What Are You, Nuts?
“There was something very slightly odd about him, but it was hard to say what it was.” — Douglas Adams. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
“How can we distinguish what is biologically determined from what people merely try to justify through biological myths? A good rule of thumb is ‘Biology enables, Culture forbids.’ Biology is willing to tolerate a very wide spectrum of possibilities. It’s culture that obliges people to realize some possibilities while forbidding others. Biology enables women to have children — some cultures oblige women to realize this possibility. Biology enables men to enjoy sex with one another — some cultures forbid them to realize this possibility. Culture tends to argue that it forbids only that which is unnatural. But from a biological perspective, nothing is unnatural. Whatever is possible is by definition also natural. A truly unnatural behavior, one that goes against the laws of nature, simply cannot exist.” — Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
I have blogged often about my struggles with a mild case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In hindsight, I find I’ve spent my life obsessing mostly about socially acceptable pursuits: Work. Music. Sports. Books. I have tons of bad habits, too. But, thankfully, I don’t obsess about washing my hands or bouncing quarters off the bed to make sure the covers are tucked in perfectly (I lived for a short while with a roommate who did; It was an eye opening experience!) I’d like to think I appear mostly normal to others.
Over the past thirty five years, I’ve worked with thousands of smart and successful people in the computing industry. Now that I look back on it, I am amazed by what a large percentage of them exhibited symptoms from one or other so-called psychological “disorder”, myself being the poster boy. When I talk about psychological disorders here, I’m referring to those listed in DSM 5: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the authoritative book on the topic according to the American Psychiatric Association.
I’m intentionally using quotes for the word “disorder” because I plan to argue that these once abnormal tendencies are now commonplace, at least in certain professions, and should no longer be viewed as abnormal nor should they be stigmatized. The question is not whether many of us suffer from such traits but whether we are able to function as normal and successful members of society despite them.
One obvious example of such behavior is an addiction to and an obsession for extreme sports. I claim, based mostly on anecdotal data, that a statistically aberrant percentage of successful people in the computer industry obsess over sports of one kind or another. I don’t mean running a 5K or going for a weekend hike with the dog. I mean ultra-marathoners who routinely run a hundred miles or more, Iron Man triathletes, bikers who do century rides every weekend, mountain climbers who train to climb Mt. Rainier, you name it.
Several articles have recently been written on this topic, highlighting surges in kiteboarding, skydiving, sports car racing, mountaineering, and other similar extreme endeavors among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. These are all extremely busy people — most of them working sixty, eighty, a hundred hours a week. Yet, they also somehow find the time to spend 24 hours running non-stop up a mountain or to bike two hundred miles from Seattle to Portland “for fun” in a single day!
This is not normal. You cannot compete in an Iron Man triathlon unless you obsess over your training. You cannot run a hundred miles in a single day unless you run the equivalent of a marathon (and more) every weekend. That takes time, it takes commitment, and it takes obsession. By the way, you’ve just been diagnosed as suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder!
Yes, of course, I see the logic. These are competitive people and they find avenues, outside of work, in which to push themselves. Or, perhaps I’m confusing cause and effect. Perhaps, it is precisely because they have obsessive personality traits that they are successful in this business. You need to obsess about work in order to succeed in this competitive environment. Either way, I claim we are seeing an ever increasing incidence of obsessive tendencies in the computing industry. Sports are just one (positive) example. I’ll give others below but you can basically fill in the blank. Every computer scientist I know obsesses over one thing or another. If it’s not sports, it’s music. Or it’s single malt scotch. Or it’s video games. Or it’s …
My own obsession with running meant I spent over twenty years doing permanent damage to my hips, knees, ankles, spine, etc. Even two years of debilitating pain after an injury and a lower back surgery a dozen years ago didn’t stop me.
Marathons were ultimately too harsh on my body so I settled down to a regular cadence of half marathons — at least one or two a month for a dozen years or more. I liked this distance not because it was less time consuming but because I could do it more frequently, causing even more damage!
I ran through the pain, I ran against the advice of doctors, I ran until I couldn’t run any more. It was only after the doctors gave up on my left ankle that I finally switched to biking, a sport that is much easier on your body but also requires two to three times as much time in the saddle for an equivalent workout. No worries. In order to compensate, I will have to bike four hours a day and go up the mountain for ten miles straight!
“If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.” — Ayn Rand. 1905–1982.
