By Daniel Gross
Posted Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2005, at 1:50 PM PT
Are Americans rich because they're
That's the thesis of a new book, The
Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and
(a Lot of) Success in America, by John D. Gartner, a psychotherapist
and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the Johns
Hopkins University Medical School. America may be the dominant
force in the global economy because we're a nation made of
somewhat Crazy Eddies—gonzo businessmen and -women who
may be genetically predisposed to take big-time risks.
sounds right. Creativity and genius have often been linked
to mental illness. Many virtuoso painters, composers, and
architects are a little kooky. Why not entrepreneurs? Gartner
identifies "hypomania" as a benign form of madness—manic
without the depressive. Here's how they present: "Hypomanics
are brimming with infectious energy, irrational confidence,
and really big ideas. They think, talk, move, and make decisions
quickly. Anyone who slows them down with questions 'just doesn't
get it.' " They find it hard to sit still, channel their
energy "into the achievement of wildly grand ambitions,"
feel a sense of destiny, "can be euphoric," have
a tendency to overspend, take risks, and act impulsively,
and with poor judgment. They are "witty and gregarious"
and possess a confidence that makes them charismatic and persuasive.
It sounds a lot like Jim Clark, the founder of Netscape and
animating character of Michael Lewis' The New New Thing. Or
like President Bush.
Gartner concludes that many of the
components of the archetypal American character—optimism,
entrepreneurial energy, religious zeal—fit the hypomanic
profile. Perhaps, he posits, this nation of immigrants has
a gene pool of hypomanics. Immigration may select for it.
After all, who else would be eager to embark on a dangerous
journey, convinced he could make it in the New World? As a
result, Gartner writes, Americans may be "culturally
and genetically predisposed to economic risk."
Gartner sets out to prove his case
not through contemporary case studies or the aggregation of
vast quantities of data, but through brief, lively studies
of key hypomanics from five different centuries. Christopher
Columbus, the "messianic entrepreneur," had divine
ambitions. Some of the first settlers of the United States
were "protestant prophets"—John Winthrop of
Massachusetts and Roger Williams in Rhode Island. Alexander
Hamilton fearlessly charged British positions at Yorktown
and wrote The Federalist papers in a series of all-nighters.
His hypomania "was an essential ingredient in his accomplishments.
And his accomplishments were an essential ingredient in the
creation of America." Andrew Carnegie, the hypomanic
steel baron, feverishly built up an industrial empire and
then spent the rest of his life trying to change the world.
More recent hypomanics might include movie-studio moguls David
Selznick and Louis B. Mayer, and geneticist Craig Venter,
who founded Celera and set off a race to decode the human
It's a fun read. But Gartner's diagnosis
overlooks the more rational factors that were crucial to the
settling of America and the construction of our unique economic
and business culture. The British Protestants who crossed
the Atlantic Ocean in the 17th century came for God, but they
also came for the cod. And the timber and the tobacco. By
the time John Winthrop arrived in Massachusetts, non-dissenting
settlers—economic opportunists, not prophets—had
been farming and trading in Jamestown, Va., for more than
Immigrants like Hamilton, Carnegie,
and David Selznick's parents may have been hypomanic. But
whether you were a landless peasant in Ireland in the 1840s,
a Jewish cobbler in Russia in 1910, or an Indian computer
programmer in the 1980s, the decision to move to America made
profound economic sense. America had cheap land in abundance.
The opportunities—if occasionally overblown—were
real. So was the infrastructure that provided for the rule
of law, capital markets, and the protections of minority rights.
In fact, practicality and realism
have coexisted with messianism and utopianism in the American
experiment from the very beginning. Benjamin Franklin was
almost certainly hypomanic by Gartner's reckoning, but he
was also one of the most relentlessly practical Americans
of the 18th century. The U.S. economy has been distinguished
by hypomanic booms and busts and by the creative destruction
that lies at the heart of entrepreneurial capitalism. But
it's also distinguished by durable systems and institutions
that are emblematic of our distinct style of managerial capitalism—the
Federal Reserve and the New York Stock Exchange, our telecommunications
networks, and Procter & Gamble. Such institutions are
not the work of flamboyant geniuses but of tons of thoughtful,
far-sighted, and average Americans.
To put it another way, hypomanics
instigate, but they rarely build institutions that outlive
them. The necessary counterpart to the hypomanic Henry Ford
was Alfred P. Sloan, who built General Motors. Andrew Carnegie
could never have monetized his fortune were it not for the
constantly rationalizing financier J.P. Morgan. In every generation,
cooler-headed executives and entrepreneurs enter a field after
a burst of creativity and build businesses and fortunes by
imposing the discipline and order the creators may have lacked.
Steve Jobs of Apple (who certainly has hypomanic tendencies)
is an innovator who has become a billionaire, made long-term
investors wealthy, and helped spread the personal computer
revolution. But the same can also be said of the preternaturally
well-adjusted Michael Dell.
Executives who chew the scenery may
suck up attention, revolutionize industries, and symbolize
American capitalism. But they're not particularly good for
companies' long-term health, as Harvard Business School professor
Rakesh Kurana's argues in his book Searching
for a Corporate Savior: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic
CEOs. No country produces as many turnaround artists,
bankruptcy specialists, and temporary CEOs as America does.
The late 1990s Internet boom was the
golden age of hypomanic CEOs. But how many of their companies
still survive? Perhaps the most prominent and successful Internet
executive is eBay's distinctly unhypomanic Meg Whitman. So,
yes, Gartner is right that hypomanic first movers matter a
lot, and that we need a few more. But we shouldn't forget
the huge contributions of the more sober-minded folks who
follow behind and pick up the pieces.