Mental disorder, an inhibitor or enabler of entrepreneurial success?

I want to make it clear; this article is not your stereotypical pop – psychology thought piece. No unveiling of the “top ten traits needed to be successful”, nor will I be presenting a half–baked theory on “the signs of a great entrepreneur. In speaking with founders daily, at different stages of the business cycle, it has become all too clear that what they respect, above all, is authenticity.
Research has affirmed the predispositions to mental disorders amongst the entrepreneurial community with recent studies (Freeman, 2015) demonstrating entrepreneurs are;
  • 2X more likely to suffer from depression
  • 6X more likely to suffer from ADHD
  • 3X more likely to suffer from substance abuse
  • 10X more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder

With these statistics in mind, the aim of this article is to examine this well-researched psychological phenomenon, and answer the question – does there exist a link between these disorders and the extraordinary ability entrepreneurs often exhibit?

In order to answer this overarching question, we first need to answer the following;

1. What are the common/unique traits amongst entrepreneurs?
2. Are these traits associated with specific cognitive abilities that empower entrepreneurs?
3. Do common mental disorders inhibit or amplify these abilities?

Let’s start with the common ground…

To label entrepreneurs as a purely homogenous group would be remiss of me. A more plausible presumption being that, from our greatest pioneers to our budding founders – there exists a common personality type characterised by unusual courage, persistence, and creativity. This, however, is purely observational, to state this with certitude we will need to turn to science and data.

Personality is defined as the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character.

Delineating one’s personality, according to the general consensus of the scientific community, is best achieved via the Big – 5 model. The Big – 5 model is a multidimensional assessment that measures the traits openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism, via a method commonly referred to as the ‘O.C.E.A.N. test’.

Entrepreneurs have been the subject of these O.C.E.A.N. personality assessments for decades. A 2006 meta-analysis (Zhao and Seibert, 2006) of 23 studies examining the traits of entrepreneurs, spanning over 32 using the O.C.E.A.N test was reviewed.

The findings demonstrated entrepreneurs were;
  • Highest in Openness
  • Similar in Extraversion
  • Lower in Agreeableness
  • Lower in Neuroticism

…when compared to the control group (managers and other professionals).

Another study (Envick and Langford, 2000) which involved the surveying of 218 entrepreneurs and managers reaffirmed the relatively high measurement of trait openness too. These findings forged the now accepted notion that trait openness is the most distinctive personality trait amongst entrepreneurs, and their main differentiator compared to other professional archetypes.

The tendencies of an individual who measures highly in trait openness include; a general appreciation of art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity, and a variety of experiences.

In order to measure highly for this trait, one would need to have answered “strongly agree” to questions like these;

  • You have excellent ideas
  • You are quick to understand things
  • You use difficult words
  • You enjoy the discussion of abstract ideas

It comes as no surprise that trait openness is so prevalent amongst entrepreneurs. However, the trait utility doesn’t end there. It’s the strong associations this trait alone has that provide insight into what makes entrepreneurs unique and how they actually generate their ideas.

Is trait openness associated with enhanced cognitive abilities that empower entrepreneurship?

Personality traits offer a glimpse into a set of characteristics that lead to patterns of behavior, thoughts, and feelings; cognitive abilities, however, refer to one’s mental aptitude. It’s one thing to be inherently engaged by challenging/novel ideas, it’s a whole other thing to possess the mental faculty to execute upon those ideas and produce something of true value.

So, the question at hand – is trait openness, the one trait shared amongst entrepreneurs, associated with enhanced cognitive abilities – and if so, which ones?

Science seems to think so, and points to one specific cognitive ability, creativity.

American Psychologist, and author of “Wired to Create”, Scott Kaufman has studied trait openness extensively. Kaufman’s research demonstrating that trait openness predicts creativity in nearly all domains of creative activity. His research culminating in the conclusion that “Openness is the single and most consistent personality trait that predicts creative achievement.”

Studies (McCrae, 1987) reaffirm the association of this specific trait with creative ability. Also demonstrating that this one trait entrepreneurs share is the only trait with strong links to creativity via “data that suggests that creativity is particularly related to the personality domain of openness to experience…but not neuroticism, extraversion, agreeableness or conscientiousness.”

