Those crazy Americans!

The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America
John D. Gartner
Simon & Schuster

The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus The Rest of Us
Martha Stout

That ex-lover that you were sure was a sociopath? Turns out, you might have been right. And that high-school football coach with the Knute Rockne complex and the winning record, as well as the boss who doesn’t sleep and doesn’t think you should either? Well, they just might be hypomanics—folks one step shy of a serious manic state. Who would have thought there was so much genuine craziness out there—and that without a little bit of it, we might not get anything worthwhile accomplished?

Two new books, The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and (a Lot of) Success in America and The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us, look at two completely different sorts of social misfits—the hypomanic, or borderline manic, personality and the sociopath—and the profound effects these personalities have on the people around them.

John D. Gartner, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, examines the incidence of hypomania in the United States (it’s much more frequent here than, for instance, in Europe). He’s done both surveys of contemporary Americans as well as a sort of forensic psych exam on movers and shakers of the past. He’s come to the conclusion that the go-go-go, can-do American attitude that’s brought so much economic success may in fact be rooted in a propensity to hypomania among Americans.

In general, a hypomanic personality tends to be restless, full of big ideas, driven to succeed and often charismatic. Hypomanics typically become obsessed with their projects, going for long periods on very little sleep. On the downside, they also may act out sexually and develop a sort of messiah complex that leads them to think they can save the world.

Gartner’s historical examples include Christopher Columbus; colonial-period leaders John Winthrop, Roger Williams and William Penn; Alexander Hamilton; Andrew Carnegie; Hollywood founding families the Selznicks and the Mayers; and genetic researcher Craig Venter. He interviewed several of Hamilton’s biographers to gather evidence to support his diagnosis of the “father of the American economy” as hypomanic.

He also surveys a contemporary group of successful businessmen and entrepreneurs who are only too eager to say that they exhibit many of the traits and behaviors that indicate hypomania. Gartner’s take on all this is interesting: He posits that a small amount of mania leads to a whole lot of accomplishment; people with slight delusions of grandeur and the energy to create may in fact be able to do what a regular nebbish would not only fail to accomplish, but also never even consider. That is, provided that the delusions tend more to the visionary side and less to the delusional.

In short, a little bit of crazy goes a long, long way toward exceptional success.

The toll on the people around these movers and shakers can be enormous. Gartner relates the tale of Carnegie’s relentless driving of his workers in the name of greater efficiency, a plan that included 24-hour shifts in his steel mills and eventually led to a scandalous labor dispute.

Still, trying to keep up with a hypomanic is nothing compared with the havoc wreaked in the lives of those with the misfortune to tangle with a sociopath. As Martha Stout, also a psychiatrist, makes clear in The Sociopath Next Door, sociopaths are neither as rare as we might assume nor as readily identifiable. Stout argues that up to 4 percent of the population simply never develops a conscience, and contrary to conventional wisdom, most sociopaths don’t become serial killers.

Instead, they’re the manipulative, inexplicably cruel tornadoes whirling through the lives of the rest of us. Stout does readers a great favor by providing a description of conscience and how it develops, but far more useful is the final section of the book, in which she describes how to recognize a sociopath.

Unfortunately, whether the sociopath is a charismatic dictator or the disruptive PTA chairperson, the only safe place to be is very far away.