Is There a Connection Between Entrepreneurship and Mental Illness?

Written by Dan McGinn

Published on

FEBRUARY 22, 2016

Biographers have long been interested in exploring the psychological issues that drove and afflicted great thinkers and achievers such as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. In her new book, Andy Warhol was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History’s Great Personalities, medical and science journalist Claudia Kalb looks at twelve famous figures and weighs the evidence suggesting that each suffered from a different kind of mental health condition. While not a business book per se, her work does have relevance as more people are becoming aware of mental illness as a workplace issue. Kalb spoke with HBR about how mental health conditions can be particularly relevant in understanding entrepreneurs. Edited excerpts:

One of the themes in your book is that people with mental illness often find ways to turn their behaviors into an advantage, and in fact there’s emerging research on this phenomenon among entrepreneurs. How common is this?

You have to remember that mental illness exists on a spectrum. At one end are people who are unable to function — think of someone lying in bed with severe depression. Being productive would be out of the question. But someone who comes out of a bout of depression and is back at work may have a greater ability to empathize, and to see situations more realistically without excessive optimism. There’s a whole area of research into so-called “depressive realism.” Abraham Lincoln, who I write about in my book, is often cited as a leader who suffered depression, and there are many theories about how his melancholy and depressive character fueled his ability to understand the realities of the Civil War, and to be sensitive to what was happening on both sides. He also used work as a way to get himself out of his melancholy, so there is a sense that the condition may have helped motivate him. This doesn’t happen in every case, of course, but there have been books written about people for whom mental illness helps propel them to a position they might not otherwise attain.

What other mental illnesses figure prominently in entrepreneurial narratives?

The most common one may be narcissism. Frank Lloyd Wright is a good example. He had classic narcissistic qualities — a sense of grandiosity, superiority, a huge and complete belief in his aesthetic sensibility, and disregard for architecture that did not live up to his standard. Narcissists also have an ability to be charming, and to lure people into their orbit. That’s obviously useful for an entrepreneur. The issue is that while these qualities may make you a good leader, they may not make you a winning boss. Employees often feel that narcissistic bosses are ruthless or lacking in empathy. Also, unlike people with depression or anxiety disorders, narcissists don’t suffer as much personally from their condition — but the way they behave can be much harder on the people around them.

That sounds a lot like Steve Jobs.