For most professionals, the workplace is one of familiarity, operating in a mature market that has proven commercial capability. However, if we were to walk vicariously in the shoes of a founder at the onset of their venture there lies an unrivaled set of challenges such as;

  • The creation of a novel good/service
  • For a market that doesn’t yet exist
  • In a, most – likely, incongruent period of time

To enter the unknown and return with something of value, of course, takes an individual with extraordinary creative ability.

But what is the neurological process behind creative ability?

And, in line with the intention of this article, do common mental disorders inhibit or enhance this cognitive ability?

What is the neurological process behind creativity?

We’ll now circle back to the purpose of this article, for us to answer the question at hand, we must explore creativity in full.

Psychologists define creativity as “the generation of high – quality, original, and elegant solutions to the complex, novel, ill-defined problems” (Mumford, 2012). It’s this notion of creative achievement that served as the catalyst for human progression since the inception of time.

Science has attempted to understand the intricacies of this particular mental process, yet soon came to realise its unending complexities. However, documented evidence has fortified the general consensus that mental processes are associated with complex patterns or networks of activity in the brain. It’s along this line of scientific thought that researchers have been able to at least visualise creativity in real-time, and from that infer the neurological process that takes place.

These networks are commonly referred to as ‘Large – Scale Brain Networks’; a collection of widespread brain regions interacting to perform a particular cognitive function. As fantastical as it may seem, creativity, or, the culmination of creative thoughts, can be traced back to one of these networks known as the ‘Default Mode Network’ (DMN).

The DMN is activated when people are in a wakeful – rest, daydreaming, or mind-wandering state. Research (Beaty et al. 2014) demonstrates that this network, responsible for the unconscious processing of information, is the state of mind creatives are in when in their idea generation mode.

This hypothesis was validated via a series of studies (Kuhn et al. 2014) whereby subjects were asked to take an alternative uses test (testing designed to measure creative thought ability) combined with MRI scans to understand which regions of the brain were most robust. The study demonstrated that there exists a “positive correlation between creative measures and the grey matter volume of the default mode network” – meaning those who scored highly in creativity exhibited heightened processing capabilities within the regions of the DMN.

Do common mental disorders inhibit or enhance the neurological process behind creativity?

The idea that superior creativity may come at a price goes way back to Ancient Greece where Aristotelian tradition viewed creative genius as a human quality that was responsible for both extraordinary achievement and melancholy.

However, an ancient school of thought isn’t the finality we need to link the two, instead, we’ll again turn to science.

The statistics at the start of the article mentioned an entrepreneur’s inclination to suffer from ADHD, Bi-Polar, and Depression. If there was a link to be found, it would be between these disorders and unusual activity within the default mode network.

Dr. Gail Satz, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital reveals such a link to her recent article. Satz highlights the fact that neuroscience has identified mild – moderately mentally ill people as highly creative due in part to a “faulty switch” causing heightened activity in the default mode network.

Dr. Satz explains that it is this unusual activity in the DMN which occurs in mentally – ill individuals that allow for disinhibition and divergence of thoughts – leading to creative outcomes.

Studies (Whitfield – Gabrieli et al. 2012) specifically aimed at exploring this concept have demonstrated that “In schizophrenia and depression, the DMN is often found to be hyperactivated and hyperconnected.”

More recently, in a 2020 study (Zovetti et al. 2020), the Department of Neurosciences at the University of Verona concluded that “Bi-Polar Disorder patients show hyperconnectivity compared to healthy controls in the…hubs of the default mode network”.

Ample is the evidence to suggest the mental process of creativity, from the viewpoint of neuroscience, maybe neurologically enhanced due to the inherent DMN impairments possessed by those with CMDs. Beyond science, some of our greatest pioneers have exhibited the link with their own self – admissions including;

  • Ted Turner, founder of CNN, diagnosed with bi – polar disorder
  • Elon Musk, serial entrepreneur, diagnosed with depression
  • Aaron Schwartz, founder of reddit, diagnosed with depression
  • Howard Hughes, serial entrepreneur, diagnosed with OCD
  • Richard Branson, founder of Virgin airlines, diagnosed with ADHD
  • Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA, diagnosed with ADHD.

Of course, this research and history in no way infers (as far as we can tell) that only those burdened with mental disorders boast the gift of creativity – it does, however, show that the inherent wiring of their brains, negative afflictions, and all, is preordained to experience light bulb moments.

Great entrepreneurs are operators in the realm of true uncertainty. Explorers of the unknown. As they march into unknown environments with an unusual sense of surety and return with true creation, is it so hard to believe that they would possess anomalous cognitions?

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