In our interview with psychiatrist, researcher, and entrepreneur, Michael Freeman, he mentioned that his research paper on mental health and entrepreneurs borrowed its title from Touched with Fire, a prize-winning book by the renowned clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison. Her book has been called a “remarkable achievement” by people who hopefully know what they’re talking about. Well, we thought we better take a look at that book.
The full title is Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. And yes, she focuses on that mental health issue and artists. But you could argue that entrepreneurs are very much like artists: they create. And there are definitely passages in the book where you could substitute “entrepreneur” for “artist.” Also, while many of us – most of us, in fact – don’t suffer from manic depression in a clinical way, there are many insights into our personalities offered by Jamison that make her book well worth the read!
Jamison herself suffers from a bipolar disorder, which inspired her to write a memoir, An Unquiet Mind. Her oft-quoted conclusion from that book:
“I long ago abandoned the notion of a life without storms, or a world without dry and killing seasons. Life is too complicated, too constantly changing, to be anything but what it is. And I am, by nature, too mercurial to be anything but deeply wary of the grave unnaturalness involved in any attempt to exert too much control over essentially uncontrollable forces. … It is, at the end of the day, the individual moments of restlessness, of bleakness, of strong persuasions and maddened enthusiasms, that inform one’s life, change the nature and direction of one’s work, and give final meaning and color to one’s loves and friendships.”
That’s existential in our humble opinion. It also reminds of us of entrepreneurs we’ve talked to: they’d prefer a life of risk and unknowns, of highs and lows, of sacrifice and struggle – all of which gives meaning to their lives.
In her book, Jamison details studies that have shown there is an overlap, a direct link even, between the manic depressive and creative behavior, which includes the silver lining that Freeman alludes to in his work. That is, the bad stuff is loaded with some good stuff. To give you a flavor, we pulled a handful of poignant excerpts from her book:
The Purpose of the Book
“The main purpose of this book is to make a literary, biographical, in scientific argument for a compelling association, not to say actual overlap, between two temperaments – the artistic and the manic-depressive – in their relationship to the rhythms and cycles, or temperament, of the natural world. That emphasis will be on understanding the relationship between moods and imagination, the nature of moods – their variety, their contrary and oppositional qualities, their flux, their extremes (causing, in some individuals, occasional episodes of ‘madness’) – and the importance of moods in igniting thought, changing perceptions, creating chaos, forcing order upon that chaos, and transformation.” 5
Mood Change and the Creative Process
“Many of the changes in mood, thinking, and perception that characterize the mildly manic states – restlessness, ebullience, expansiveness, irritability, grandiosity, quickened and more finely tuned senses, intensity of the emotional experiences, diverse city of thought, and rapidity of associational processes – are highly characteristic of creative thought as well.” 105
The Counterintuitive and the Silver Lining
“It seems counterintuitive that melancholy could be associated with artistic inspiration and productivity; the milder manic states and their fiery energies would seem, at first thought, to be more obviously linked. The extreme pain of the deeper melancholias, and the gentler, more reflective and solitary size of the milder ones, can be extremely important in the creative process, however. Hypomania and mania often generate ideas and associations, propel contact with life and other people, induced frenzied energies and enthusiasms, and cast an ecstatic, rather cosmic hue over life. Melancholy, on the other hand, tends to force a slower pace, cools the ardor, and puts it into perspective the thoughts, observations, and feelings generated during more enthusiastic moments. Mild depression can act as ballast; it can also serve a critical editorial role for work produced in more fevered states. Depression prunes and sculpts; it also ruminates and ponders and, ultimately, subdues and focuses thought. It allows structuring, edit detailed level, of the more expensive patterns woven during hypomania.” 118
Closer to Reality
“Recent research has shown that observations and beliefs produced during mildly depressed states are closer to ‘reality’ then our normal mood states, underscoring the pervasiveness of denial in everyday life and giving credence to T.S. Eliot’s view that ‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality.’” 119
Does Her Research Sound Familiar?
“The artists and writers were also asked about changes in sleep and mood occurring just prior to lease intensely creative episodes. Almost all of them recorded clearly noticeable decrease in the need for sleep. Twenty-eight described waking spontaneously at 3:00 or 4:00 A.M. and being unable to return to sleep. Mood changes were profound. One half reported a sharp increase in mood just prior to the beginning of an intensely creative period. … when the subjects were asked specifically about the importance of very intense moods in the development and execution of their work, nine out of 10 stated that such moods were either in trickle and necessary (60 percent), or very important (30 percent).” 78
The Seasons Play a Role
“Clearly, everyone experiences seasons and patterns of light: just as clearly, everyone experiences seasons and patterns of light quite differently. Individuals who have manic-depressive or artistic temperaments may share in uncommon sensitivity to seasonal fluctuations in light as well as pronouns changes and mood as a result of those fluctuations.” 136
Her Final Line
“The great imaginative artist have always sailed ‘in the wind’s eye,’ and brought back with them words or sounds or images to ‘counterbalance human woes.’ That they themselves were subject to more than their fair share of these woes deserves our appreciation, understanding, and very careful thought.” 260
What should be added to this final thought is that many entrepreneurs are driven to make the world a better place, to find solutions to human woes. And in this desire, they make more than their fair share of sacrifices, often with little reward.
There’s lots of great stuff in Jamison’s book, as mentioned up top. It inspires, comforts, and enriches as we learn about ourselves through a different but similar lens. Recognizing time is short, take a look if you have the time.