The Comfort of Sameness

sameness

In Touched With Fire psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison reveals her own extraordinary emotional challenges that gave rise to her own career as a psychiatrist and speaks about how many of history’s greatest artists have faced similar enormous hardships in their lives—mental and emotional disorders such as manic depression, bipolar disease, and severe mood swings. Like her own life, these conditions were likely the underlying fuel of their intense creativity. Although anecdotal, her story and her thesis are compelling to say the least.

A Swedish study of roughly ¾ of a million high students lends powerful evidence to her thesis. In this study, MacCabe, JH and associates sought to investigate possible associations between scholastic achievement and later bipolar disorder, Using individual school grades from all individuals finishing compulsory schooling in Sweden between 1988 and 1997, they tested associations between scholastic achievement at age 15-16 and hospital admission for psychosis between ages 17 and 31. Their study found that exceptional intellectual ability is associated with bipolar disorder. Said differently, bright students and bright people sometimes have psychological problems.

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This reminds me of a related piece of research by George Valliant three decades ago, where he tracked the lives of Harvard students. It seems that the most successful of the bunch had a significantly higher degree of problems as children. They were restless, class clowns, rebellious, and had trouble with their studies. It appears that problem children often grow up to be highly successful adults and even great leaders. In addition to being of some comfort for parents of these so-called problem children,

I find this research quite fascinating. In a world where the comfort of sameness and homogeneity is still sought out by so many leaders, there is a growing body of evidence that heterogeneity, and sometimes rebelliousness, correlates with success. It makes sense when you think about how important innovation and creativity is in a constantly changing world. To be clear: no, I don’t want a pistol packin’ member of the Hells Angels running my R and D department (they probably wouldn’t want to anyway). But in the face of someone who does not appear to “fit in” or someone who appears to suffer from some psychological malady, that appears to be strange, but has no bearing on how they do their job, perhaps we should make room for these unusual people – even revel in their creative sparks.

In the grand words of one of my partners: “It used to be that great thinkers thought alike.  Now, great thinkers think unalike.” Great leaders seek out the unusual, and instead of being threatened by difference, they welcome it.  They understand the homogeneity breeds comfort but at the same time creates staleness in the organization. If you have someone in your company who suffers from some psychological disorder, or is quite quirky, you might want to think twice before asking them to leave. They may be among your best thinkers.

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