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Is mental illness a predictor of entrepreneurial success?


After reading this article from the Washington Post, it's suggested that many entrepreneurs exhibit symptoms of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. However, the qualities associated with this behavior are also found to be themes vital to entrepreneurial success. Is the mental health of entrepreneurs something to be concerned about? Or, is it simply a prerequisite of success and something we have to learn to balance?

15 Replies

Aleksandra Czajka
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Aleksandra Czajka Entrepreneur
Freelance Senior Software Engineer, Developer, Web Developer, Programmer - Full Stack
Great discussion point.

I personally thing that depression, anxiety are some of the reasons that lead people to become successful in many areas. I don't believe that you would do as much in your life if you were satisfied with where you were. However, it's obviously not the only reason that people want to succeed. In order to succeed you need drive... whatever that drive is. Be it depression if you don't succeed or the prospect of lots of women wanting to "hang out with you" if you do succeed.

I think your last two questions have to be answered by each entrepreneur herself. I don't think it's just a life balance, I think it's more emotional vs rational balance. You have to answer for yourself whether you're driven to succeed because you are emotionally unhappy or rationally unsatisfied with where you are. Can't even give you pointers in that direction as it's all very personal and depends full-heartedly on you as an individual.

Tom Maiaroto
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Tom Maiaroto Entrepreneur • Advisor
Full Stack Consultant
Mental health is always something to be concerned about I'd say.

Depression does not "bring empathy and creativity." Be careful with click bait and misinformation.

It's also really bad for the media (or anyone) to attempt to glamorize mental illness.
Mike Whitfield
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Mike Whitfield Entrepreneur
Sr. Software Engineer, EPAM, Google
Eleanor, what a laugh! The stereotype certainly is tempting to indulge in. Let's safely say that self presence and the entrepreneurial experience are two simultaneous experiences. An easy example is to consider a time you've discussed share distributions. Maybe you've encountered that moment when negotiations get tough and there's some dissatisfaction or friction in the room about share distributions. The ah-ha moment I've seen result (however well those waters get navigated) is that share distributions means little unless people continue to contribute their efforts. The concept could be looked at as "good will". Without getting too off-topic this seems to be the "soft" side of business.

Back to mental illness, I think the other idea is to remove the stigma. By engaging in business, you are putting all your stock into good will and you are creating an accounting imbalance such that when your good will is exhausted it leaves you happier and with a lot of cash. The trick is there are all kinds of ways to do this but most people have latent issues come to the surface during this process since total self reliance is an intense experience for anyone to go through. Sure, some people seem to end up in this weird place of sustaining themselves off some very anti-social behavior patterns but this is no different than any office staff.

Without reading the article, I think the headline prompts me to suggest that starting a business means creating a great imbalance. The trick is to exit properly from the madness, and some people never do this. I sometimes joke all those annoying panels with millionaire executives is actually therapy millionaires require after all the stress of creating all that wealth. Then they go home to their jet skis or whatever and forget about their problems.

I'll end my ramble there.

Self development is always there in this fishbowl :)

Sent from my iPhone
Alex Eckelberry
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Alex Eckelberry Advisor
CEO at Meros.io
I have always had a problem with the "crazy genius" archetype -- that somehow, one needs to be a bit nutty to succeed. a) I've never seen this proven out and b) I think it's dangerous thinking. Some of the sanest, happiest people I've worked with are successful entrepreneurs.

I've worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs; my life is filled with working with them every day. I see those who are happy and those who are not. But the overriding factor is persistence and desire to succeed as the success matrix. Nothing else really seems to matter that much.

I also am really disturbed by the habitual labeling of anyone who has a creative drive or who is different in some way. The great thinkers might not fit the norm, and that's why they're great thinkers -- not because they are mentally ill.
Shingai Samudzi
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Shingai Samudzi Entrepreneur
Founder & CEO at ProjectVision
I think that speaks more to the qualities common to some of us who have the risk tolerance needed for entrepreneurialism. There are many who are risk tolerant who don't have these qualities. And mental illness/substance abuse is also highly common among those stuck in permanent homeless situations, for very different reasons. I've read other studies that suggest religious faith as a common trait among successful entrepreneurs, citing some qualities that run counter to some of those listed in the wapo article (substance abuse, for example). I'd take any interpretation coming from a "pop science" article like the
Leah Kaminsky-Levy
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Leah Kaminsky-Levy Entrepreneur
Managing Editor, Content Stragiest and Head Writer

This is an interesting discussion point to play with. Thanks for providing it, Eleanor.


I think any discussion of this must separate out a few confusing points in the Washington Post article out from what's in the actual study (long read, but a good one: http://www.michaelafreemanmd.com/Research_files/Are%20Entrepreneurs%20Touched%20with%20Fire%20%28pre-pub%20n%29%204-17-15.pdf). The graphs in the Washington Post article seem problematic to me, as they conflate across several different kinds of mental illness (some of which I'm not even sure are technically considered mental illness), which creates all kinds of causation vs. correlation issues.


