Misfit minds: why mental illnesses and learning difficulties can be useful


Image: Don’t stay too close to the pack… 

The classic liberal text, On Liberty by John Stuart Mill made a big impression on me years ago. What stayed with me above all was Mill’s insistence that liberty and tolerance were essential for a healthy society, since they permitted diversity.

Diversity of thought, behaviour, beliefs, ideas keep societies alive because they mean that there is an edge (not that Mills used this term – that’s more John Hagel) where new ideas can be born and taken back into the mainstream. When you start trying to make everyone adhere to a norm, become a single homogenous mainstream, things stagnate – essentially because there are no new ideas.

Mills cited the highly ordered Imperial China as an example of a non-diverse society in stagnation. To simplify, China creates printing, gunpowder and all manner of new technologies and then just stops. Stands still at the command of its  imperial bureaucratic system.

While there is a lot of talk of diversity in politics and corporate life, the benefit to all of us is too infrequently cited. It is a presented in moral and ethical terms, when there is an everyone’s a winner upside to not having homogenous groups in charge.

In short, boardrooms and cabinet meetings are better off when they aren’t overwhelmingly white, male and middle-aged because they will have more perspectives, more ideas, more options and make better decisions. Society is better off with a healthy fringe of freaks, geeks and misfits because while much of what they might say and do amounts to nothing, that is where new ideas, options, perspectives come from.

But enough of this A-level philosophy rambling, I was thinking about all of this after reading the Schumpeter column in The Economist “In praise of misfits”, which discusses how variously people diagnosed with Aspergers, autism, ADD and dyslexia are successful in different types of busienss:

Entrepreneurs also display a striking number of mental oddities. Julie Login of Cass Business School surveyed a group of entrepreneurs and found that 35% of them said that they suffered from dyslexia, compared with 10% of the population as a whole and 1% of professional managers. Prominent dyslexics include the founders of Ford, General Electric, IBM and IKEA, not to mention more recent successes such as Charles Schwab (the founder of a stockbroker), Richard Branson (the Virgin Group), John Chambers (Cisco) and Steve Jobs (Apple). There are many possible explanations for this. Dyslexics learn how to delegate tasks early (getting other people to do their homework, for example). They gravitate to activities that require few formal qualifications and demand little reading or writing.

Being someway in with my own entrepreneurial adventure, I think there’s a kind of madness required to start a business at all. Certainly, the decision and the act of striking out from the known (employment) is much an emotional leap as a reasoned and planned manoeuvre.

In John Ronson’s The Psychopath Test, the author explains how different classifications of mental illness are created, how behaviours are called out as oddities and abnormalities are herded into categories.

It’s often a very subjective process: different ways of thinking, defining when eccentricity becomes mental illness is often a matter of perspective, such are the complexities of our many kinds of minds.

Ronson also mentions the callous way in which TV producers for reality shows recruit people who are “the right kind of mad” (mad enough to make an entertaining spectacle of themselves, not so mad they will hurt someone on the set).

It seems that in business, a good strategy might be working out what type of wotk you are “the right kind of mad” to win at. Obviously that takes a certain amount of self-awareness…

: : Another link: This line of thought also reminds me of the thesis that schizophrenia, depression and all manner of mental illness played a part in human society’s evolution and – according to an article in New Scientist (subscription required) – gave “early humans an edge“.