Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Hypomanic entrepreneurs

Hmm, this sounds a little like me... (at least, more so than autism or Asperger's syndrome :-)

hy·po·ma·ni·a: A mild form of mania, characterized by hyperactivity and euphoria.

From the intro to The Hypomanic Edge by J. Gartner, professor of psychiatry at JHU medical school.

"The 1990s will be remembered as the age of Internet mania, a time when entrepreneurs making grandiose claims for their high-tech companies swept up millions of Americans with their irrational exuberance, inflating the biggest speculative bubble in history. The idea that some entrepreneurs may be a little manic is hardly new. A Google search for "manic" and "businessman" yields more than a million hits. Entrepreneurs, as well as the markets they energized, were commonly described in the media as "manic." Yet, until now, there has never been a serious suggestion that the talent for being an entrepreneur and mania, the genetically based psychiatric disorder, are actually linked. Perhaps because I am a clinical psychologist, it was clear to me that "manic" was more than a figure of speech in this case.

I called several reporters who had written profiles of these "manic" entrepreneurs and asked them, "Do you think he really was manic?" None said yes. "Not really manic; not clinically," was a typical response. They resisted applying the psychiatric diagnosis because the entrepreneurs they had interviewed were boastful, hyperenergized, and zany, but they "weren't crazy." And the journalists were right. Their subjects were not manic. They were hypomanic. Hypomania is a mild form of mania, often found in the relatives of manic depressives. Hypomanics are brimming with infectious energy, irrational confidence, and really big ideas. They think, talk, move, and make decisions quickly. Anyone who slows them down with questions "just doesn't get it." Hypomanics are not crazy, but "normal" is not the first word that comes to mind when describing them. Hypomanics live on the edge, betweeen normal and abnormal.

...My new hypothesis became that American entrepreneurs are largely hypomanic. I decided to undertake what social scientists call a pilot study: a small-scale, inexpensive, informal investigation meant to test the waters. I placed announcements on several Web sites devoted to the technology business, expressing my interest in studying entrepreneurs and requesting volunteers. I interviewed a small sample of ten Internet CEOs. After I read them each a list of hypomanic traits that I had synthesized from the psychiatric literature, I asked them if they agreed that these traits are typical of an entrepreneur:

* He is filled with energy.
* He is flooded with ideas.
* He is driven, restless, and unable to keep still.
* He channels his energy into the achievement of wildly grand ambitions.
* He often works on little sleep.
* He feels brilliant, special, chosen, perhaps even destined to change the world.
* He can be euphoric.
* He becomes easily irritated by minor obstacles.
* He is a risk taker.
* He overspends in both his business and personal life.
* He acts out sexually.
* He sometimes acts impulsively, with poor judgment, in ways that can have painful consequences.
* He is fast-talking.
* He is witty and gregarious.
* His confidence can make him charismatic and persuasive.
* He is also prone to making enemies and feels he is persecuted by those who do not accept his vision and mission.

I feared they might find the questions insulting. I needn't have worried. All of the entrepreneurs agreed that the overall description was accurate, and they endorsed all the hypomanic traits, with the exceptions of "paranoia" and "sexual acting out" (these traits in particular are viewed as very negative and thus may be more difficult to admit to). Most expressed their agreement with excitement: "Wow, that's right on target!" When I asked them to rate their level of agreement for each trait on a standard 5-point scale, many gave ratings that were literally off the chart: 5+s, 6s. One subject repeatedly begged me to let him give a 7."


Anonymous said...

Off-topic, but a very interesting and complicated question that I shall try to discuss.

"Compared with India or China is there an anti-intellectual strain to American culture? I do not care for the way in which I asked the question, but ask it I will. "

I think it is the case that for a significant part of India, anti-intellectualism is not as strong as in America. I always found that puzzling. Here are some of my thoughts:

* In India, part of the reason is Hinduism.

Note, Hinduism is not really a 'religion', it is more a way of life (This is a complicated subject and I think Encyclopedia Britannica has a pretty good article on the subject.)One of its major tenets is that there are several roads to salvation, including acquiring knowledge and wisdom.

Note that even in the Indian caste system, the learned scholar caste (Brahmins) were considered higher, not because they had a lot of wealth (often they did not), but because of their devotion to the spiritual matters and pursuit for knowledge.
Although caste system is much less relevant now (at least in cities), mastery of knowledge is highly admired.

An amusing twist is that often there are claims that lot of the modern work in mathematics and physics (like cosmology (actually time-frame of universe was in billions of years so not completely out of mark!),supergravity, or string theory) is really all in the ancient texts:) This is in contrast to some Bible literalists who think that anything not in the Bible is false.

In short, new insights are welcomed and attempts made to incorporate them, rather than being rejected.


Steve Hsu said...

I think there is an anti-intellectual streak in American culture, arising from our pragmatism, anti-elitism and love of commerce.

To bring this back on topic, I've pasted below another excerpt from the hypomania book, related to American character.

A Hypomanic Nation?

