© intheskies - Fotolia.com
© intheskies - Fotolia.com

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.

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  1. I think many folks would be closer to the edge if they weren't gripping the middle so tightly.

    I know folks who are right nutters, except, they won't act on it because of what others will think.

    When we let go of some of that, we move toward the edge. It doesn't have to be extreme; I'm viewed by my close associates as passionate and hard-working, but not a complete loony. (I'm viewed by my CLOSEST associates as a complete loony; my wife happens to believe I'm barely human, but in the best possible way.)

    If folks can let go of all-or-nothing thinking and embrace SOME of their mania while keeping the social niceties in place, everyone wins.

    I don't think Steve Jobs made things better by kicking people when he found them sleeping under their desk after a 40-hour shift. But Paul's 65th take was probably followed by joy and laughs, not punching Ringo in the face for messing up 13 of the first 64.

  2. Good points.

    It turns out that The Beatles recorded the basic track for "I Will" 67 times before they settled on the 65th take. THEN they added vocals and overdubs. (I figured sooner or later some Beatles archivist would nail me on this.)

    1. And during the 67 takes, they also recorded a song called "Step Inside Love" (which they didn't release but which was a UK hit single for Cilla Black), demo'd a couple of other unused songs parts of which appeared on "Revolution 9" and PM did some overdubs on "Glass Onion."

      Steely Dan in 1970's were probably the the most radical proponents of this, giving up touring so that they could pretty much live in a studio and obsess about whether the hi hat sound in the 24th bar was just ever so slightly over-struck...

      There's an argument though that spending so much time on a piece of work can be counter-productive: you end up with something that's technically perfect but soulless and unlovable. (Which is precisely why Rick Wakeman left Yes in the 1970's. There's stacks of other examples.)

      I think it was Woody Allen who said that the finished film is usually only a fraction of what he had imagined in the first place. There are endless compromises over budgets, locations, lighting conditions when you film, getting the best performance out of the actors who are available when you do the shoot etc etc. You end up putting together the best work you can do in the circumstances.

      Do people do their best work when they've got unlimited resources to perfect it or when they're under all sorts of time and resource problems? I'm not sure but I think it's got more to do with the passion they put into it.

      1. Depends on whether you define "best work" as "most enjoyed by others" or "most satisfying for the artist."

        As much as I love Yes, I've listened to the "demo" version of Roundabout and tried to compare it to the final version. I keep wondering if the extra time and effort mattered to anyone but them. Then I wonder if that's the right question.

        I've written 10 books. Not one of them was polished to that level of near-perfection. I wrote, edited, and published. All have failings. Almost all have elicited a satisfying response from readers (one has elicited no response whatsoever, positive or negative.)

        I used to sit and watch the guy who brought his guitar to parties and say, he's not very good. Then one day I realized, he's in the middle of a group of people having fun. I'm sitting here critiquing.

        Now, I'm shipping imperfect art instead of waiting for perfection.

        I can't speak for the Beatles, Yes, or the Dan, but it works for me.

        1. "He’s in the middle of a group of people having fun. I’m sitting here critiquing." Yup, I know that one. Which reminds me to get back to my guitar-playing.

      2. Great question, Mark: “Do people do their best work when they’ve got unlimited resources to perfect it or when they’re under all sorts of time and resource problems?” That’s a long-standing debate about the value of "constraints"—which I blogged about on a previous post about how The Beatles approached their Sgt Pepper album differently from how their approached their Rubber Soul album.

        My definitive answer is: yes and no. (But then again I could be wrong.)

        1. I'm fairly sure I agree with your definitive answer...

          BTW, when you claim to be relatively normal, what's the reference point you're using for "relatively"?

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