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.”
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