Human Resources

Insane entrepreneurs: The new tortured rock stars

Three of David Bowie’s aunts suffered from mental illness. One had depression, a second was diagnosed with schizophrenia while another was given an actual lobotomy. His half-brother, Terry, committed suicide.

Bowie himself – who is both revered and prolific – was reported to have “frequent breakdowns in which he would cry uncontrollably, but refused to see a psychiatrist for fear of what he’d discover”.

The image of the tortured artist never fails to endure. It covers painters, writers and musicians – anyone creative really. And now, perhaps not surprisingly, evidence suggests it might also include entrepreneurs.

Of course, the tortured genius idea is not fully ingrained in the popular culture of entrepreneurs yet. But the young kids – especially those in tech – making millions from their bedrooms may well be the new rock stars. And for really high-profile lunacy you need look no further than bullyboy Steve Jobs who cried in meetings. Or the crazy activities of John McAfee, who could give the maddest of musicians a run for their money.

All the creative genius traits appear to match high-profile entrepreneurs perfectly. They tally with long hours, an emotional yet innovative approach to business… and all those brilliant ideas other people didn’t have the foresight to come up with.

Now, an April study by Dr. Michael Freeman, a clinical professor at UCSF who also co-founded and helped launch several healthcare services ventures, specifically looks at mental health problems amongst entrepreneurs and offers some statistical findings that may back the theory up.

Based on surveys of 242 entrepreneurs [PDF] Freeman asked individuals to self-identify their mental health complaints (if any). From this, 49% stated they had one or more lifetime mental health problems, a statistic that proved 17% higher than the smaller comparison non-entrepreneur group.

The most reported condition was depression, at 30% – although very few surveyed had actually been hospitalised or attempted suicide because of this condition. Functioning depression was closely followed by ADHD (29%) and anxiety problems (27%) and all these came in far higher than the control non-entrepreneur group. This was especially true for ADHD which was rated 24% more likely by entrepreneurs.

Just like in other case of ‘tortured artists’ the report highlights creativity. It says “creativity is the foundational cornerstone of business innovation because entrepreneurs must generate novel ideas for innovative new businesses.” And it adds this is the “main driver” for many people to become an entrepreneur. 

“The findings of this study are important because they suggest an underlying relationship between entrepreneurship and many of the affective, cognitive and behavioural differences associated with mental health conditions,” it clarifies.

Perhaps most interestingly of all though, 72% of those surveyed said they either had mental health problems themselves, or tellingly, in their immediate family. This compared to 48% of the control group.

Maybe like David Bowie you need to come from a similarly afflicted family to really get the need to overcome these problems? Perhaps you need to be a functioning individual, you need to see how these psychological issues can decimate… and then you need to apply yourself with concerted purpose to creative endeavours?


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