The personality traits of entrepreneurs and those with bipolar frequently overlap; experts say embracing both strengths and vulnerabilies is key to success.
Entrepreneurs are always on, which is why they need to have lots of energy, an inventive streak, and a sizeable appetite for risk—but they’re often stressed out, sleep-deprived, responding to high levels of unpredictability, and susceptible to putting self-care at the bottom of the priority list.
Many of the characteristics that make someone a good entrepreneur are characteristics of people with bipolar—including perseverance.
Someone who has trouble keeping to a traditional employment schedule, for example, may flourish with flexible hours that can accommodate mood episodes.
With research supporting the idea that people with bipolar can thrive as entrepreneurs, there’s growing awareness that they can manage in business precisely because of the way they have to manage their lives. They know the importance of support systems, mental resilience, and identifying triggers that threaten stability.
People with bipolar also “show high levels of creativity and the ambition to tackle big goals,” says Sheri L. Johnson, professor of psychology and director of the Cal Mania (CALM) Program, University of California, Berkeley.
Johnson and other researchers reviewed findings on bipolar disorder and entrepreneurship, and then developed a model of personality traits that might link mania risk with entrepreneurial intent and entry. Those traits are: a proclivity for improvisation, hubristic pride (having overly high confidence not grounded in actual acts or accomplishments), a proactive personality, and extraversion.
The overlapping personality traits are important, says Johnson, “as it suggests that it is not the symptoms, but rather some of the other facets that come along with the disorder, that are most important.”
Michael A. Freeman, MD, who worked with Johnson on that project, is also the lead author of what he says is the first study to look at the co-occurrence of mental health conditions among entrepreneurs. The clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco, School of Medicine—an entrepreneur himself—was interested because of an experience he had with some of his customers, who were CEOs of other companies. At a certain point, he says, he began suspecting that many of them had bipolar spectrum issues.
The study, “Are Entrepreneurs Touched with Fire?” and published in Small Business Economics, revealed that 72 percent of participants self-reported mental health concerns—and 11 percent reported a lifetime history of bipolar. This represents an occurrence two-and-a-half times greater than the national lifetime average of 4.4 percent (as per the National Comorbidity Survey Replication data).
A mentor to entrepreneurs, Freeman says he coaches those with bipolar to “embrace both their vulnerabilities and their strengths, by encouraging them to look at the big picture.” Mood instability is part of that picture, but “can be managed with the proper use of knowledge, medication, behavioral skills, and lifestyle accommodations.”
Jason Feifer, editor in chief of Entrepreneur magazine, calls entrepreneurs “an earnest group” that puts in the time and resources they do because they feel compelled to do so—not because they’re looking for quick money or an easy path.
In fact, there’s often a lot of failure along the way. It is not uncommon for entrepreneurs to face funding crises, staffing problems, and sleep disruption. The risk that’s necessary during the start-up phase, if not controlled, can wind up costing the entire operation. Similarly, the bold and charismatic attitude that wooed customers early on can backfire if ultimately perceived as arrogance.
To thrive, explains Feifer, entrepreneurs must own their vulnerabilities: “You have to be aware of what you do and don’t bring to the table, and then, once you’re able to admit that, you can act properly…by surrounding yourself with people who are strong where you’re weak.”
It takes patience and diligence to travel the long road to successful entrepreneurship. There’s pressure, yes, but there are also tremendous rewards.
“You’re building your own thing,” says Feifer, “making your own mark on the world, bringing your vision to fruition, and controlling your own destiny.”
Michael, the business world is his oyster
After his first psychotic break, for which he was hospitalized for almost a year, Michael Rose spent the next 20 years living with untreated hypomania. He says it gave him the energy to start and grow Blue Pearl, a business that imported the fragrances he fell in love with while studying meditation in India.
After 12 years, Blue Pearl was bringing in nearly $1 million in sales annually.
There was a downside, though. As the business grew to 25 employees, an office, a warehouse, and a retail store, the stress that came with managing so many people became too overpowering for Rose, who served as company president. His first marriage ended, and he lost a lot of money. “You can burn out easily from overworking, and you can also burn out your family,” he says.
Rose downsized and went into partnership with Lotus Brands, Inc., a Wisconsin-based business specializing in natural health and beauty products. Now that management and distribution responsibilities are out of the way, he is able to focus on the creative side of the business.