Depression and addiction, for instance, are often genetic, but one can certainly develop both due to the outsized pressures of entrepreneurship - and of course, a genetic predisposition can make that latter outcome more likely. In the case of these two, I would think it would be very difficult to determine whether or not people who suffer from depression or an addictive personality are more likely to become entrepreneurs, or whether entrepreneurship causes depression and addiction.


In contrast, bipolar disorder and ADHD seem pretty clearly genetic, and not something that entrepreneurship can cause; therefore, there may be more of a causative rather than correlative link in this case. In lumping these all together, the Washington Post article misses this important point, and thereby weakens its argument.


The original study puts a much finer point on this by looking into the distinctive traits associated with bipolar disorder, ADHD, depression, and addiction, and compares those to traits exhibited by entrepreneurs. Ultimately, I think much further study needs to be done into this, and these initial findings are far from convincing. As other commenters have said, I hesitate to validate anything that might confirm the "crazy entrepreneur" stereotype.


However, I do think it is important and fascinating work, especially when it comes to identifying both asymptomatic and symptomatic family members who may fall somewhere on these spectrums but express these traits in more or less advantageous manners.


Though the questions in this study are framed around entrepreneurs, these are very similar to questions that have been asked about powerful leaders (who many have (controversially) posited may be on the psychopath spectrum, for better or worse), and about artists as well. They're important to answer, as ideally we'd like to create conditions from birth that help us take advantage of those traits, rather than having them limit us. For that, I do think a hearty mental health network is key - all the more so for entrepreneurs!

Jukka Niemelä
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Jukka Niemelä Advisor
Simplifier & possibilist. Entrepreneur since 2008. Proven track record in helping others succeed.
Many successful entrepreneurs have "oddities" that distinguish them from average Janes and Joes. Looking back in time and speaking for myself, I was more or less an ADHD kid. Never really could sit still and listen. Didn't get in a university, had a bit of studies here and there. I know entrepreneurs who have dyslexia, for example, and who have succeeded extremely well.

Oh, but wait! I haven't got that much of success - yet.
Robert Ashton
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Robert Ashton Advisor
Director at The Turnpike Press
Eleanor Fascinating post that's generating interest & some scepticism. I liken it to Newton' Third Law and recognise that crushing depression is a price I pay for flashes of entrepreneurial brilliance. Whilst the lows can be very low & thus traumatic for my family, the highs more than compenstate. Robert Robert Ashton 01953 605000 07831 441736 @robertashton1 www.robertashton.co.uk
Leo Lam, PhD
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Leo Lam, PhD Advisor
Product development executive, serial entrepreneur and Angel Investor
Mental health is no laughing matter and that article must be read with caution.

Multiple things immediately came to mind, mostly concerning the article and the pop-science (read: inaccurate) way that it was written. The title is a click-bait, and there are plenty of implications that simply are not vetted, not even in the submitted paper that it referenced.

Firstly, the research paper the article referenced has notpassed peer-review. The writer jumped the gun and quoted it as so.

Secondly, the research paper clearly stated that the data gathering was of a self-reporting survey. It had no objective measure of the entrepreneurs' "success", or even a clear definition of an entrepreneur. I did not see how the research verified with those who self-reported symptoms. Combing both self-identification with self-reporting, the error bar would be significant.

Thirdly, there are many correlation/causation problems in the article. And that's dangerous.

Our mental health treatment system in the United States is grossly inadequate, especially for the less privileged. The level of stigma associated with mental illnesses needs to drop to the level where people understand that it is no different from physical illnesses.

In short, while this is interesting, it must be read with a grain of salt. Entrepreneurs are not the only ones who need more care for mental health issues, everyone needs it.

As for it being a "predictor", that's not anything that you could imply based on the article linked.
Peter Jones [LION: li.blueoyster~@~gmail.com]
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1
Peter Jones creates solutions for product USP, market messaging, team building, venture and other commercial capital
Behaviourally, those who experience mental illness are forced to recognise their own humanity and their own frailty.

They know they can and do fail, but as Confuscius noted, continually pick themselves up again.

That process of failing, restarting, rebuilding is an essential learning cycle and behaviour pattern among entrepreneurs. And it's a better learning pattern than the first time entrepreneur who succeeds largely by luck, and then cannot repeat the process in different circumstances, cultures or opportunities, and indeed is pretty useless to anyone else as guide and mentor.

The other thing cited about mental illness is an empathy with others, their fears and stumbling blocks. This is enormously helpful to building teams, understanding customers reservations, and numerous other scenarios.

Is poor mental health an essential pre-requisite?

Many of the most successful entrepreneurs display quite astounding levels of humility. Maybe a key feature is perhaps not mental ill health, but more mundanely a lack of arrogance.

After all, how can we know everything?

I like the approach advocated in the book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People", Habit 5 - Seek first to understand, then be understood.

That appreciation of others, putting them first, recognising our own short comings, is an essential component to business success.

There are many others, I like the Richard St John approach too, with his 4 minute TED talk on the 8 success factors.

He doesn't mention mental ill health.

So I suspect what we need are some balancing stories from entrepreneurs who made it without succumbing to the "Black Dog", as Ernest Hemingway so memorably coined it, and Churchill was fond of quoting.

HTH...

@innov8tor3
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