Book report: The Hypomanic Edge
"The Link Between A Little Craziness and A Lot Of Success In America"
John Gartner is a Johns Hopkins psychologist who developed a profile of "hypomania". It's a distinct period of abnormally & persistently elevated, expansive, or irritable mood lasting at least a week, plus at least three of the following:
- inflated self-esteem or grandiosity
- decreased need for sleep (feels rested after only three hours/night)
- more talkative than usual or seems pressured to keep talking
- flight of ideas or feeling that thoughts are racing
- easily distracted by unimportant or irrelevant external stimuli
- increase in goal-directed activity (socially, work/school, or sexually) or psychomotor agitation
- excessive involvement in pleasurable activities with high potential for painful consequences (unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish investments).
He was developing the profile for a book on manic prophets. But he was also spending his time becoming heavily invested in tech stocks, and Gartner noticed that most of Silicon Valley's entrepreneurs appeared to be just as hypomanic as his prophets. So he tried a pilot study. He called up 10 CEOs of internet-related businesses, read them his descriptions of hypomanic behavior, and asked them if they were typical of themselves or other entrepreneurs.
EVERY ONE of the entrepreneurs thought Gartner was describing them. They were thrilled to talk to someone who seemed to understand them.
Gartner thinks that hypomania & manic syndromes (like bipolar disorder or sheer mania) are genetically linked. (When families visit their inpatient manic relatives, the staffs frequently have more trouble with the visitors than they do with their patients.) He says that just about everyone who immigrated to America during the last five centuries was at least a carrier of the hypomanic gene if not personally hypomanic. Emigrants who risk everything on a foreign country are probably temperamentally different from their stay-at-home relatives, and they're probably filled with ambition, drive, & talent. Then they get to a wide-open country, fulfill their wildest dreams of grandiosity, and pursue sexually-oriented goals to populate the frontiers. The hypomanic gene becomes highly & widely propagated.
Of all the countries in the world, America has the highest rates of manias. The other top two countries are New Zealand & Canada. Taiwan & South Korea, insular societies with little immigration, have the lowest rates of bipolar disorder. Immigrants also represent an entrepreneurial group of hard-charging workaholics embodying the "Protestant work ethic". Census data from the last century consistently logs immigrants with higher rates of self-employment-- until the Internet-tech 1990s when 11% of both native-born AND immigrant Americans were entrepreneurs. America, Canada, & Israel have the world's highest rates of new-company creation.
Gartner profiles famous Americans like Christopher Columbus, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Carnegie, the Selznicks & Mayers of MGM movie fame, and Craig Venter. (He also salvages his religious research by presenting John Winthrop, Roger Williams, & William Penn.) Each of their biographies is presented through a psychologist's hypomanic diagnosis, and it's like watching a slow-motion train wreck. Craig Venter is particularly compelling from Gartner's personal interviews where he clearly shows that Venter just doesn't understand what the big deal is about his behavior.
It's a great read. Some of you might recognize yourselves (or you should, if you were capable of doing so). Others of you will have an "Aha!" moment about someone in your life who desperately needs a muzzle & a swift kick. The book's also a very good explanation of why you want to keep a close eye on your hypomanic spouse, kid, or significant other. (Keep a close eye on their credit cards, too.) You need to protect the rest of the world from them (as well as protecting them from themselves.) They need your calm & organization much more than "normal" people ever will.
If I have one complaint about the book, it's the people who Gartner mentions but never profiles. Bill Clinton could have had his own chapter with an appendix on hypomanic sexual misbehavior. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jim Clark, & Larry Ellison are barely mentioned. (I guess Gartner didn't want to aggravate any litigious hypomanic billionaires.) Jefferson, Hitler, & the Kennedys weren't profiled either.
Or maybe he's saving all of them for volume II...
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