Is There a Bipolar Hypomanic Advantage?

Patient Expert

Hypomania, the hypomanic advantage, and famous people. See if you can guess the true identities to the following five case studies:

Case One - As a kid, he liked to race his bike on the local airport runway as planes took off. In the Army, he frequently got on the wrong side of his superiors.   On acceptance to a university faculty position, he wasted no time turning colleagues into enemies. Later, after making a reputation for himself as a science hot-shot, he audaciously announced that he would beat a massive government scientific project to the finish line by five years, then turned up uninvited at a meeting of this project and taunted the participants. One scientist wanted to slug him and another strangle him.

Case Two - He claimed to have had a mystical revelation in which the Holy Spirit had given him the keys to the gates of the ocean. The Portuguese king dismissed his ideas as "fanciful" and a Spanish committee as "mad." When the Spanish Queen finally decided to back him, this individual - who referred to himself as Christ-bearer - outrageously insisted that he be elevated to royal rank as an Admiral and Viceroy, with 10 percent ownership of everything he found. He angrily refused to negotiate and packed his bags for France.

Case Three - After graduating from Columbia University in two years, he caught revolutionary fever. In one two-week period he spewed out the equivalent of a book in the form of 60,000 words of propaganda. During a raid, when everyone else had ducked for cover, he walked straight into an artillery bombardment. In disgust, he walked out of a convention that he himself had instigated, but later cranked out 51 memorable op-ed pieces in support of that convention's outcome.

Case Four - As a lowly telegraph operator, he entertained dreams of striking it rich. Later, now rich, in the middle of an economic depression, he presumed to take on the big boys in an industry he knew next to nothing about. For good measure, he also entertained a messianic notion of human evolution in the form of social Darwinism.

Case Five - This involves two people. The first one, when his doctor advised him to relax by taking up golf, he wore out several caddies keeping five balls in play. "The heck with one-ball golf," he said. His son-in-law was a free-wheeling womanizer and gambler who hit it big, with unprecedented success in a memorable project, only to throw it all away.

Okay, the answers:

Case One involves Craig Venter. The company he founded, Celera, pulled off a Mission Impossible in vastly speeding up the mapping of the human genome, leaving his government-backed rivals no choice but to copy his methods. Under a White House-brokered agreement, a "tie" was declared. Later, his own company fired him. But you can't keep a good man down for long. Last year, his own institute (named after himself) announced the creation of synthetic life.

Case Two is, of course, Columbus. Discovering America turned out to be an unintended result of his grandiose scheming and impossible demands.

Case Three is Alexander Hamilton, the most brilliant (and volatile) of an exceptionally gifted family of Founding Fathers. A hero of the American Revolution, he was a prime mover behind the historic Constitutional Convention and with Madison co-authored the collection of pieces known as The Federalist Papers. During his down-time as a war hero, he taught himself economics. As the new nation's first Treasury Secretary, Hamilton single-handedly saved his country from certain bankruptcy and political disintegration and set it on an unprecedented course of unparalleled prosperity. Unfortunately, he couldn't resist challenging Aaron Burr to a duel.

Case Four is Andrew Carnegie, who started out teaching himself Morse Code and Morse Code transcription and went on to become the greatest robber baron (and philanthropist)   of them all.

Case Five concerns the larger-than-life movie moguls Louis B Mayer, head of MGM, and David Selznik, who produced "Gone With the Wind." Selznik later closed down his studio and sold the GWTW rights for a song.

These case studies form the basis of John Gartner's thought-provoking 2005 "The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America." Clearly, Dr Gartner deviates from the psychiatric party line. "What psychiatrists call 'impulsivity,'" he says in his book, "entrepreneurs call 'seizing the moment.'" What psychiatry views exclusively as an illness, Gartner - with reservations - sees as an advantage.

Something to think about. No doubt, you already have. Let the conversation begin. Comments below ...