“I specialize in what I do best—bringing up new products and developing packaging,” he says.
It took Rose some time to accept his diagnosis, and now that he has, he wants to help others manage their bipolar. He is a motivational speaker on the topic, and recently authored Bipolar Wellness: How to Recover from Bipolar Illness—An Entertaining Memoir with Simple Action Strategies for Every Stage of Recovery.
These days, Rose, 70, is careful to keep a keen eye out for warning signs of either end of his mood spectrum. Using a car’s speedometer as a creative visual aid, he has developed his own “manic-depressive speed chart” and lists 10 very specific and personal markers.
This chart is a way to catch himself “on the way up to mania or on the way down to depression, and to take immediate steps to intervene,” he explains. It’s also a simple action strategy that can help increase one’s belief in the process of recovery.
Being an entrepreneur with bipolar disorder is like the “bumblebee effect,” adds Rose. “The bumblebee, research says, can’t fly—but it does. The entrepreneurs who make it, in a sense, believe that they, too, can fly.”
Russell, unconventionally prosperous
Seven years ago, a doctor told Russell he was showing signs of bipolar disorder, but that he should try a medication for depression first. He did, and it seemed to help—at least he was becoming less stressed and more stable in his role as a research scientist in Seattle, Washington.
But looking back, Russell, 35, says that during the next few years, he was hypomanic. “I didn’t realize it because I thought I was just better from the depression,” he says. “I became obsessed with making money and starting businesses.”
Russell began trading stocks, which he admits wasn’t the best decision for someone with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. He could have lost everything, but instead he made enough for him and his wife, Maleah, to launch their own business.
“We started building websites with cash-flowing properties—essentially affiliate marketing,” explains Russell, founder of UnconventionalProsperity.com, a personal finance website for people who want to make and save more money.
Getting less and less sleep, Russell then started a technology company to develop devices for skin cancer detection, eventually leaving his research scientist position to become a full-time entrepreneur. In the first two years, he secured more than a million dollars in grant money for research and development for his biomedical company, Advanced Microcavity Sensors.
While both businesses were highly successful, Russell says his hypomania increased, causing him to become egocentric and extremely outspoken –– to the point that his symptoms were causing problems in his marriage. A year ago, his wife, who is a therapist, insisted that he seek help. That’s when he was finally diagnosed with bipolar II.
Treatment for his bipolar diagnosis has helped to even out his moods and to maintain more of a balance. Russell still has a lot of energy, but works to keep his symptoms in check: “If you’re medicated, and you know you’ve got your symptoms under control, you’ll still be super productive. As for the future…I want my businesses to be as big as possible.” To that end, development of Advanced Microcavity Sensors has been put on hold, so that all efforts can be put toward the financial website.
Heidi, the maven of moderation
A piece of advice Heidi Thompson, 32, received in college has guided her as an entrepreneur: “Moderation is your friend.”
“This has been really key, because you can go to either extreme,” says Thompson, founder of Evolve Your Wedding Business in San Diego, California. The self-proclaimed “business strategist and marketing geek” helps wedding professionals, such as planners and photographers, grow their businesses. She offers in-depth courses and training, as well as personalized coaching, and offers a mix of interviews and advice with her biweekly podcast.
With clients, she tries to present a “very real” version of herself as she navigates between mania and depression, and is “open and honest” about bipolar on her Evolve Your Wedding Business podcast. She dedicated one episode to how bipolar has made her a better business owner. One point she made is that you have to put your health first, “or you’re going to shoot yourself in the foot…By giving yourself what you need, you’re able to do your best work.”
These days, Thompson deals with her ongoing challenges. “Because of the way my brain works, and the way business works, it’s idea after idea after idea,” she explains. “It has been a constant journey of learning what I need to accomplish in a day to deem it successful, so I can stop.
“I don’t try to make it seem like everything is rainbows and unicorns all the time,” she adds. “We live in an Instagram age where people try to make everything seem so perfect, and it’s not. I try to be more realistic. I talk about how I’ve made mistakes, about how I need to pay attention to when I completely overload myself, and about the things I’ve found that work for me, like being intentional.”