Energy, drive, cockeyed optimism, entrepreneurial and religious zeal, Yankee ingenuity, messianism, and arrogance -- these traits have long been attributed to an "American character." But given how closely they overlap with the hypomanic profile, they might be better understood as expressions of an American temperament, shaped in large part by our rich concentration of hypomanic genes.

If a scientist wanted to design a giant petri dish with all the right nutrients to make hypomanic genius flourish, he would be hard-pressed to imagine a better natural experiment than America. A "nation of immigrants" represents a highly skewed and unusual "self-selected" population. Do men and women who risk everything to leap into a new world differ temperamentally from those who stay home? It would be surprising if they didn't. "Immigrants are unusual people," wrote James Jaspers in Restless Nation. Only one out of a hundred people emigrate, and they tend to be imbued "with special drive, ambition and talent."

A small empirical literature suggests that there are elevated rates of manic-depressive disorder among immigrants, regardless of what country they are moving from or to. America, a nation of immigrants, has higher rates of mania than every other country studied (with the possible exception of New Zealand, which topped the United States in one study). In fact, the top three countries with the most manics -- America, New Zealand, and Canada -- are all nations of immigrants. Asian countries such as Taiwan and South Korea, which have absorbed very few immigrants, have the lowest rates of bipolar disorder. Europe is in the middle, in both its rate of immigrant absorption and its rate of mania.18 As expected, the percentage of immigrants in a population correlates with the percentage of manics in their gene pool.

While we have no cross-cultural studies of hypomania, we can infer that we would find increased levels of hypomania among immigrant-rich nations like America, since mania and hypomania run together in the same families. Hypomanics are ideally suited by temperament to become immigrants. If you are an impulsive, optimistic, high-energy risk taker, you are more likely to undertake a project that requires a lot of energy, entails a lot of risk, and might seem daunting if you thought about it too much. America has drawn hypomanics like a magnet. This wide-open land with seemingly infinite horizons has been a giant Rorschach on which they could project their oversized fantasies of success, an irresistible attraction for restless, ambitious people feeling hemmed in by native lands with comparatively fewer opportunities.

Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who traveled throughout America in the 1830s, was among the first to define the American character. He found us to be "restless in the midst of abundance," and the proof was that we were always moving. Tocqueville was astonished to meet people moving from east to west and west to east. That so many people would surrender the comfort and safety of their home in pursuit of an "ideal" struck him as odd. And we are still the most voluntarily mobile people on Earth. The average American changes residences every five years -- more often than the inhabitants of any other nation. We change jobs more frequently, too. Tocqueville "found an entire people racing full speed ahead, and we've kept on racing for more than three hundred years," wrote Michael Ledeen in Tocqueville on American Character.

One outlet for this restless energy has been business. "Americans are constantly driven to engage in commerce and industry....This is the characteristic that most distinguishes the American people from all others," wrote Tocqueville in Democracy in America. He sensed that the American motivation to get rich was more about the excitement of making money than it was about wealth itself. "The desire for prosperity has become an ardent passion...which they pursue for the emotions it excites as much as for the gain it procures." And these people never stopped working. "Everybody works," wrote Tocqueville. The aristocratic European ideal was to become so wealthy that one did not need to labor. In America, "work opens a way to everything; this has changed the point of honor quite around." To Americans it was a disgrace not to work.

Americans work more hours than any other people in the world. We've changed little in that regard since Tocqueville's day. We tend to attribute this habit to cultural influences, without even considering biological causes. America's workaholism is typically attributed to its Puritanical "Protestant work ethic." But is it reasonable to ascribe such enormous influence to a defunct seventeenth-century English Protestant sect on the contemporary day-to-day behavior of hundreds of millions of diverse Americans? The average American recalls only the barest outline of who the Puritans were. When you talk to these strivers, they tell you that their drive comes from within and that they have been strongly "self-motivated" since they were children. They hit the ground running and couldn't tell you why. I would attribute the number of hours Americans work to what I call the "immigrant work drive," an internal biological compulsion passed from parent to child through their hypomanic genes.

Tocqueville noticed that Americans were entrepreneurial risk takers: "Boldness of enterprise is the foremost cause of [America's] rapid progress, its strength and its greatness." Though some individuals failed, the collective efforts of entrepreneurs drove the nation forward. Americans believed so deeply in the "virtue" of "commercial temerity" that they had all but removed the stigma surrounding financial failure:

Commercial business is there like a vast lottery, by which a small number of men continually lose, but the state is always the gainer....Hence arises the strange indulgence that is shown to bankrupts in the United States; their honor does not suffer by such an accident.

At that time, a European who went bankrupt might end up in debtor's prison, so Tocqueville was surprised that there was little shame in bankruptcy here. The stereotypic American success story is of an entrepreneur who fails numerous times before achieving his big success. Such "serial entrepreneurs" will tell you that they shake off failure like a dog shakes off water and are soon raring to go again with a new idea.

