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My new hypothesis became that American entrepreneurs are
largely hypomanic. I decided to undertake what social scientists
call a pilot study: a small-scale, inexpensive, informal investigation
meant to test the waters. I placed announcements on several
Web sites devoted to the technology business, expressing my
interest in studying entrepreneurs and requesting volunteers.
I interviewed a small sample of ten Internet CEOs. After I
read them each a list of hypomanic traits that I had synthesized
from the psychiatric literature, I asked them if they agreed
that these traits are typical of an entrepreneur:
- He is filled with energy.
- He is flooded with ideas.
- He is driven, restless, and unable to keep still.
- He channels his energy into the achievement of wildly
- He often works on little sleep.
- He feels brilliant, special, chosen, perhaps even destined
to change the world.
- He can be euphoric.
- He becomes easily irritated by minor obstacles.
- He is a risk taker.
- He overspends in both his business and personal life.
- He acts out sexually.
- He sometimes acts impulsively, with poor judgment, in
ways that can have painful consequences.
- He is fast-talking.
- He is witty and gregarious.
- His confidence can make him charismatic and persuasive.
- He is also prone to making enemies and feels he is persecuted
by those who do not accept his vision and mission.
I feared they might find the questions insulting. I needn’t
have worried. All of the entrepreneurs agreed that the overall
description was accurate, and they endorsed all the hypomanic
traits, with the exceptions of “paranoia” and
“sexual acting out” (these traits in particular
are viewed as very negative and thus may be more difficult
to admit to). Most expressed their agreement with excitement:
“Wow, that’s right on target!” When I asked
them to rate their level of agreement for each trait on a
standard 5-point scale, many gave ratings that were literally
off the chart: 5+s, 6s. One subject repeatedly begged me to
let him give a 7. I was startled by the respondents’
enthusiasm, though perhaps I shouldn’t have been. As
a psychotherapist, I am familiar with the way people become
energized when they feel understood, especially when it helps
them understand themselves better.
Having learned in our conversation that they were hypomanic,
the CEOs wanted to talk about it. One now understood better
why he regularly rented palatial office space he could not
afford and why his wife hid the checkbook. Another could finally
explain what drove him to impulsively send broadcast e-mails
at 3 a.m. to all his employees, radically revising the company’s
mission. It was as if merely by asking these questions I had
held up a mirror in which these men could see themselves.
After talking to them for just fifteen minutes, it seemed
as if I was the first person to truly understand them.
One respondent seemed to be in an intense hypomanic state
when I interviewed him. He responded to my Web site solicitation
by e-mailing me in huge blue block letters: “CALL ME
IMMEDIATELY.” When I did, he talked rapidly and loudly
and laughed quite often. At the same time he was charming,
witty, and engaging. The interview was a bit chaotic because
he was driving and carrying on another phone call at the same
time. He was a serial entrepreneur. After founding one successful
company, he had felt he needed to quit his own corporation
because he couldn’t “make things happen fast enough,”
leaving him frustrated and bored. Now he was on to a new venture.
He was very enthusiastic about my research and volunteered
to send me the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of half
a dozen well-known high-tech entrepreneurs (which I never
received), who he claimed were his “very close friends.”
This was a small pilot study, but nonetheless, I was overwhelmed.
I had never seen data like this. Because humans are so complex,
most effects in psychology are modest and nearly drowned out
by the great variability that exists naturally between people.
Not in this case. One hundred percent of the entrepreneurs
I interviewed were hypomanic! This couldn’t be chance.
The odds of flipping a coin ten times and getting ten heads
in a row is less than one in a thousand. It felt as if I had
tested the waters with my little pilot study and been hit
with a tidal wave. It was then that I knew I had stumbled
onto something big that had been hiding in plain sight.