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  Crazy Success

Psychiatrist John Gartner embarked on a search for what makes Americans different and found his own manic tendencies at the core of the national character.

By Jim Duffy
Illustration by Bob Conge

John Gartner, like Christopher Columbus, didn't set out to discover America. Rather, the assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine embarked — between his teaching duties and his private practice — on a study of "manic prophets," looking at hallucinations and revelations experienced by the likes of Quaker George Fox and Mormon Joseph Smith through the modern lens of manic-depressive illness.

Sheer coincidence brought Gartner into these professional waters at a time when his personal life found him floating in the investment bubble surrounding Internet stocks. For one brief day in that frenzied stretch of the late 1990s, his net worth hit seven figures. Not once did it cross his mind to click sell and settle for a million-dollar nest egg.

"I was so sure this thing was going to the moon," he says. "This is embarrassing. At one point I actually contacted an attorney to talk about setting up my foundation. I thought, if it's a million now, it's going to be something like $300 million by the time I die. I had to figure out how to manage all that money. Completely grandiose. Way, way out there."

When the bubble burst and his fortune shriveled away, Gartner looked out over a landscape peopled with shell-shocked fellow investors and came to a revelation of his own.

"Here was a sort of messianic movement happening in real time right around me," he says. "It wasn't some weird religious sect. It was the whole culture. I realized I was writing the wrong book."

This is what launched Gartner on his voyage of American discovery. He landed in bookstores this spring with The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (A Little) Craziness and (A Lot of) Success in America. Written as a series of biographical portraits of famous American figures — Columbus, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Carnegie, and Craig Venter among them — it posits the notion that the little-known condition of hypomania is central to the nation's character and key to the U.S. economy.

These are uncharted waters, to be sure. Not a disease but a temperament, hypomania hasn't been the subject of much serious study. It didn't even make it into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1994. Now it appears there along the same spectrum as manic-depressive illness, but without the mentally debilitating bipolar extremes.

Stretches of expansive, elevated, and exuberant mood characterize the condition. Hypomanics often act like normal people shifted into ultraconfident overdrive. They're always on the move. They barely need to sleep. Their minds and their conversations are an ever-shifting swirl of ideas.

"Once hypomanics lock their sights on a goal, it's like Michael Jordan driving to the hoop. They might fail, but they're determined to go through any barrier," says Gartner. Hypomanics can come across as self-important and obnoxious. But they can also manage on occasion to accomplish great things against long odds. This last is due in no small part to a tendency to latch onto grandiose goals with the ferocity of pit bulls and to a gift for inspiring intense dedication among followers.

But there are down sides to the temperament as well. Hypomanics have a penchant for dangerous, even foolish binges — spending sprees, for instance, and reckless sexual adventurism. It seems a given, then, that they might also be more likely to get caught up in rash and highly speculative investment manias.

From a young age, I noticed I was different," says Gartner, who grew up in Manhattan in a family that's been touched by bipolar disorder. "But I had no way of understanding it or explaining it."

This difference manifested itself in ways both negative and positive. On the down side, Gartner was expelled from the seventh grade. He didn't cheat or fight or smoke pot in the bathroom. In fact, he says, he was one of the two smartest kids in his class.

"They kicked me out just for being a wise ass," says Gartner, "for dominating the class and making jokes and challenging the teacher. They couldn't contain me. And frankly, I got fired from my first faculty job for behaviors not all that different."

His parents responded by shipping their son off to a super-strict boarding school. When that move ended in another expulsion, they reversed course and sent him to a "progressive" school that didn't believe in grades and barely bothered with rules.

"That was a big enough corral," Gartner says. "The boundaries were so way out there that pretty much the only way to get kicked out was to get caught actually selling cocaine in the elevator."

In a school without grades, SAT scores are critical to college prospects. Gartner's dream of going to Harvard seemed dashed when he scored a modest 1040 the first time around. This was in the 1970s, long before SAT prep courses became de rigueur for ambitious students. The accepted wisdom back then was that since the test measured aptitude, studying was pointless.