That is not normal. We have all grown accustomed to this kind of story and see it as normal but it requires obsessive tendencies to compete at this level. I’m not fast enough or strong enough to compete at a professional level. The only person I’m competing with is myself. Note that I’m not painting a negative picture here. Not every obsession is a bad thing. I’m happy that some of us have found relatively positive avenues for our obsessive tendencies.
Studies have also shown that autism is linked to mathematical talent and that college students opting for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) degrees have a higher than normal incidence of autism in their families. One of the symptoms of autism is an “intense interest in a limited number of things” — in other words, obsessive behavior.
The prevalence of mild autism (Asperger’s Syndrome) has been documented widely in the industry with well known examples such as Bill Gates. He is one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever met, but, according to the book, he “suffers” from a psychological “disorder”.
OCD and Asperger’s are only two of the psychological “disorders” that I have witnessed in the industry. In many cases, people with these conditions end up with successful careers despite (or perhaps because of) their “disabilities”.
Clinical depression is another common, but often hidden, problem. Suicide is rare but not unheard of (I personally know of several cases among colleagues). More common are addiction to alcohol and drugs, trends that are sometimes tacitly allowed by high tech companies.
“According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, computer and data processing workers have the highest incidence of heavy alcohol consumption. Nearly 16.2 out of every 100 workers admit to engaging in heavy alcohol use.” — Jefferson Hane Weaver. What are the Odds?: The Chances of Extraordinary Events in Everyday Life.
Addictions to computer games are less stigmatized and, arguably, even more prevalent in the industry. Spending hours a day in front of a video game requires obsession just like running and biking do. I’ve argued elsewhere that addiction and obsession are just two sides of the same coin — the former simply refers to negative obsessions that are ostracized by society.
The Addiction Gene
"If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact, not to be solved, but to be coped with over time."…
Of course, every organization also has its share of ADHD, megalomaniacs, paranoids, narcissists, and other “abnormal” personality traits. It is a testament to human ingenuity that we all manage to behave as normal productive team members and leaders even while grappling with these “psychological disorders”.
Which brings me to my point: I wonder if we are just a microcosm of society at large — in other words, that these so called “psychological disorders” are now more commonplace than in the recent past, in which case, perhaps we should stop calling them “disorders” and “diseases”.
After all, do you know anyone who doesn’t obsess over their Facebook feed, their Twitter feed, their Instagram feed, or their Slack channels, checking his or her smartphone every two minutes? Does everyone have OCD!?!
If everyone is obsessed about something all the time, perhaps this is really just the new normal. A few short years ago, relatively few of us obsessed over our electronic friends — the computers. Fast forward twenty years and we seem to have addicted the entire planet.
Or, perhaps, as data seems to indicate, there really are a disproportionate number of those personality “disorders” present in the computing industry. Are we perhaps just the vanguard of society at large in this respect? The canary in the coal mine, so to say?
I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that our DNA hasn’t evolved fast enough over the past few dozen years to accommodate such drastic changes in social demographics. Which means, these “disorders” may be influenced by genetics but are more often learned behaviors reinforced by the environment and activities we choose to pursue.
If you don’t believe me, just look at how quickly the general public (and specially the next generation) has taken to their digital addictions, something that didn’t even exist twenty years ago. Either we have an epidemic of digital addiction on our hands or this is just the new normal — mostly learned behavior, rewarded and reinforced by our online interactions. Either way, it’s happened too quickly to be genetically based.
“One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations…. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.” — Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
The more competitive we become in the workplace, the more money we make, the more often we get promoted, the more addicted we become to work. It’s a virtuous cycle for a few and a vicious one for many.
The same is true in our social activities and personal lives. The more pieces of gold we collect in a video game, the more likely we are to return and try again — even if those pieces of gold are not real. The more frequently we check our social media feeds, the more frequently we are rewarded by updates, the more likely we are to come back for more.
One of the costs of such a life is a tendency to obsessive behavior. Either everyone has suddenly developed a genetic predisposition to OCD or we see a huge uptick because the environment rewards and reinforces obsessive behavior. As we build ever more immersive (read: addictive) experiences in the digital world, we should be careful about the impact those experiences have on our psyches.
I know this is an oversimplification but I like that latter answer. I like believing that such traits are about learned behaviors as much, if not more, than about genetics.
Learned behaviors can be unlearned. The environment can be changed.