If you’re an entrepreneur, you’ve probably been called crazy a few times.
“That’s crazy – it’ll never work!”
“Are you crazy? Starting a business in this economy?”
“You’d have to be crazy to take a risk like that.”
As it turns out, so-called “crazy” may come with the entrepreneur territory. Mental illness in entrepreneurs has been a topic of fervent research for decades, and the results keep showing what we’ve known deep down all along: There is something different about people that choose to become entrepreneurs.
They’re driven to succeed more than others, they aren’t afraid of taking risks for big returns, and they are remarkably resilient when it comes to failure and difficulty. Why?
The answer may lie in the mind of an entrepreneur – more specifically, mental illness in entrepreneurs. Research has consistently shown instances and examples of mental illness in some of the most successful and prolific entrepreneurs throughout history. The names on the list include the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Frank Lloyd Wright, Andy Warhol, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs (to name a few).
But why is there such a strong link between entrepreneurs and mental illness? Are entrepreneurs struggling with mental illness before they come up with a business idea, or do they develop symptoms of mental illness due to the stress and uncertain nature of starting and owning a business?
Does Entrepreneurship Cause Mental Illness or Vice Versa?
Why is there so much mental illness in entrepreneurs? Researchers don’t think the nature of entrepreneurship causes mental illness, but rather that people with mental illness become entrepreneurs at a higher rate than others.
In an article I wrote for Startup Grind last year, “Genius in Madness? 72% of Entrepreneurs Affected by Mental Health Conditions,” I talked about the reasons people struggling with mental illness tend to become entrepreneurs.
One possible reason? Mental illness is often correlated with high levels of creativity, and entrepreneurs tend to be more creative than the average person.
If you measured the creativity of all American adults and graphed it, it would show a “normal distribution,” meaning the curve on the graph would be shaped like an upside down ‘U.’
On either end of the graph – low creativity and high creativity – there are fewer people than in the middle, where those with average creativity (a majority of the population) lie.
For those in the average middle, it’s a comfortable place to be with plenty of company. They make good grades in school, get ‘regular’ jobs, and pursue practical goals. But for those on either end, life can be a little lonelier. Less people have very low or very high levels of creativity than those who have an average level. But here’s why that’s okay:
“In these polar positions, life is a little lonelier than in the well-saturated middle, but it’s also potentially more exciting. Entrepreneurs often occupy that lower right corner of the bell curve [above-average creativity], standing out from the crowd not just with uncommon ability, but also with extraordinary weaknesses.”
Being more creative than the average person is part of what separates entrepreneurs from others, and it may be the underlying link that causes more people with mental illness to pursue entrepreneurship.
When you’re creative, you have more ideas, and because of that, you have more good ideas. When you’re creative, you’re less risk averse than others, meaning you’ll pursue the bigger risks to get the bigger rewards. When you’re creative, you tend to march to the beat of your own drum, something that ‘regular’ 9 to 5 jobs can’t usually accommodate.
This is what drives people with higher levels of creativity to become entrepreneurs.
The Upside of Mental Illness in Entrepreneurs
There isn’t one specific mental illness that most entrepreneurs struggle with, although depression and anxiety are commonly cited. Narcissism is another common diagnosis that runs concurrent with entrepreneurship. But mental illness doesn’t necessarily hold people back from being successful entrepreneurs, although severe mental illness is undeniably a deterrent to success.
The very nature of some mental illnesses are just what make some people more suited for entrepreneurship.
For example, typical narcissism traits include feelings of superiority and grandiosity, a charming personality, and a lack of true empathy.
While these traits can be quite problematic in interpersonal relationships, they can be beneficial for those starting and running a business. Grandiosity becomes confidence in your idea or product. A charming personality becomes a magnet for skilled employees, investors, and customers. A lack of true empathy becomes a key to disrupting existing industries and may help people make emotionally difficult decisions more easily.
Just peachy, right? Not always.
While some symptoms of mental illness can be beneficial for entrepreneurs, they can also make you a less reliable and trusted leader. Employees who work under narcissistic bosses often report that their superior lacks empathy, seems selfish, or acts unpredictably.
And because a feature of many mental illnesses is a lack of clear insight or perspective, those struggling with the illness don’t usually recognize that they’re doing anything differently from other people. They effectively do not realize when they’re making the work environment less comfortable for others.
Check back for “Why Are There More Instances of Mental Illness in Entrepreneurs: Part 2” later this week, where we’ll discuss the most common mental illnesses in entrepreneurs, the effects they have on entrepreneurs and those around them, and how symptoms of mental illness can be “channeled” into success.