Huxley + Others X Thresholds: Drawing the Thin Line Between Genius and Madness

The connection between genius and madness has long intrigued our society—few places more palpable than in the creative arts. Robert Hughes sees it in the work of Spanish artist Francisco Goya, about whom he titled a tribute documentary, Crazy Like a Genius. In Goya’s work particularly, it would be difficult to deny that his dark, seedy portrayals contain elements of both genius and madness. Take the painting Yard with Madmen, for example:

Keep a mental note of the painting–namely, the way these madmen are brawling in the dimness of the yard, all seemingly oblivious to the light pouring in over the wall.

It is obvious here that Goya is a man who lived the pain he captured in his work. It would be rather difficult for one who had not, at some point, experienced mad feelings of lonely desperation to paint such expressions onto his characters’ faces.

In more recent years, psychology has treated the subject with reverence—Harvard Psychology professor, Dr. Shelley Carson, has even offered a course exploring the correlation since 2002. But, most psychological treatment of the subject revolves around the precise definition of madness. Primarily, how fluid is a state of madness? How quickly can one enter and leave such a state? What should one be labeled who enters and leaves such a state frequently as opposed to one that remains there long-term? Is remaining in such a state simply a product of handling smaller episodes poorly? The trend is to answer these seminal questions with increasing tolerance for temporary states of madness as the norm. Personally, my faith dictates that the fall of man caused a broken world to exist—a world where one’s righteous mind is susceptible to siege in many forms—both the temptation to sin and the burden of maintaining one’s sanity in the midst of such sin.

Personal beliefs aside, I believe we can do better to logically explore this correlation between genius and madness as it relates specifically to maverick business leaders. Given that we believe madness is a highly-fluid state that one can fall in and out of (rather than a volatile disease worthy of quarantine) and strong anecdotal evidence of a certain artistic temperament in ‘great’ artists and business visionaries from Goya to Jobs—I believe we can at least agree the two are often correlated in great people, without diminishing the brilliance of their achievements. But, for every successful maverick visionary, there are thousands of managers who fight the tide of acceptance and lose. What separates the crazy geniuses whose ideas are received and valued compared to those whose ideas are rejected? Can we discover a way to hold genius and madness in harmonious balance, such that we can reap the creative advantages of each quality and be known as more genius than as more mad? Ultimately, can we draw the thin line between the two–that is, discover and manipulate the cause, in such a way that allows us to separate those who will be remembered as crazy geniuses, and those wild-eyed vagabonds who will wander from bridge-to-bridge with no place to fall? Perhaps it is unfair for me to equate ‘mad genius’ with well-being? It is true that many mad geniuses have also died without a penny to their name–so, think of the dilemma primarily as one between prominence and obscurity.

Outside of psychology, some might attribute success to timing, or charisma, or other elusive traits—but, HBR actually believes they have discovered a more concrete innovator’s DNA, citing four learnable skills as responsible for innovation capacity. And, I believe these are good concrete skills to learn. But, what can we do to influence the grey areas of an innovator’s DNA? I maintain the thesis from Ovid x Context as important here—capturing and leveraging a wave of societal sentiment is certainly a tactic that can be used to appear ahead of the curve. This, of course, is Jobs’ product development philosophy—figure out where things are headed and people’s latent desires, and then get there first with the most beautiful, user-oriented product possible. But, determining sentiment is a wholly external activity—it is something a manager determines based on his perception of feedback he receives from the outside world. Therefore, the attribution dilemma is still undefined—how much can maverick success be attributed to the learnable DNA, and how much is attributed to things ultimately out of our control–things such as fate, timing, and other mystical variables? Since determining precise attribution quantities is ultimately impossible, let’s explore the psychological component that can potentially be controlled—how can innovators keep their right mind long enough to let such fate play out?

From art to business, the one definitive pattern we see in great men with a tincture of madness, is not drive or ambition or childhood upbringing or any other thousand variables. While psychologists believe these things may shape a person and their ability to handle such circumstantial or long-term madness, and I have no basis or reason to disagree, I believe the mad geniuses of the world have one highest factor in common–periods of work in actual isolation or a developed spirit of isolation. That is: they either work in isolation, or are such individuals of solitary, independent spirit that they have no choice but to artificially impose the spirit of isolated vision onto their world. [Drew Hansen, of the Forbes Prime Movers blog, recently brought it to my attention that this definition was a little unclear. To clarify–I am thinking more of Emerson’s definition of the ‘self-reliance’ than of isolated loners or the Cohenesque glorifacation of isolationists conjured by his term ‘beautiful losers.’ Emerson said, “What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” Thus, Emerson’s view of self-reliance is what I refer to as the ‘spirit of isolation.’]