Thompson isn’t afraid to ask for help when she needs it. She outsources her podcast editing and Facebook ads, for example. And she reiterates that, unlike a lot of entrepreneurs she knows, she makes self-care a priority.
“I don’t compromise my sleep for anything, or bad things are going to happen,” she says. “If I’m feeling fragile or depressed, I have the flexibility built into my business where I can say, ‘I’m not going to work today. I’ll work on Saturday instead.’ I’m good at seeing when I’m in too deep because I start to encroach on those things and I tell myself I’m not going to compromise.”
Robby, a marketing wunderkind
Robby Berthume was only 14 years old when he went into business for himself, owning a digital marketing agency, and building and selling websites. He ran that business, while also earning a bachelor’s degree in marketing, until he was 24, when he shut things down in 2009 after the recession impacted his client list. He then worked for a number of other agencies in leadership roles, but missed having his own company.
“What I missed most about not being an entrepreneur was the lack of freedom and flexibility,” he recalls. “I also hated the drama and politics of being an employee. Finally, I get bored with a stable paycheck. I need excitement in my life, even if that means taking a risk or having more responsibility.”
So in 2013, he co-founded Bull & Beard in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, an agency collective specializing in branding, marketing, creative services, digital, video production, media, and public relations.
Berthume, now 32, always thought his confidence and keenness for risk was simply due to his personality—“that I was a go-getter”—and then a year and a half ago, depression hit. As the company’s CEO, Berthume had to reschedule sales calls because he couldn’t get out of bed. He was diagnosed with bipolar I.
These days, with his moods improved thanks to medication, Berthume tries to stay more measured in his approach to work, more methodical in his decision making.
“I feel like the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve adjusted to handling different moods as a result of learning through past experiences,” he says. “When I’m feeling hypomanic or manic, I’m aware of it and can channel that energy into work. When I’m feeling low, I know it’s just a phase, which gives me hope and willpower to move forward.”
Berthume has lent his voice to help others. He has written about being an entrepreneur with bipolar for Medium.com, and about understanding the signs of depression in entrepreneurship for Inc. magazine.
“Even on a business level,” he says, “I think people are attracted to people who are vulnerable and themselves—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
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Managing the Entrepreneurial Mindset
What defines good entrepreneurship? A lot of the same characteristics of bipolar—and that means keeping symptoms in check so that what made you successful doesn’t become your downfall. Here are some tips to help you thrive:
Build systems Entrepreneur magazine’s Jason Feifer says new entrepreneurs are often resistant to systems—routines, processes, goals, distinct roles—because they think these systems will stifle innovation and creativity. But without systems, there’s chaos. “People don’t know what they’re supposed to do, a company’s mission drifts, and general confusion reigns… and that is really what stifles creativity. They then finally learn that systems actually create the room for creativity—the exact opposite of what they originally thought!”
Keep a Routine Robby Berthume is a believer in a morning routine. He follows a coffee regimen which includes a French press, reads devotions, uses a daily planner to line up goals for the day, and spends time with his three children. “Routines and rituals help provide a framework and keep you consistent when your mood might not be.”
Be Creative “Creativity has been very healing to me in my recovery,” says motivational speaker and author Michael Rose. “I encourage people to develop some creative skill—painting, drawing, music, writing, or something they can really get into. They don’t have to become a professional, but they can be passionate about it. I write every day.”
Too much of a good thing Michael A. Freeman, MD, also a mentor with The Entrepreneurship Center at the University of California, San Francisco, says to “remember that energy, optimism, extraversion, creativity and risk propensity can be a good thing for entrepreneurs, but also remember that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.”
Find the right exercise Russell stays away from exercising “too vigorously” when he’s feeling hypomanic; he prefers walking and light exercise during those times. On the other hand, he kicks it up when he feels his moods dipping. “I love to exercise intensely when I feel that I might be starting to fall into a depression though. The endorphins can really help to minimize or even prevent the depression before it starts.”
Listen to your body Heidi Thompson stresses the importance of paying attention to what your body is trying to tell you. “It’s easy to ignore early warning signs of depression or mania and just keep working, but that always backfires. You’ll spend more time not being able to work as a result of ignoring your body than you would if you simply stopped to address the warning signs early.”
Printed as “The Entrepreneur Advantage,” Spring 2019
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