The saying goes that there’s a thin line between genius and insanity. But do successful entrepreneurs actually parlay mental illness into innovation?
They say that Steve Jobs was a narcissist, and that Bill Gates trends toward Aspergers on the autism spectrum. And yes, emerging research suggests that many entrepreneurs leverage what would otherwise be a psychological liability into an advantage.
So, echoing the famous Apple ad, do you have to be “crazy” to succeed as an entrepreneur? After all, this is a person who thinks and sees things differently, which leads to bringing something new to life against the odds.
I do find that many entrepreneurs are driven by something in their lives that they’re trying to overcome from a psychological standpoint. And the resulting hard work is what reveals that unique perspective that leads to innovation and success.
It’s a complicated topic, and Caroline and I discuss some of the nuances. I also reveal some of my own “liabilities” that I’ve come to recognize have helped drive me to this point.
The Show Notes
- Is There a Connection Between Entrepreneurship and Mental Illness?
- Free Unemployable Course
- Rate/Review Us on iTunes
Are Entrepreneurs Literally “The Crazy Ones?”
Caroline Early: So, first things first, Brian, how was Saint Croix?
Brian Clark: It was really beautiful. I hadn’t been to the Virgin Islands in like 20 years. Weather was perfect, had to work a little, it wasn’t too bad. And of course, as soon as I get home from Saint Croix, it snows in Boulder.
Caroline Early: You picked a bad week to go, because we had great weather while you were gone.
Brian Clark: Yeah, that’s pretty annoying.
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Brian Clark: Hey, Everyone, welcome to another episode of Unemployable. I am your host Brian Clark and I’m here with our lovely co-host Caroline Early. Caroline, how are you and what are we talking about today?
Entrepreneurship and Mental Illness?
Caroline Early: I’m good, Brian. Thanks for asking. I wanted to talk to you today about entrepreneurship and mental illness.
I was actually just reading this article on the Harvard Business Review this morning that was interviewing an author who wrote a book about 12 famous people in history that have all been on this mental illness spectrum, but how it in turn made them very successful. People like Bill Gates, Albert Einstein.
Honestly, I just really wanted to have a conversation with you about mental illness. If you thought there was some sort of correlation between entrepreneurs and mental disease and just what your thoughts are on that.
Brian Clark: I mean, it’s an interesting and fascinating topic and I don’t think there’s an easy answer. But, ultimately, entrepreneurs think and see things differently than other people. Then, ultimately, they have to make the right decisions to execute on that opportunity, which is not something you might equate with someone who was really kind of “off.”
That’s because mostly that ability to think and perceive differently comes from doing the work, from really paying attention to a market, and really thinking things through. So, in that regard, I think a lot of entrepreneurs just have a really good work ethic and they have a drive that comes from somewhere.
That said, I think there are definitely whether you want to call them qualities or afflictions that aid and also hurt entrepreneurs. Meaning they may have success in business, but they’ve got problems in other areas.
A Connection Between Success and Suffering
Caroline Early: Can you go into detail about that a little bit? What are those things and do you think that entrepreneurs have to possess them in order be successful?
Brian Clark: I guess it comes down to the topic of talent. Again, research shows us what most people call “talent” is actually the product of hard work, of putting in the time to achieve mastery. Whether you have a predilection of being good at that in the beginning, you still have to do the work.
But there are certain, I think, genetic traits, things you’re just born with, you don’t develop them, they’re there and they’re rare. Very often, they’re seen as an abnormality that actually is beneficial in one way. Again, like in other areas, they always say there’s a fine line between genius and crazy.
A few weeks ago, I finally got to see the biopic about Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys. I’d generally known the story that Brian Wilson’s a musical genius, he created Pet Sounds pretty much by himself, and most people consider that or Sgt. Pepper’s to be the greatest album ever made. That’s pretty impressive. And then I also knew that he had serious mental health issues.
But I didn’t understand the full story. It’s pretty fascinating, because the affliction that Brian Wilson has involves auditory hallucinations. He literally hears things in his head that aren’t out there. And that included music. That’s where the songs came from. So he would hear the song in his head and then he would use production techniques and musicians and whatever he had to, and as many takes as he had to, to get that sound out.
