The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship

December 5, 2013

Conqueror or consumed? Likely both.

Jessica Bruder writes in Inc. magazine that entrepreneurs are “vulnerable to the dark side of obsession.”  She echoes something we wrote last January about a famous football innovator:  Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh and his obsession to conquer the game of football itself.  Here’s Bruder:

But it may be more than a stressful job that pushes some founders over the edge. According to researchers, many entrepreneurs share innate character traits that make them more vulnerable to mood swings. “People who are on the energetic, motivated, and creative side are both more likely to be entrepreneurial and more likely to have strong emotional states,” says Freeman. Those states may include depression, despair, hopelessness, worthlessness, loss of motivation, and suicidal thinking.

Call it the downside of being up. The same passionate dispositions that drive founders heedlessly toward success can sometimes consume them. Business owners are “vulnerable to the dark side of obsession,” suggest researchers from the Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. They conducted interviews with founders for a study about entrepreneurial passion. The researchers found that many subjects displayed signs of clinical obsession, including strong feelings of distress and anxiety, which have “the potential to lead to impaired functioning,” they wrote in a paper published in the Entrepreneurship Research Journal in April.

Here’s an excerpt from our January piece on Walsh, The Imperfect Perfectionist:

Over the next few years, as Walsh turned Ken Anderson into one of the league’s most accurate passers, the system worked so well that Walsh began to think he could do something no coach had done: conquer the game itself. His offense became so precise that it couldn’t be stopped when executed perfectly, so Walsh became obsessed with always executing perfectly. “It would grind on him,” says longtime friend Dick Vermeil. “He was so perceptive and detailed and emotional, and he put so much of himself into a game plan, that he took it personally if it didn’t work…  After the 49ers hired him in 1979, Walsh won a total of eight games in his first two seasons. Ridiculed in the media, he grew so despondent that he considered resigning, convinced he didn’t have the answers. Even after Walsh turned an inconsistent Notre Dame quarterback named Joe Montana from a third-round pick into a future Hall of Famer, winning Super Bowls in 1981 and 1984, he felt more angst than validation. “Bill had to prove himself to himself all the time,” Vermeil says. “His past success could never overcome a recent failure, and nothing was enough to fill that little hole in his personality.” … By the late ’80s, as Walsh’s definition of success became so narrow as to be unattainable, the Walsh Way started to cripple the coach. He would sit dazed in his hot tub even after wins, despondent that he had miscalculated a play or two. “I was a tortured person,” Walsh later told biographer Harris. “I felt the failure so personally … eventually I couldn’t get out from under it all. You can’t live that way long. You can only attack that part of your nervous system so many times.”

Back to Bruder… she also cites a psychologist from John Hopkins whose theory about entrepreneurs adds another wrinkle to our recently completed 4-part series on Entrepreneurship and global wealth since 1850.

Reinforcing that message is John Gartner, a practicing psychologist who teaches at Johns Hopkins University Medical School. In his book The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America, Gartner argues that an often-overlooked temperament–hypomania–may be responsible for some entrepreneurs’ strengths as well as their flaws.

A milder version of mania, hypomania often occurs in the relatives of manic-depressives and affects an estimated 5 percent to 10 percent of Americans. “If you’re manic, you think you’re Jesus,” says Gartner. “If you’re hypomanic, you think you’re God’s gift to technology investing. We’re talking about different levels of grandiosity but the same symptoms.”

Gartner theorizes that there are so many hypomanics–and so many entrepreneurs–in the U.S. because our country’s national character rose on waves of immigration. “We’re a self-selected population,” he says. “Immigrants have unusual ambition, energy, drive, and risk tolerance, which lets them take a chance on moving for a better opportunity. These are biologically based temperament traits. If you seed an entire continent with them, you’re going to get a nation of entrepreneurs.”

Though driven and innovative, hypomanics are at much higher risk for depression than the general population, notes Gartner. Failure can spark these depressive episodes, of course, but so can anything that slows a hypomanic’s momentum. “They’re like border collies–they have to run,” says Gartner. “If you keep them inside, they chew up the furniture. They go crazy; they just pace around. That’s what hypomanics do. They need to be busy, active, overworking.”

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