Bipolar & the Entrepreneur Advantage

Last Updated: 17 Mar 2020

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.

Sound familiar?

Many of the characteristics that make someone a good entrepreneur are characteristics of people with bipolar—including perseverance.

Two studies from 2008, published in Biological Psychiatry and Journal of Abnormal Psychology, linked perseverance with bipolar. The latter was referenced in the 2018 article “Mental Disorders in the Entrepreneurship Context: When Being Different Can Be an Advantage.” In that article, the authors submit, among other things, that entrepreneurship likely provides an important alternative career path for people with mental health challenges.

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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About the author
Robin L. Flanigan is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in People Magazine, US Airways Magazine and other national and regional publications. She lives in Rochester, New York.
  1. Great article. Spoke to me. I have always felt rage at the 40-50 hour week ‘normal’ with only a few weeks holiday a year. I have always known that it doesn’t work for me or make me feel safe from triggers. I am smart enough to be an entrepreneur so I might have to give this a try.
    Sounds like us bipolar peeps need our own version of ‘The Apprentice’ maybe!

  2. Robin, I thought it quite interesting that the Biological Psychiatry and Journal of Abnormal Psychology, have linked perseverance with bipolar. My family and friends have often commented over the years about my ‘remarkable perseverance or tenacity’ when passionate about a cause, or achieving a goal. I have had bipolar way before there was a name for it… I knew by age 4-5 that I was ‘different’. Currently, I struggle with rapid cycling with mixed episodes.

    I can tell you, that a number of years ago I was working for a company that wanted to get rid of me. They couldn’t find any reason to fire me, and God knows they tried in many ways. Long story short – I was determined they would not get the best of me…. I was determined to ‘persevere’! That course of action led me to a hospital visit, and realized that the mental toll was affecting my physical and mental health. Therefore, I have experienced both the good and the bad side of perseverance!

    Although I’m not an entrepreneur I left the traditional workforce, as well. I went back to school (mid 50’s) and now work as a Freelance Sign Language Interpreter. Freelance work means that I am not tied to any one company or schedule, but instead allows the flexibility to decide what days I want to work, as well as what type of assignments. Additionally, most assignments last only 30 -60 minutes with a 2 hour minimum pay!

    To some it may seem like a dream job, but it comes with many challenges – especially for those with bipolar or ADHD. For myself, I struggle with trying to keep the racing thoughts at bay, all while trying to focus on what the Deaf or hearing person is saying and interpreting it all at the same time. Yes, it can be very stressful… for many reasons. There is always the potential for triggers. Ex: Can you handle interpreting in a hospital environment – perhaps you lost your own child, and now you have to interpret for someone giving birth. Mentally – how well equipped can one handle a rape case; domestic violence; or interpret for other people with brain disorders? What about having to interpret a funeral? All these scenarios requires me to NOT SHOW EMOTION, to be impartial. To not show emotion goes against who I am.

    Looking back on family history, my mother suffered from severe depression, but I suspect it was undiagnosed bipolar. She was very creative; opened her own flower shop; learned how to paint, played the organ, enjoyed photography, and more.

    Thank you for this great article which pointed out the link between bipolar and perseverance; it is SO me. I only wish my parents were alive so I could share this with them.

    Final thought – I DO agree on the importance of sleep and keeping a regular schedule -as much as one can. People with bipolar are supposed to avoid any unnecessary stress… so its quite understanding how entrepreneurship could tip one over the edge.

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