His genius came from a disorder and that caused him a lot of problems. Because I also didn’t realize that he used that to create these songs, but when he performed those songs, the sounds in his head didn’t stop. Can you imagine trying to perform music while you’re hearing other sounds in your head? He ended up being institutionalized and taken advantage of and has fortunately made a rebound in his life which is great. But he still has the same disorder.
I mean, that’s a question ask — if you could be a genius, but have to suffer in other ways, would most people want it? But people don’t ask for that. They’re born with it.
You mentioned Einstein and Bill Gates. I think both of them are considered to be far enough on the autism spectrum to qualify as Asperger’s. I don’t know if we still use that term or not. It’s more thought of as a spectrum. But that allows them to go deep, deep inside themselves to focus. The extreme of that is an autistic person who is locked inside themselves. They could come in and out, but generally, I think Einstein and Gates were thought of as socially awkward and didn’t really deal well with people in that way.
Again, they were able to do great things, but it’s because they were born a certain way. To a certain degree, you don’t get credit for that, although both of them had a relentless work ethic. You’ll notice that as well.
You used the word “spectrum” at the beginning and from my continued interest in psychology, that’s really how it’s thought of. There’s a manic depressive disorder and there’s also a manic depressive personality type. The personality type has tendencies, but they’re not as in bad shape, if you will, as someone with a disorder.
I read an article (I think it was in Psychology Today) a while back that basically puts all of personality on the spectrum with autism way over here, Asperger’s here, and then introversion is actually on that spectrum. It’s interesting, because a lot of people think of entrepreneurs as these extroverted, bombastic personalities. But there are a lot of entrepreneurs, especially in the Internet realm, who have built great businesses being introverted.
So it’s not that extroversion makes you an entrepreneur. It’s to be an entrepreneur, you have to do it in a context that’s comfortable to you. And so, on this spectrum we’re talking about, you head into extroversion.
It was interesting to me, because at the far other end of it is narcissism.
The Role Compensating Plays in Success
Caroline Early: Yeah, that is interesting. The article actually talks specifically about Steve Jobs and how he is known as a very, very prominent narcissist. It worked really well for building his business and building his products, but maybe not so well, as you mentioned, on a personal level or dealing with employees or just being easy to get along with at all.
Brian Clark: Yeah, he’s a genius, he did amazing things. Not the nicest guy to work for at all, and that’s understating it. So next time you’re complaining about me, Caroline, just think of Steve Jobs.
No, I actually have kind of a personal story there. Not that I’m equating myself with Steve Jobs, so don’t smirk at me.
This is my other point — there are genetic characteristics that we’re born with that can be seen as disorders but also have benefits. And then there are things that happened to us in our lives that impact us psychologically that drive us or we’re trying to compensate for.
What’s more telling to me about Jobs is that he likely had serious abandonment issues. He was put up for adoption at birth, given back to the agency, and then adopted again. I think everyone agrees that that had a significant impact on what drove him throughout his life.
When my wife heard that story from his biography at the end of his life, she said, “This is you, this is what drives you,” because I too was adopted, or put another way in the context of abandonment issues, “given away.”
And then I was adopted by my mother and her first husband, who left before I was even aware of him. Basically from the time I was born to about seven years old, I was raised by a single mom. I recall it as a happy childhood. When people asked me about my Dad, I said, “I don’t have one,” not thinking it was necessary to have one. You don’t really understand these things as a kid.
The problem was my mom didn’t tell me that I was adopted or that there was this guy that would have qualified as Dad until that guy decided he wanted to see me when I was six, and I had to get on a plane to California by myself. I remember it was very traumatic for me.
Yeah, that’s when my Mom told me, “Oh, by the way, you’re not my real kid and there’s this guy in California you have to go see.”
Caroline Early: Oh my God.
Brian Clark: We didn’t get along at all, thank God, and he didn’t want anything more to do with me. And then my Mom got remarried when I was seven and that’s Dad. I took his name, he adopted me. I never really had an issue with it. I never as a child, at least consciously, I didn’t want to find my “real parents.” As far as I’m concerned, these are my parents.
