We've been hearing a lot about famed achievers—in politics, business, education, sports, whatever—who are now considered obsessive, hypomanic, or full-blown crazy.
In his new book, America’s Obsessives: The Compulsive Energy That Built a Nation, Joshua Kendall points out that Thomas Jefferson, Steve Jobs, Ted Williams, Melvil Dewey, H. J. Heinz, Charles Lindbergh, and Estee Lauder all suffered from an obsessive compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) which helps explain their monomaniacal pursuit of perfection.
In The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon—just released this week—Brad Stone describes the obsessiveness of Bezos who regularly “explodes into what some of his underlings call nutters” for their failing to meet his "exacting standards.” (Stone said other high-tech titans like Apple’s Steve Jobs and Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Steve Balmer were famous for similar hysterics when their quality expectations were not met.)
There was also an earlier book—The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America—in which psychiatrist John D. Gartner diagnoses leaders in a variety of fields, from industrialist Andrew Carnegie to genome giant Craig Venter, as hypomanic (displaying a mild form of manic depression). Hypomanic Americans whose energy knows no bounds “may be our greatest natural resource,” says Dr. Gartner, even if they're not well adjusted “by ordinary standards.”
Hypomania, of course, is not the same thing as OCPD. And an obsessive compulsive personality disorder (a preoccupation with detail, orderliness, control over others, etc.) is quite different from an obsessive compulsive disorder (an anxiety produced by recurring, unwanted thoughts and expressed through repetitive behavior). But all of these are considered far outside the norm.
So what does it all mean? Apparently this: extraordinary accomplishments are usually not achieved by the ordinary behavior of "well-adjusted" people. The most successful thinkers, inventors, artists, and entrepreneurs are usually extreme, fanatical, and in some ways a little nutty.
In the field of popular music we’ve had a bounty of stars who were anything but normal, from the crazed rockers of the 50s (think: Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis) to the obsessive-compulsives of today (Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Janet Jackson, Fiona Apple). Even The Beatles—who seemed like everyday folks compared to the myriad of musical mad hatters who came later—were hyper-achievers who surprised producer George Martin from the beginning with their obsessive rehearsing of songs in the studio (without taking breaks). Later, they were notorious for recording songs dozens of times until they got the track they wanted. (McCartney insisted they record “I Will” 65 times until they got it right.)
This brings up the question whether teams can be properly diagnosed as obsessive or hypomanic. I’m not a psychologist (though I play one on this blog), but I’d have to say that many of the business teams I’ve known or worked with behaved like classic hypomanics who worked absurd hours on projects they were wildly passionate about. A subject, perhaps, for future posts.
But in the end, this is not good news for many of us, who would like to be touched by this kind of greatness but just aren’t "out there" enough. Except for a helpless addiction to nightly cable news and a tendency to shut my phones off for days at a time (not a success habit of highly effective people) I seem to lack the requisite dysfunctions. In fact, I’ve finally reached the painful conclusion—it’s taken me years to accept this—that I’m relatively normal. (Especially for a musician.) I continually blame my parents for this.
To read an earlier post about the “workaholism” of The Beatles and other rock bands check here.