Go-getters are a bit crazy, and that's good

April 17, 2005|By Jay Hancock

YOU ALWAYS said your boss was a maniac. Now experts back you up.

John D. Gartner, Johns Hopkins assistant professor of psychiatry, believes U.S. business is replete with leaders whose brains are just a few dopamine molecules shy of earning them a label from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

That's a good thing, he says.

In his new book, The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (A Little) Craziness and (A Lot of) Success in America, Gartner argues that the benefits delivered by exuberant, driven, slightly nutso entrepreneurs outweigh the numerous drawbacks.

As evidence, he points to the U.S. economy, which owes much of its strength and creativity, he says, to an executive messianic streak that other countries lack.

"These people want the world, and they want it yesterday," Gartner says in an interview at his Towson house. "They're ultra-competitive. They can be very arrogant. They're very impatient. They don't understand why people don't `get it.' "

Sound familiar?

The United States has more such go-getters than other nations because it is a nation of immigrants, of optimistic risk-takers with the gumption to pull up stakes and start anew in a strange land, Gartner says.

The point has been made before, perhaps first by Alexis de Tocqueville, who in the 1830s was struck by Americans' restless energy and passion for business.

But the U.S. work ethic is usually assumed to be a cultural trait, learned from generation to generation. Gartner theorizes it's in America's DNA. This nation is genetically different, he argues, because we inherited markers for motivation, impatience and adventure that prompted our ancestors to bug out of the old country in the first place.

Hypomania, Gartner believes, is a telling manifestation of immigrant genes. Hypomania involves euphoria, impulsiveness, inflated self-esteem and irrational confidence but stops short of the mania associated with bipolar disorder. It can wreck marriages and cause workplace grief. Hypomaniacs often come off as jerks.

"How do you know if they're going to lead you over the cliff or save the world? I don't think you can tell," Gartner says.

But he claims hypomania is the factor behind numerous entrepreneurial successes and is "an invisible thread" running through American history, beginning with Christopher Columbus and ending, in the book, with Craig Venter, the driven biotech pioneer and founder of Celera Genomics in Rockville.

"I probably have a very mild case of manic depression," Venter, who single-handedly accelerated the sequencing of the human genome by years, told Gartner in the book.

Other industrial hypomaniacs Gartner profiles include steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie and members of Hollywood's Selznick family. The Internet boom, with its hype, delusion, wasted billions and ultimate residue of fabulous technology, illustrates Gartner's thesis neatly.

Besides being a hotbed of hypomanic gene expression (I'm not naming names, but you know who you are), Maryland is also a center for conjecture on hypomania and society. There is Kay Redfield Jamison, the Johns Hopkins psychiatry professor, 2001 MacArthur Fellow and author of several books on mental states including last year's Exuberance: The Passion for Life.

Because American immigrants have high rates of manic-depressive illness, she suggests in Exuberance, perhaps "individuals who sought the new, who took risks that others would not, or who rebelled against repressive social systems may have been more likely to immigrate to America and, once there, to succeed."

The theory that genetically induced temperaments explain America's success is not close to being proved. Mania, however, affects about 1.5 percent of the U.S. population, nearly double global levels, Gartner says, and research suggests as many as 10 percent of Americans are hypomanic.

It's a dicey notion, for sure. Any time we credit whole countries with superior gene pools, which is where Gartner's argument takes us, we're asking for trouble. We also run into tall weeds when we start suggesting that individual success or failure depends on genes. (Ask Harvard's Larry Summers.)

But it rings true. In America any child can grow up to found a major biotech company. But he might have a better chance if he's a little, uh, crazy.

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