowest per capita in new company creation are the Asian nations, China, Korea, Japan, which receive virtually zero immigration. People are very focused now on the birth of capitalism in China, but let's look at new company creation per capita. When you divide a number of new companies by a billion, it gets small very quickly. In other words, there's almost a perfect correlation between the rates of immigrant absorption in a country and the rates of capitalist activity. So it's not just a few colorful anecdotes about a few hypomanic American entrepreneurs. It's really that people of this temperament are much more inclined to be entrepreneurial, and so countries that absorb more immigrants have more people of this temperament, and therefore there's more entrepreneurial activity in those countries.
The other thing that's interesting is that, if you were to go through the rates of manic depression across the world, you'll see almost exactly the same distribution. The highest countries are America, Canada, and New Zealand. The middle are the European countries, and the lowest are the Asian countries. Now remember, I'm not saying that entrepreneurs are manic; I'm saying they're hypomanic. But manics and hypomanics are very often found in the same families, so where you find manics, you'll find hypomanics, and vice versa.
Here's another interesting statistic. If you know nothing else about someone except that there's a manic-depressive in their family, you can predict that their income, social status, and creative achievement will all be well above average. In other words, these genes run through families, and where there's a manic, you're also going to have a large number of highly productive, highly successful hypomanics.
You have a number of case studies in your book but you don't have any women. Is there a reason for that?
JG: That's an important question, and it always comes up, as it should. The reason actually is historical. I had to think about how to present this compelling and interesting story and still span American history. I didn't want to give 30,000 examples, so I tried to pick one figure per century and do an in-depth history and present the drama of their life in as entertaining a way as possible that would also demonstrate how hypomania was integral to their achievement and how their achievement was integral to the progress of the nation. Historically, women have not had the chance to play that kind of nation-changing role.
There's an interesting point in the 20th century chapter about the Selznicks and the Mayers. Irene Selznick was Louis B. Mayer's daughter and David O. Selznick's wife, and her father used to say to her, "Gee, it's too bad you're not a boy, because you would be great at running a studio." That was a very sexist comment, of course. She finally divorced David Selznick, who was impossible, and left California. When she got to New York in 1947 she became a Broadway producer and produced the most famous play in the history of Broadway: A Streetcar Named Desire.
There was an article in the New York Times about the old girl's network in Hollywood, about how women are now mentoring people below them who are then moving on to get other major positions through various networks. And it is very interesting to see women breaking through.
Basically, the net result is that there are lots of female hypomanic entrepreneurs today—Oprah, Martha Stewart, Carly Fiorina, for instance. There's just as much hypomania among women as there is among men, so we're now seeing it manifesting in women's achievements. Hypomanic women are absent from my book because the book is a historical record that looks at one major figure per century. Maybe if we're lucky the figure for the 22nd century will be a woman.
At the end of the book, you posit three possibilities. One is that things remain as they are. The American gene pool continues to carry this manic gene, and we continue to be innovative and creative and productive and wild and crazy and loved and hated by all the other nations of the world. Your other two scenarios are in the negative. One is related to the premise of another of our Cool Friends, Richard Florida, who cautions against our restricting immigration to the point that we're not letting any of the creative people in because of our homeland security policies. How much does that worry or concern you?
JG: It worries me a lot, actually. Andrew Carnegie was the one who called immigration the golden stream that enriched America's economy. He was the one who pointed out that immigrants were the ones who kept bringing in new ideas. His argument was that immigrants were the best people of the cultures they left because they were the most talented and the most restless and the most dissatisfied with the limited opportunities they had where they were. So, it wasn't just quantitatively that they were bringing life to the economy, but qualitatively, because they were special people.
I recently read in the New York Times that immigration has declined since 9/11, not surprisingly. In fact, it seems that immigration peaked in the year 2000, and it's been declining ever since. I think that if we stop being the primary destination of immigrants, and some other country takes that place, or it begins to disperse more evenly across a group of countries, that will begin to mark the end of American economic hegemony.
Well, actually some people maintain that's exactly what's happening. I think Richard Florida's book makes a small case for the fact that New Zealand is attracting a lot of folks these days that might at one time have come to the United States. But, because of our current policies and the attraction generated by the whole Peter Jackson and The Lord of the Rings thing, they're going to New Zealand. That kind of energy now exists in places like that, and it apparently doesn't exist here in the U.S.
JG: If we do actually decline some day—and every empire does—I think you'll be able to chart the decline of our hegemony with the decrease in immigration.
Right, and we did it to ourselves.
But the other grim possibility you suggest is that we may genetically alter this hypomania gene right out of existence, because people don't want to deal with the down side of it. Is that pure speculation, or are you actually concerned about that possibility?
JG: I think there's a lot of concern, because we're not that far from being able to isolate the genes for manic-depressive disorder. We're not there yet, but we've homed in on about half a dozen genes, so we're really only a step or two away. My concern is about what might happen if we're able to actually identify these genes. Take the situation of a couple that has genetic testing before they give birth. Right now we're able to tell them they have a Down Syndrome child, and they may elect to abort that child. So if we're able to tell them they're going to have a manic-depressive child, it would be very rational for them to choose to abort that child, but they may be aborting the next genius who might change the world or the progenitor of the next genius. So it actually would not be that difficult to imagine genetically engineering genius out of the gene pool.
JG: Well, at least by warning before it happens, I think we can prevent it.
That's true. But we're always looking for comfort and we're always struggling to find, I guess, peace of mind, so it might be easy to go that direction of eliminating some gene that clearly causes a lot of distress. These people do incredible things, but on the other hand, they make a lot of people miserable and they leave a lot of bad blood and misery in their wake, right?
JG: They do break a lot of eggs to make their omelets. And look, they're a little bit crazy with their wild ideas, and they drive other people crazy, too. They're troublemakers.
Well, I guess we're just going to have to put up with it. Or as you say, we must put up with that in order to keep benefiting from the positive aspects.
JG: The last figure in my book is Joseph Nye, the famous economist, who said that successful entrepreneurs are "lucky fools." His point was that entrepreneurs are basically fools because their odds of actually succeeding are incredibly low, so it's totally irrational of them to be so confident they're going to succeed. But every now and then, one of those fools gets lucky and actually stumbles onto something big and makes it. And so, my rejoinder is that we may just have to learn to suffer fools gladly.
Thank you, John.