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.....