In true hypomanic fashion, Gartner rejected the accepted wisdom. He transformed his room into an Olympic-caliber aptitude training camp, full of vocabulary books and math review manuals and essay books. He took a full two-hour practice test every weeknight for four months. He crammed four more practice tests into every weekend. He studied so voraciously that he had every last one of 5,000 new vocabulary words down cold.

The second time around, his SAT score jumped by 400 points, enough to get him wait-listed at Harvard. He settled instead for Princeton.

"When I did this, I thought it was the most obvious thing in the world," he says. "To me, it was what anyone who had any sense would do in that situation. That was when I was 16. Now I'm 46. So I've been telling this story for 30 years. In all that time, not even once has somebody said to me, 'Yeah, I did something like that.' They all just look at me and say, 'You did what?'"

Hall of Fame

Christopher Columbus: He may have discovered America, but shortly thereafter he managed to convince himself that he"d found the entrance to the Garden of Eden off the coast of Venezuela.

John Winthrop: The Puritan leader of New England showed off his grandiose tendencies in his famed sermon portraying America as a "city on a hill," whose destiny was nothing less than "the redemption of the world."

Alexander Hamilton: The man who almost single-handedly designed the American economy showed his self-destructive impulsivity by landing in the middle of the new nation's first sex scandal.

Andrew Carnegie: Long before he made his fortune, he had learned to approach his work with dogged relentlessness. Upon being hired as a lowly messenger for a telegraph company, he began spending his nights memorizing every street, every business, and every important businessman in the city of Pittsburgh.

David O. Selznick: The Hollywood producer made Gone With the Wind in a hyperactive frenzy. He ran through three directors (one of whom had a nervous breakdown) and 11 screenwriters, then ordered cast and crew to make deadline by shooting 12 hours a day, six days a week in sweltering heat of up to 120 degrees.

Craig Venter: The breakthroughs that his scientific team made in decoding the human genome reflect a hypomanic gift for inspiring leadership. "I've always thought it would be easy for Craig to start a cult," says his longtime assistant, Heather Kowalski.

Not all Americans are hypomanic. In fact, Gartner puts the number at just 5 to 10 percent of the population. His contention, however, is that this seemingly modest number is quite high compared with other nations, thanks mainly to a gene pool built by a nation of immigrants. The conclusion is as much intuitive as it is scientific: What types of people — whether in 17th-century England or 19th-century Poland or 21st-century Mexico — are most likely to embrace a step as drastic as emigration?

"This immigrant effect is very, very powerful," Gartner says. "Immigrants are people who have get up and go, people who are restless and need to move, people who have a high tolerance for risk, people who are optimistic enough to think they're going to do well in a place they know nothing about. When you jump on a ship to go to some new world, you're essentially hurling yourself into the void."

That immigrant populations are high in bipolar tendencies is pretty much an established scientific fact by now. But the second half of Gartner's hypothesis — that hypomanics form a key group of risk-takers driving the nation's economy and defining its identity — is a matter more of conjecture and instinct. Gartner has not been surprised by early reviews that sound a cautionary note about how unproven it all is.

The Hypomanic Edge takes an anecdotal approach. The historical figures that rank among Gartner's hypomanic hall of fame exemplify this tendency to shoot for the moon. One would think, for instance, that Columbus had enough on his plate trying to find a westward passage to China. But, as Gartner writes, Columbus actually embraced an even grander mission. He thought his destiny would involve embodying the Christian Second Coming and bringing on the Apocalypse. Similarly, Andrew Carnegie could not go softly into retirement after turning all of his astonishing corporate tricks. Instead, he set out to employ his fortune to save the world from ignorance and poverty.

"Once hypomanics lock their sights on a goal, it's sort of like Michael Jordan driving to the hoop," Gartner says. "They might fail, but they're determined to go through any barrier. They're impelled to throw the full force of their energy and drive toward a goal. That's why people who accomplish great things are disproportionately coming from this mindset."