That America rewards and celebrates such people is culturally unique. When asked, "Do you think that starting a new business is a respected occupation in your community?" 91 percent of Americans said yes, as compared to 28 percent of British and 8 percent of Japanese respondents. In Japan there is still deep disgrace attached to business failure. Men who lose their jobs often hide it from their families and pretend to go to work each day. Some economists have argued that Japan has been slow to bounce back from its decade-long recession because the population has lost all taste for risk after the fallout of the stock and real estate bubbles of the early 1990s. Most Japanese save a substantial portion of their money in secure savings accounts that yield zero interest, tying up capital that could either be invested in businesses or stimulate the economy through consumption. Americans, by contrast, bounce back from failures, scandals, and bubbles with infinitely renewable confidence. After the stock market and the World Trade Center came crashing down in succession, one might have expected a pessimistic mood to take hold in America. But a subsequent poll taken in 2002 found that 59 percent of American college students believed that they were on their way to becoming millionaires. Our immigrant genes predispose us to optimism. "You had to be an optimist to move. Pessimists didn't bother," wrote Yale historian George Pierson. Because this optimism comes from within, it is not easily discouraged by external events. And optimism, like pessimism, often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Immigrants are often described as a highly entrepreneurial group. "There is more than a grain of truth to this perception," according to a 1997 report by the International Migration Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In every census from 1880 to 1990, as long as they have been keeping records, immigrants were significantly more likely to be self-employed than natives. The single exception to this 110-year-long trend was the roaring 1990s. In that decade, when every American college student wanted to found the next Yahoo!, native-born Americans increased their level of self-employment to match the immigrants': both immigrants and native-born Americans were self-employed at a very high rate, just above 11 percent. Temperament may not be the only factor. An immigrant who doesn't speak the language of his new country might find economic opportunities limited outside ethnic niche industries, such as Korean grocery stores, where fellow countrymen can help him start his own business. But even this speaks to the psychology of the immigrant: if he had stayed in Korea, no one would be extending him credit to open a store.

Thus, it follows that nations that absorb more immigrants should have more entrepreneurial activity, and that is indeed the case. In the past decade, America, Canada, and Israel were the top three countries in new company creation, according to a 1999 cross-national survey of ten industrial nations conducted by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, a joint project of the London Business School and Babson College. "What's unique about the top countries is that all three have been created by people moving into them," Paul Reynolds, one author of the report, told Business Week. Moreover, the magnitude of these differences is large. The average American is four times more likely to be the founder of a company than a Frenchman, for example.

As Tocqueville predicted, there is a solid statistical relationship between entrepreneurial activity and the wealth of a nation. Gross domestic product growth and employment rates both correlate with new business creation. Because they are "constantly driven to participate in commerce and industry," Americans, who make up only 5 percent of the world's population, account for 31 percent of its economic activity.

Because of its origins, America has an abundance of people with hypomanic temperaments. And it has made good use of them by giving them freer rein, more opportunity, and greater respect than they have received elsewhere. As British economic historian Edward Chancellor noted in his history of financial speculation, Devil Take the Hindmost, the result is a society of people both culturally and genetically predisposed to economic risk:

The American is equipped with more than just a hopeful vision of the future and a drive for self-improvement. He is prepared to take enormous risks to attain his ends. To emigrate to America was itself a great risk. This appetite for risk -- so great one might say it was imprinted in American genes -- has not diminished with time but remains a continuing source of the nation's vitality.

The next gold rush, the next boom, the next market mania is coming. Hold on to your seat. America has been a ship riding the waves of irrational exuberance for hundreds of years, and she's not likely to change course any time soon. It's in our blood.

Anonymous said...

Interesting excerpt, Steve, and I agree with much of it.

I think a lot of it is most applicable more to pockets of US (especially NY and CA, well-known immigrant magnets). Such areas are also very open to new ideas.

And it seems to me that the past prosperity is because the ruling elite in the US have had such "East/West Coast sensibilities": give opportunities to the talented people, irrespective of their origin, and respect scientific thinking. In contrast, the current rulers value faith and loyalty over everything else, and have contempt for scientific thinking.

The biggest strength of the US has been the "can do" attitude: most places elsewhere, they would not even try many things that have been
done successfully in the US, undaunted by failures.

However, this "can do" attitude is also its biggest weakness. It is not hard for people in such an environment to think that "anything is possible" ("deficits do not matter", for instance).

There is a difference between what can be done in principle (even if it seems hard) and what is impossible. When people do not see the difference between the two (easy when the education system is not great), it can be disastrous.


Anonymous said...

A most interesting article, post and comments to think about. Thanks, MFA and Steve. We now have an excuse for not sleeping :)


Anonymous said...


is "He" and not "She" just another of the Hypomanic traits??

Your post just made me wonder...

Anonymous said...

Beyond the he's, the maleness of the stereotype is evident. This does not make the stereotype wrong however, but woth asking after from a gender basis. I even slept a little last night :)


Anonymous said...

Again MFA, excellent comment as usual. I am playing with these ideas.


Anonymous said...

"Is there an anti-intellectual strain to American culture?"
In foreigner's eyes, it is seen as a culture that allows diversity rather than an anti-intellectual strain.:-)

Anonymous said...

"Is there an anti-intellectual strain to American culture?"

From my foreigner's eyes, there sure is. At least in those states that portray themselves as the true holders of all-american values, which in turn is something one might discuss...

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