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Manhattan Institute

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A Little Crazy


A Little Crazy

March 27, 2005
Public SectorOther

HOW many New York bosses does this describe? High energy, "a perpetual motion machine with a short attention span," boastful, risk-taking; "driven, restless, and unable to keep still"; comes up with new ideas constantly but has trouble separating the good kind from the bad; fast-talking, feels destined to change the world, gathers followers while making lots of enemies.

It's no accident that personalities like this often make it to the corner office, according to the "Hypomanic Edge."

John D. Gartner, assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical School, argues that weary underlings utter more truth than they know when they describe these leaders as "a little crazy." They exhibit in a milder form some of the grandiose traits which, left to rampage unchecked, would be psychiatrically diagnosed as mania. Hence "hypomania," or something-short-of-mania.

There's nothing new in the notion that some forms of mental disorder might amount to a crippling exaggeration of otherwise useful psychological traits. According to Gartner, while the impatient "hypomanics" among us may escape the catastrophic results of outright illness, their abundance of energy and motivation still comes at a price in the form of unstable judgment and a lack of what some call impulse control: They tend to spend recklessly, throw temper tantrums, commit sexual indiscretions and so on. (They also, it seems, get along with less sleep than the rest of us.)

By this point objections may occur to the cautious reader. After all, some dynamic, charismatic business leaders don't suffer from a lack of judgment, attention span or impulse control. They have patience, can focus for long periods and remain faithful to their spouses. Do they get a category of their own? Are they rare compared with the hypomanic type, or common?

But Gartner spends little time sifting evidence or weighing contrary views. Instead, he devotes most of the book to chapter-length biographies of figures from American history for whom he claims the hypomanic label, among them Christopher Columbus, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Carnegie, Hollywood magnates Louis Mayer and David Selznick, and in our own era, genome-decoder Craig Venter.

Some of his short biographies are lively and engaging, perhaps because he tends to skip past the putatively boring stretches of his subjects' lives (in which — do you suppose? — they may have displayed patience or good judgment) to get to the stellar achievements and personal crack-ups that bolster his case. The results are especially unsatisfactory when he discusses religion, which in its more enthusiastic forms has been known to transform a placid personality into a driven, restless one or vice versa.

Then there's the question of psychoactive drugs. No sooner has he convinced us that David O. Selznick, of "Gone with the Wind" fame, was an inherently hypomanic personality, than he lets slip that Selznick used Benzedrine "more or less continuously from 1937 to 1950." Oh, did he? Well, that might explain a lot.

Gartner is actually a pretty good writer, so boredom isn't the problem, but if a boss grabbed my lapel and started explaining himself this way, I'd start looking for another job.

THE HYPOMANIC EDGE: The Link Between (a Little)
Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America
By John D. Gartner
Simon & Schuster, 368 pages, $26