But down the road, doing a lot of introspection about my own craziness, the aspects of what make me a decent entrepreneur really probably are tied to suppressed feelings of abandonment.
On one hand, a quality that is good for me is that I like to please people so they won’t abandon me. I don’t want to overstate this, because I don’t walk around crying all the time. I just took a look inside of me and I don’t think a lot of people do that sometimes.
But that’s a good thing. I’m always trying to create the best thing, the best offer, give the most value, and I have succeeded throughout my career because of that.
The flip side of having fear of rejection or abandonment is I proactively reject other people. I’m a famous bootstrapper. Well, that’s because I don’t want to ask an investor for money. When I wanted to become a writer, I didn’t want to ask someone in New York to give me permission or Hollywood.
My whole life combined with the Internet has given me ways to circumvent rejection and that served me well. But I’m also very cognizant of, “Are you avoiding this scenario because you don’t want to be rejected?”
So, you can see how there’s a flip side to all of this.
In my opinion, there are certainly people out there that have afflictions that are of the types of a Gates or a Brian Wilson. But more often, I see people compensating for something that happened in their life. Something bad happened to them when they were a kid — their mom didn’t love them enough. All of these things that drive people to keep going that started out as bad, it becomes a good thing.
The question is: are you satisfied when you succeed? Or do you just continue to feel like you have to do the next thing in order to compensate for it?
For me, I keep pushing forward, because I like what I do. I truly enjoy it. When I was younger, I was definitely trying to prove something. I didn’t have money growing up, I wanted money. I wanted people to respect me, which is probably why I went to law school.
Then when I quit that everyone thought I was crazy. So then I had to prove them wrong, and so on and so on and so on.
I’ve finally gotten to a point where it’s no longer about money or proving anything to anyone. It’s: do I enjoy the work? Are we doing good work for people?
I feel like I’ve come to peace with my situation that kind of drove me.
But, honestly, some of the most bombastic entrepreneurs that I’ve run into that are of the world domination, disruption, bigger than life type thing, they’re compensating for really something bad in their lives. Really they’re kind of bad people to be around, because they’re so driven that they’ve lost sight of the rest of life. Like, “This is gonna fix that thing.” And often I think it doesn’t fix anything.
Can “Happy” People Be Successful?
Caroline Early: Yeah, that’s all very interesting. As you’re saying this, I’m taking in what you’re saying and also comparing it to what she said in the article.
Do you think someone that “had a perfect life” (if you could even call something that) could be this successful? Do you feel like they need these afflictions to prove something?
Brian Clark: Was there an opinion on that in the article?
Caroline Early: I just feel like she makes so many connections between these really famous people on these sort of horrible mental things that they had that she’s saying, “Look at all these great things that they’ve done. Could they have done that without this affliction they had?”
Brian Clark: I think a happy person who doesn’t have any genetic abnormalities, they’re a smart person but not really driven by anything awful, can definitely do it going full circle. It’s about doing the work. It’s about putting in the time to understand a market and to come up with a better solution, and to execute on it.
The only caveat I have to that is: what drives you? I mean, you have to be incredibly self-motivated.
It comes back to one of our recurring themes, because I tell people all the time, “Don’t do it for the money. Money is great, but it’s not going to sustain you. Don’t do it for status. Entrepreneurs shouldn’t be interested in what other people think necessarily, except for their customers.”
As far as I’m concerned, freedom, that is something that can drive everyone. If you’ve had a generally happy life, but you’re not happy working for someone else, there’s your motivation right there.
I always say, “Do it for the intellectual and actual freedom, if you’re not otherwise happy with what you’re doing.”
So maybe my answer is you can’t be 100% happy, because if you are, you wouldn’t take off in the first place.
Caroline Early: Yeah, that makes perfect sense.
Brian Clark: Okay, well, that was a cool topic. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot more discussion about that, because there’s all sorts of stereotypes around entrepreneurism and there’s a cult of exceptionalism. And all I see is a lot of hard work and persistence for the most part.
Caroline Early: Yeah, I would agree.
Brian Clark: All right, Everyone, thanks for tuning in. I hope you enjoyed the episode.
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