This blog post is based on a presentation Jessica Carson, Author of Wired This Way and Director of Innovation at the American Psychological Association, gave at our annual Scaletech Conference. Scaletech gathers the brightest minds in product and tech to share hard-won secrets on startup growth, product direction and business strategy. Thank you to BMO Innovation Banking Group for being the presenting presenter of Scaletech. For more information on the Scaletech Conference visit www.scaletechconf.com.
The Dark and Light Sides of Founder Mental Health
We see founders and management teams facing brutally-long workweeks, constant pressure to manage a company while raising funding and the stress of always making decisions. Add to this the uncertainty COVID-19 has brought, and perhaps unsurprisingly, 72% of entrepreneurs self-report mental health concerns.
At Scaletech Conference 2020, we delved deeper into founder mental health with Jessica Carson (site, LinkedIn), author of Wired This Way and Director of Innovation at the American Psychological Association.
The Light and Dark Sides of Entrepreneurs
Given her background in psychology and neuroscience, Jessica was naturally curious about the unique wiring of entrepreneurs when she first began working in startups and venture capital. “I started to pick up on patterns and trends in their thinking, emoting, relating and interacting.”
“What very quickly became evident to me was the extraordinary, bright light qualities these creators were wired with,” Jessica related. “I was amazed by the extraordinary, almost extreme ambition and conscientiousness and risk tolerance and other amazing qualities. But on the flip side of that, I quickly became aware of a host of rather dark qualities, things like mental health issues, emotional dysregulation, stress-related illness and the generalized naughtiness that we see in the creative and entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
According to psychiatrist Michael Freeman, those 72% of entrepreneurs tend to struggle most commonly with depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), addiction and bipolar disorder. “When you’re first coming across this research,” recalled Jessica, “you think, ‘Is there something in the water? Is it just this brutal work mentality? Is it the hustle culture?’ Certainly, these cultural, social and environmental aspects impact the genesis of mental illness. But as I dove a little deeper into the research, I started to learn a more intriguing reason why these numbers are so inflated.”
“When we look at evolutionary psychology,” Jessica reported, “things like depression or addiction wouldn’t survive in our genetic lineage if they didn’t confer some sort of adaptive advantage. Creators and entrepreneurs have to be insanely productive, ambitious, energetic and risk tolerant, and at the same time wildly creative, requiring a contemplative, reflective, philosophical and intuitive personality. These are two extreme personalities that entrepreneurs have to simultaneously embody.”
“And so,” Jessica believes, “it raises the question: is entrepreneurship making people “sick,” or are individuals who are naturally predisposed to extreme wiring more likely to self-select into entrepreneurial and creative work?
The Positives of Mental Illness?
The following is not to say mental illness is completely adaptive or fundamentally maladaptive. Instead, what follows is a proposition that mental illness has two sides — a light and a dark side. Indeed, the tendencies of individuals with particular mental illnesses and other emotional and physical sensitivities may actually drive founders and entrepreneurs to be as high functioning as they are.
“When we look at someone who’s wired for depression,” explained Jessica, “we see someone who’s able to slow down their energy, withdraw from the world, ruminate on a problem until they figure out a solution, then reenter the world with this new insight or—in the case of tech entrepreneurs—perhaps an app they’ve coded.”
“When we look at ADHD,” Jessica continued, “we see someone who’s wired for curiosity, openness, enthusiasm and sociability. Counterintuitively, individuals with ADHD have the ability to hyperfocus on subjects that they’re particularly engaged in.”
“When we look at addiction,” added Jessica, “we see someone who’s wired for novelty seeking and sensation seeking, risk tolerance and passion. All of those amazing things that, if an entrepreneur didn’t have them, they likely wouldn’t be able to tolerate the uncertainty and ambiguity of entrepreneurship.”
“Perhaps most interestingly, when we look at bipolar,” Jessica observed, “it is 11 times higher in entrepreneurs than controls. Bipolar is manic periods—periods of high energy, enthusiasm, risk tolerance, sociability, ideation and creativity—combined with depression, which is perhaps where focus or reflection happens. When you combine those together, you arguably have the ideal entrepreneur.”
“Stress-related illness isn’t in and of itself a mental illness,” explained Jessica. “But even stress-related illness has this incredible light side. Research has shown that the individuals who are most prone to stress-related illness are those with high IQs. They have these nervous systems that are incredibly perceptive and receptive, and they’re picking up on every pattern and noticing every trend and connecting every dot.”
It can be useful to think of these light and dark tendencies in terms of archetypes, a foundational component of Jessica’s work. “The ten most common characteristics we see in creators, like openness to experience and intuition and achievement motivation, confer this suite of incredibly adaptive qualities that land us on 30 under 30 lists and TEDx stages and all those great things.But there’s this through line connecting the light and the dark.”
Careful Casting Out Your Demons
“Be careful, lest in casting out your demon you exorcise the best thing in you.”– Friedrich Nietzsche
“I became so enthralled by this notion that these individuals are not creating despite their wiring, but because of it,” revealed Jessica. “It’s not so much a question of fixing ourselves as it is being able to understand ourselves to most productively and adaptively harness our unique wiring as creators.”
“So often, our culture of talking about mental health and wellbeing is focused around curing or fixing, without this nod to the idea that if we were to cure ourselves of our demons, so to speak, we may be simultaneously cutting ourselves off from the source of our creative and productive potential,” Jessica reasoned. “I prefer to talk about integrating, being able to hold all of our multitudes at once. Integration techniques help us balance and harmonize our light and our dark without necessarily getting rid of anything.”
“These integration techniques are going to be unique for each individual,” emphasized Jessica. “What works for me may not work for you. I can tell you to meditate for two hours a day, but if that doesn’t feel right to you, then that’s not going to help you very much.”
The Charming Creator
One archetype, the Charming Creator, “is somebody who is great at sales. They’re gregarious,” Jessica explained. “They’re going to be able to switch masks effortlessly and be socially adept and intuitive. The bright side of this is obvious for entrepreneurs.”
“The dark side of this,” Jessica continued, “is inauthenticity and emotional suppression, that fake-it-until-you-make-it mentality which can actually be really harmful.”
“For the Charming Creator,” advised Jessica, “integration practices would be things that really cultivate and encourage a sense of vulnerability and authenticity and transparency, really rooting in your truth as a creator.”
According to Jessica, these principles not only apply to the individual, but also to their creation: the company.
Reducing Stigma and Moving Forward
“What most entrepreneurs run up against,” Jessica noted, “is not a clinical mental illness, more of emotional dysregulation. You can struggle emotionally without necessarily having a mental health diagnosis. It’s important not to make your team or your employees feel excluded from these conversations just because they’ve never been formally diagnosed.”
“It’s really not even a conversation about stigma or reducing the stigma,” stated Jessica. “It actually moves the conversation towards celebrating these things that make us so powerful and managing our superpowers.”
“A lot of that has to do with education,” Jessica observed. “It just baffles me how things like self-discovery are viewed as a nicety, but not a necessity. We think: Self-discovery is something that I’ll do later on in my career when I have some free time. Or, it’s something that I’ll fit into my weekend between meetings. In reality, this personal growth, self-discovery, and alignment with who you are as a creator really needs to precede, or at very least go alongside, the creative process.”
- Visit Jessica’s Site
- Connect with Jessica on LinkedIn
- Buy Wired This Way on Amazon
- Follow Jessica on Instagram
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
Always seek the advice of a mental health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a condition or treatment.