I challenge you to find one genius remembered in history that does not fit into either of these categories (actual isolation or the spirit of isolation). In Goya’s case, his most deranged, and most celebrated work was from his later years—when, he retreated to his apartment and let his fullness of vision manifest itself on the apartment walls. He didn’t expect these paintings to be hung, which presumably affected the trueness to his vision that he painted them with. These final ‘Goyas’ are celebrated because they are even more ‘Goya’ than anything that came prior.

Isolation inevitably plays tricks on our minds—manifesting symptoms of psychosis or other madness if undertaken for long enough periods of time. But, unlike artists, most visionary business leaders don’t live in isolation (they fall into the spirit of isolation category). Thus, the task for mavericks is perhaps even more difficult, because they must reconcile their own solitary vision with external pressure from and accountability to stakeholders. They don’t get to paint for years in a dark apartment and let their vision be discovered after death. Mavericks are accountable for their vision each and every day. Rather than the comfort of actual isolation, visionary business leaders must at once face the real world and maintain a stubborn vision. What we call visionaries, are actually just people who have both a unique vision and the fight in them to create and maintain a reality of that vision under the burden of constant evaluation. Amidst society’s great leveling process, there are circumstances and pressures that exploit the visionary’s weaknesses. For business leaders, these pressures arise from the high-stakes of each decision, and their accountability to others as the leader.

As Ben Horowitz, veteran tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist, discussed in a March TechCrunch article, What’s the Most Difficult CEO Skill? Managing Your Own Psychology:

“By far the most difficult skill for me to learn as CEO was the ability to manage my own psychology. Organizational design, process design, metrics, hiring and firing were all relatively straightforward skills to master compared to keeping my mind in check. Over the years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of CEOs all with the same experience. Nonetheless, very few people talk about it, and I have never read anything on the topic. It’s like the fight club of management: The first rule of the CEO psychological meltdown is don’t talk about the psychological meltdown.”

So, if Ovid x Context dealt with recognizing the external signs of change, this post deals with taming the internal ‘filter’ that allows us to make sense of our world, guide our ultimate perception of customers and markets, and give us the strength to carry out solitary vision. [And, please don’t underestimate the intent of the filter metaphor. I am not advocating that visionaries have a solitary vision wholly separate from reality. They simply have a filter that produces a unique vision with their sensory inputs. So, solitary vision doesn’t have to be exclusive of customer insights, or market research, etc.]

Aldous Huxley delivers a profound insight on precisely how to tame this filter, in The Doors of Perception, which is based on his recorded perceptual experiments under the influence of mescalin. Here, near the middle of the book, we find Huxley deep under the influence, discussing with his wife and doctor the ability of a madman to control descent and exit from a state of psychosis:

On the retreat from reality into selfhood (where one has the potential to ‘lose’ their mind):

And, once [one] embarked upon the downward [retreat from reality into the recesses of the mind] the infernal road [to madness], one would never be able to stop. That, now, was only too obvious.

On the uncontrollable nature of the beginning manifestations of madness:

“If you started [going] in the wrong way,” I said in answer to the investigator’s questions, “everything that happened would be a proof of the conspiracy against you. It would all be self-validating. You couldn’t draw a breath without knowing it was part of the plot.” “So you think you know where madness lies?” My answer was convinced and heartfelt, “Yes.” “And you couldn’t control it?” “No I couldn’t control it…”

On the way to overcome this plunge into endless ambiguity:

“Would you be able,” my wife asked, “to fix your attention on what The Tibetan Book of the Dead calls the Clear Light?” I was doubtful. “Would it keep evil away, if you could hold it? Or would you not be able to hold it?” I considered the question for some time. “Perhaps,” I answered at last, “perhaps I could—but only if there were somebody there to tell me about the Clear Light. One couldn’t do it by oneself. That’s the point, I suppose of the Tibetan ritual—someone sitting there all the time and telling you what’s what.”

After listening to the record of this part of the experiment, I took down my copy of Evans-Wentz’s edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and opened at random. “O nobly born, let not thy mind be distracted.” That was the problem—to remain undistracted. Undistracted by the memory of past sins, by imagined pleasure, by the bitter aftertaste of old wrongs and humiliations, by all the fears and hates and cravings that ordinarily eclipse the Light. What those Buddhist monks did for the dying and the dead, might not the modern psychiatrist do for the insane? Let there be a voice to assure them, by day and even when they are asleep, that in spite of all the terror, all the bewilderment and confusion, the ultimate Reality remains unshakably itself and is of the same substance as the inner light of even the most cruelly tormented mind.”