So how does all this translate into a national "hypomanic edge"? As the members of the population most likely to chase bold entrepreneurial visions and pursue grandiose political goals, hypomanics often come to loom large in the national imagination. Even if only a handful of their hypomanic dreams come true, those are the stories that become models for school lessons and boardroom behavior. Nowhere is this more obvious than on bookstore shelves devoted to motivating an entrepreneurial audience of salespeople and managers.

"If you look for content in a lot of these books, there really is no content, nothing at all," Gartner says. "What they say is, "You can do it!" It's all hypomanic grandiosity. Mood is infectious, right? What they are doing is giving hypomania lessons."

While far from definitive in a scientific sense, Gartner's book definitely packs a commonsensical punch. Anyone who thumbs through it will likely find echoes of hypomanic tendencies in an old boss or an old classmate — or in themselves. Many hypomanics are completely unaware such a condition exists.

"People have said to me that after reading the book, they suddenly see hypomania everywhere," Gartner says. "I think I've managed to find something big that was hiding in plain sight."

It's fun to play with Gartner's ideas on a big-picture canvas. Might a hypomanic-heavy gene pool have helped fuel America's stunningly speedy transformation from wilderness colony to world hyperpower? Could hypomanic recklessness explain how brilliant leaders like Alexander Hamilton and Bill Clinton could engage in stunningly stupid sexual escapades? Could hypomanic grandiosity lurk behind the centuries-old conviction that the nation has a messianic role to play in spreading freedom throughout the world?

Gartner approached his work on the book with the same sort of intensity he once brought to studying for the SAT. He estimates that his research expenses included $12,000 on books alone, almost all bought from online suppliers and delivered via the fastest possible option either to his office or to the Towson, Maryland, home he shares with his wife, Claude Guillemard, a professor in the French Department at Hopkins, and their two youngest children.

"I'm hypomanic, and I like hypomanics," says Gartner. "I think that overall, this is an advantageous trait to have as a country." "Why not take them out of the Hopkins library?" he asks before breaking into his mock-manic voice. "Because I want them now! Because I can't waste time going out to get them! Because I'm impatient! I'm captaining the SS Hypomanic Edge here! I need to move! I need to move fast and keep moving!"

Gartner takes obvious relish in making light of his own hypomania, but he's also thought a lot about whether and how his own temperament and background affect his conclusions. A lot of books have been written over the years castigating America and Americans for various sins of gluttony and excess. Gartner regards some of this criticism as deserved, but he hopes his ideas help provide a more nuanced picture of how the nation came to behave the way it does. He's not at all afraid of saying that he came out of writing The Hypomanic Edge feeling a genuine affinity for his historical subjects.

"I'm American, and I kind of like Americans," Gartner says. "I'm hypomanic, and I kind of like hypomanics. I think that overall, this is an advantageous trait to have as a country. When you take the pluses and the minuses — and there are a lot of minuses — but when you add them up, I'm saying you get a positive number."

For the next phase of his voyage, Gartner might take a stab at lessening some of the negatives associated with hypomania. He anticipates heading out on the corporate speaking circuit to share his theories with an audience naturally interested in the book.

"I've been thinking about how to put together a workshop," he says. "The issue is, how do we get along, hypomanics and non-hypomanics? The problem with hypomanics is we don't play well with others. But we are a fountain of energy and creative ideas. This is important for companies. They want to harness that energy, but they need to put boundaries up, too. It's sort of like putting rubber around an electrical wire, right?"

Perhaps, Gartner says, a little understanding will go a long way. Perhaps hypomanics armed with a clearer picture of why their behavior can be offensive will be able to modulate their more abrasive behaviors. Perhaps non-hypomanics will in turn be less judgmental if armed with a better understanding of the workings of a manic temperament.

"I guess you could liken it to the next stage after gay pride," Gartner says. "I think it's time for a little hypomanic pride."

Jim Duffy is a regular contributor to Johns Hopkins Magazine. He writes from Cambridge, Maryland.

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