Are Entrepreneurs Manic?

01/08/2014 04:08 pm ET | Updated Mar 10, 2014

Several years ago, I heard an interesting talk by John D. Gartner, Ph.D., a psychiatry professor at Johns Hopkins University Medical School and a practicing clinical psychologist. He talked about having been interested in studying entrepreneurs; actually, in reading the introduction to his book, The Hypomanic Edge, he describes how he really intended to study religious movements and manic prophets. But as an investor in tech companies, he was constantly in touch with entrepreneurs, and was starting to get an idea that entrepreneurs were, well, different from the rest of us.

Having developed a hypothesis that entrepreneurs are largely hypomanic, he designed and executed a small study. Hypomania means you are just a little bit manic -- mildly manic, brimming with energy and confidence, but you are definitely not ill. In this small pilot study, he found that 100 percent of the entrepreneurs he interviewed were, indeed, hypomanic. This ultimately led to his conflating entrepreneurs, immigrants and the founding and growth of the United States. It also led to his book, where he discusses the apparent hypomania of at least one person from each century here in U.S. -- from Christopher Columbus, all the way through to the sequencing of the human genome.

In his description of hypomania, you can definitely see entrepreneurial traits: filled with energy, flooded with ideas, driven and restless, risk taking, confident, workaholic, having grand ambitions. And it is interesting that those who immigrate to one country from another often exhibit these traits as well. As the United States is a nation of immigrants, you can then understand how the U.S. culture is also filled with these traits. We definitely are also a nation of entrepreneurs, since various studies, including the highly-respected Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, show the United States pretty much consistently having the highest percentage of nascent entrepreneurs -- those actively involved in setting up a business -- than any other country in the world. Interestingly, the country that comes closest to the U.S. in this regard is Australia, another nation of immigrants.

I have to say that in working with so many entrepreneurs over the years, and also seeing the entrepreneurial zeal in many of my students, it is almost easy to pick out who will be successful and those who won't; who will actually launch the business they are talking about, and who won't. That ease comes from recognizing hypomania. Does the budding entrepreneur take every weekend off, or does he just keep going? The one who takes every weekend off probably will only meet with moderate success, at best. The one who works all the time? Maybe her first business won't be successful, but the drive to achieve grand ambitions will eventually allow her to break through.

In my students, you can almost see the energy radiating from them, and they will often have trouble settling on just one business concept to test. These are the students who will immediately emerge as the team leader for class projects, and these are also the students who will pepper me with good, thoughtful questions about how to test feasibility, but only to prove that feasibility to me; they already know in their hearts, in their souls, that their idea is going to be a big hit in the market.

Of course, the reason to teach entrepreneurship is to channel that energy. To make sure some market testing is done before large (or even small) amounts of capital are committed. To make sure that those starting businesses actually understand business. Some say just dive in and work it out later. Maybe I'm too conservative, but 30 years of business experience tell me that just diving in isn't always the answer. Yes, some can be extremely successful without doing any research into the market and industry first, but that's a small percentage. It just so happens that they are pretty much the only ones we hear about, so many think that's the way to go. It generally isn't.

I do think that entrepreneurs are hypomanic. It's probably the only condition in which people are "crazy" enough to launch a business. I also, however, think that all that energy should be focused and utilized in setting up a solidly-functioning business that has a higher probability of success than one that is started by someone who just dives in.

So, hypomanics, go ahead and do your thing! Just make sure you don't ignore basic business practice. Use your energy and ambitions to get a wildly-successful business up and running. Maybe two or three of them!