Clearly, there is a difference between schizophrenia and transient psychological instability. But, Huxley suggests that navigating the dark recesses of mental ambiguity requires two things: 1. A vision of the Clear Light. 2. A guide to keep you focused on it.

Great—hire a board of directors! Done. Not so fast—Horowitz goes on to say:

“In your darkest moments as CEO, discussing fundamental questions about the viability of your company with your employees can have obvious negative consequences. On the other hand, talking to your board and outside advisors can be fruitless. The knowledge gap between you and them is so vast that you cannot actually bring them fully up to speed in a manner that’s useful in making the decision. You are all alone.”

Without a guide, we become like Goya’s madmen–wrestling ambiguity and self-doubt in the yard’s miry darkness, unable to reach the Clear Light–light so fully abundant just on the other side of the wall that it seeps over the top! What the madmen might achieve if only they quit tangling long enough to look up!  We need the proper guide–someone who will help us remain undistracted. But, if we need someone to help us remain focused, and it is impossible to bridge the knowledge gap with an actual human–what options does that leave us? I believe we should create a conceptual mirror being of ourselves that encompasses our unique vision and beliefs—whatever they might be.

Yes, I actually recommend becoming schizophrenic in order to save yourself from madness. But not literally…

Soren Kierkegaard, in his edifying discourses (the few works he wrote straightforwardly under his own name), addresses his words to a person that does not physically exist—Hiin Enkelte—which translates from Danish as the solitary individual. Kierkegaard saw Hiin Enkelte as the single person capable of understanding his own solitary vision in its purest form. The person might have literally existed somewhere, but Kierkegaard certainly didn’t know his name.

Kierkegaard knew only that there was at least one person alive that was capable of knowing precisely what he intended to say. This conceptual image was a creation of Kierkegaard’s mind to solidify his vision; it was his Tibetan monk that guided him toward the Clear Light. Whenever Kierkegaard needed to decide what to say and how to say it, he had to think only of Hiin Enkelte. And, this allowed him to keep a sane mind and a solitary vision—because Hiin Enkelte was a mirror reflection of Kierkegaard’s values. This conceptual being as a guiding force, presumably, led Kierkegaard to more focused writing than would have been possible otherwise.

Solidifying this conceptual being is especially critical now, considering the progressive acceptance of iterative product development. Iteration is a wonderful approach to take advantage of talented interdisciplinary teams, and for those solopreneurs that need to turn vision into product. But I also sense that we are beginning to see the first stages of over-iteration, where the end is a reduction of the desired end-state rather than a synergistic whole, made better through collaboration. I don’t want to see the concept of iterative product development abused to the point where visionaries are squeezed out of the equation, because I believe there is a place for those who can see things more wholly, and more purely than would ever be evident in a huge collaborative process.

The people we describe as mad geniuses inherently do this—they are tuned into their own intuition and allow it to guide them through ambiguity, and see things that others lower on the path to self-realization miss. If you are leading a business or creating products without an internal guide toward the Clear Light, it is easy to wander through ambiguity, losing yourself deeper and deeper with every iteration. Fate and chance being equal, we respect and value those who create and heed this internal being as visionaries; it guides them to pave the path toward the Clear Light—product nirvana.

Have you considered the connection between genius and madness more fully now? Do you believe that those mavericks we call visionaries often fluidly move between states of genius and madness? Have you considered the methods we might use to draw a line between the two—harnessing the power of being able to explore and communicate our own deepest, purest visions without the maddening effects of, both the actuality and the great fear of, such a rigorous psychological battle? Do you agree that producing a more concrete vision of the mirror image of your values can help produce a more compelling end-result? Do you believe such a vision of Hiin Enkelte can increase your focus? Have you considered the consequences of refusing to answer such questions–that is, have you fully ascertained the metaphor of the madmen in the yard, and considered that you might be wrestling with your team, mired in stagnation just below the clear light, if you do not develop the ability to manage your vision (and psychological ability to strive for that vision) long enough for fate and chance to show their hand? 

Love it? Want to tell me I’m crazy, and not a genius? Leave a comment!

Books Mentioned:

The Doors of Perception, by Aldous Huxley

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