What Makes Us Great Could Also Make Us Fragile

Or, what makes us fragile could also make us great.

By Alejandro Alvarez on Unsplash

It can’t be a coincidence that many of the greatest, brightest minds in history have also been the most tortured souls. The exceptionally creative, hyper-intelligent and uniquely gifted are known to fight fierce internal battles and suffer greatly. In fact, studies have found that those in creative professions are, on average, 25 percent more likely to carry genetic factors that raise the risk of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, than those who are less creative and more practical. Basically, painters, musicians, writers and dancers were deemed more at risk than farmers, manual laborers and salespeople.

Research also shows a link between mental health issues and intelligence. Findings include data that supports bipolar disorder may be four times as common among young adults who earned straight A’s in school. The strongest correlation was found among students who excelled in music and language, which unsurprisingly references the more creative intelligent thinkers.

My single gripe with the above theory would be that grades are not always reflective of intellect. There are too many variables in play here, such as the quality of education, teaching methods and different learning styles. Also, super smart people are known to get bored with school and have difficulty being motivated to apply themselves. Thus, a person could get poor grades simply because they aren’t trying, but actually know the material better than most.

A similar study addresses this, and found an incredibly high correlation between exceptional arithmetic IQs and those who later received a bipolar diagnosis. The test not only measured skill, but the ability to rapidly process information.

However the connection is established, there certainly appears to be one as some of our most renowned achievers have been plagued by mental health conditions. A pantheon of artists, writers and famous individuals have suffered from clinical depression, schizophrenia and/or bipolar disorder.

This begs the question, could the thing that separates the average and the extraordinary also contribute to psychological unrest?

Ironically, or not, the ability of highly intelligent people to rapidly process information signifies a tendency to experience a state of mania. Similarly, the element of eccentricity that makes a person highly creative is also believed to be what contributes to their debilitating illness. Their imaginative, innovative thought process is actually considered to be fueled by the battles waged within between the artist and his or her demons. More telling, is that the artists themselves usually consider this to be the case as well, believing they would not be as formidable at their crafts as they are without their conditions and an ability to teeter on the border of insanity.

Kanye West is our current example of a tortured genius. Whether you enjoy his music, like his clothes, or not — you can’t really argue that he is a creative mastermind. Kanye continuously innovates in both fields. He’s also admitted to contemplating suicide, and believes that being bipolar makes him a superhero.

Ludwig van Beethoven is considered to have broken the mold as it pertains to classical music. His manic episodes seemed to power his creativity as he wrote his most famous works during times of inner turmoil and psychotic delusions.

The list of great minds who faced great instability goes on and on.

Iconic painter Vincent Van Gogh committed suicide at age 37. Prior to this, he experienced depressive states accompanied by manic episodes and exorbitant passion.

Fashion Designer Kate Spade is another more recent example. She also took her own life, after years of anxiety and depression.

All of the aforementioned and many others that suffer from mental illness are also reported to struggle with substance abuse, usually in an effort to self-medicate. Certainly, the pitfalls attached to fame, especially with current celebrities, are a contributing factor to one or the other, perhaps both.

Not all scientists agree with the correlation between craft and what is often irresponsibly deemed “crazy.” Though, much of the discord can be attributed to the difficulty of defining the abstract concept of creativity. Creative people think outside of the norm. Thus, even without a medical diagnosis they are often labelled strange.

Does the suffering lead to the disorder? Or is it the end-result? I’m no psychologist, so I’ll leave the answers to such questions to someone more qualified and well-versed in the subject.

I do, however, consider myself a creative. I’m also very empathetic. So much so that I’ve learned that I have to protect myself from an overload of negative stimuli. Yet, it is this empathy that I feel has nurtured my ability to positively connect with others, especially through written word.

Obviously, there are plenty of ordinary people who suffer from mental illness. And plenty of creatives, prodigies and overachievers who do not. Nonetheless, the slew of great thinkers and creators who have battled such conditions serve to accentuate the ways in which our greatest strength could also be our greatest weakness.

Author of a critically-acclaimed book on women and dating. https://www.amazon.com/dp/1687069786

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