With Great Talent Comes

We all know the stories of what happened to great public figures such as Amy Winehouse, Robin Williams, Whitney Houston, Heath Ledger, and Maradona, to mention a few. All extremely successful and rich, yet with great mental illnesses such as depression and addiction that ultimately led to their deaths. The list of rock and pop stars with addiction and mental health problems is infinite , but what about those that haven’t necessarily been in the lime light?

We are quick to envy Business leaders ( CEO’s and C-level executives) because of their money, but do we ever stop to ask ourselves what kind of mind it takes to execute and run a company? Freeman (2015), for his article “Are entrepreneurs touched with fire?”, conducted a study at the University of California San Francisco and found that 49% of CEO’s suffer from mental illness and that 32% of them have life-long suffering. This article discusses first some of the known cases of CEO’s/entrepreneurs that suffere(d) from mental illness, and then describes case studies of 5 CEO’s/entrepeneurs, all raised in southern California, that always excelled academically and created some sort of start-up, but are also currently receiving treatment for mental conditions such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and addiction. The conclusion: brilliance and disturbance go hand-in-hand.

Some of you might remember the 2001 film A Beautiful Mind. The film is based on the life of John Nash, who obtained a doctoral degree at Princeton by the age of 22, subsequently attended MIT, and was given the Noble Prize in 1994 for establishing many different mathematical principles and his theories on partial differential equations. Meanwhile, he battled paranoid schizophrenia the whole time and at one point had to drop out of MIT because of it. Although he wasn’t necessarily a CEO, he was the pioneer of essential mathematical principles, which counts in my book.

If the name Steve Jobs doesn’t ring a bell, you might have been living under a rock for a couple of decades, especially since the movie Jobs came out on Netflix in 2013 . Let me fill you in: we have Steve Jobs to thank for the computer I’m using to write this article, and the iPhone you’re probably using to read it. Steve Jobs was the CEO of Apple, which still comes out with the highest end of technology, even after Jobs death. His tenacity to come out with continually amazing technology was remarkable, but those that worked with him said they couldn’t stand him. Maybe this is because he was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and it was also thought he had Borderline Personality Disorder.

Vincent Van Goh, one of the famous artists of all times using his post-impressionist style, had Borderline Personality Disorder and Bipolar Disorder. He cut off his left ear at the age of 35 and committed suicide in 1890. Beethoven is the most played classical music artist of all time, and also had Bipolar Disorder. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines: ADHD, David Neeleman, founder and CEO of Jet Blue: ADHD, Larry Flynt, founder of Hustler Magazine: Bipolar Disorder, Ted Turner, founder of CNN: Bipolar Disorder, Andrew Reynolds, owner of Baker Skateboards: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, David Beckham, a staple in today’s soccer world: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The list goes on and on.

I would now like to describe my own experience and that of people that of those that have been close to me throughout my life. Many, including myself, owners of their own companies, brilliant, graduated from top Universities. However, we struggle(d) and have struggled with mental illness from an early age.

Case 1:

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some truly remarkable souls throughout my 36 years (and sometimes I would say misfortune, since they are longer here). It would be unjust to not start with one in particular who, although deceased for 15 years, still makes me cry when I speak of her. The Valedictorian of her class (at a very high-end competitive Southern California private school), perfect score on her SAT, scholarship to Stanford University where she was conducting some seriously amazing research in the hopes to cure cancer, professional Harpist who toured with a famous Indie-rock band in the early 2000’s. She also struggled with deep depression that I witnessed first-hand, for which she was given antidepressants and died accidentally in 2007 after mixing them with something else. She would be turning 38 the last day of this year.

Case 2: A 36 year old female who has a master’s degree in music from the Chicago Opera Theater, who is one of the most talented opera singer you will meet in your life. She started an all-female opera comedy group after seeing there was so much competition amongst supranos, where she mastered improv and sketch comedy. She started singing opera at just 11 years old, and got serious about it when she was 14, at the same time she started having severe depression and receiving counselling for it. My first experience with meeting a person who cut themselves and visiting a psych ward was when I visited her after she attempted suicide, when we were just 16 years old. She feels her illness in a way has helped her, since it made her seek other modalities of healing and in 2018 became self-employed as a sound-healer, and has all of her own clients and website.

Case 3: A 36 year old female who has a master’s degree in Business and Bachelor’s degree in Science, and is the CEO of a lucrative recruitment company. I have been close to her from an early age, and since that time she has received a countless amount of awards for a variety of things. She was very talented at drums when we were younger and an important member of the Girl Scouts. When we were in our early twenties, I began seeing her struggle with depression and substance abuse, and she has since been diagnosed with ADHD, all of which she has received medication for. Through it all, she has a solid work ethic and excels as a Business leader.

Case 4: A 34 year old female that I’ve known since I was 5 years old, who always got straight A’s and got a Bachelor’s degree from a prestigious University. She has always gotten certifications she didn’t have to study for, was an all-star soccer player, and in past jobs always got higher pay than she asked for and higher positions than she was technically qualified for. She knew she was having mental health issues in high school and asked for help, but therapy was not welcome by her parents. Currently, she is diagnosed with generalized anxiety and depression and struggles with feeling anxious a majority of the time and fluctuating moods. She is also currently the CEO of a trendy clothing company.

Case 5: Last but certainly not least, myself. I’ll start with the bad news: I started using and abusing drugs and alcohol at the age of 14, had an eating disorder from the ages of 15-21, I’m diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, lost a Doctoral degree months away from graduating because of my addiction problems, I have been committed in some type of institution 10 times in the last 7 years because of complications due to addiction, in the ER 10 times because of near over-doses, and in the ICU after being revived twice after intentional overdoses. Now for the good news: I would say I look really good on paper. I was classified as being “gifted” at the age of 9 and was put in special courses. By the age of 10 I was taking math at two grade levels above mine, was always in honors and advanced placement, always had the gift of being good at math (which I taught at the best University in my country from ages 25-29), was the youngest Teaching Assistant at the time at the University where I got my bachelor’s degree, completed my Master’s degree at the prestigious University of California (USC) by age 22, have written a math book in two languages, am currently working on a book about my experiences at all of the above mentioned institutions, and am the CEO of a tutoring company I founded in 2011 that has recently re-opened since I have been much more stable the last year.

There is a high probability that I will spend the rest of my life in and out of institutions, but myself, like other great minds before me, am prepared to handle it and create wonders in the worst of situations. With great talent, comes great demons.

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Freeman, M. A., Johnson, S. L., Staudenmaier, P. J., & Zisser, M. R. (2015). Are entrepreneurs “touched with fire”. Unpublished manuscript.

Grate, Cristopher (2018) Name One Genius That Ain’t Crazy. Retrieved from: https://christophergrate.medium.com/name-one-genius-that-aint-crazy-3-mental-illnesses-that-are-found-in-high-performing-75f1d56c45aa

Jones, Kaylor (2019) Historical Figures Who May Have Had Mental Illnesses. Retrieved from: https://www.gcu.edu/blog/psychology-counseling/historical-figures-who-may-have-had-mental-illnesses#:~:text=This%20renowned%20composer%20had%20a,followed%20by%20bouts%20of%20depression.

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Levy, S. (2022, February 20). Steve Jobs. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Steve-Jobs