The Fine Line Between Genius and Insanity and How Not to Cross It

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Just a few months ago, the tech world was astounded by the bizarre story of John McAfee, the founder of McAfee Anti-Virus, who after living for years in Belize was wanted in connection with the murder of one of his neighbors. It wasn’t long before the story’s weird factor was ratcheted up to ten by rumors that McAfee had been experimenting (in a quasi-professional sense) with drugs, including the zombifying phenomenon known as “bath salts.”

Now, just a week or so ago, Aaron Swartz, co-founder of Reddit and Internet activist, took his own life after what is now being described as a long-term battle with depression. Many, however, are stating the real impetus behind Swartz’s tragic end were the criminal charges he faced for hacking into and downloading a massive amount of articles from JSTOR, a scholarly article database. Some have implied that Swartz was being targeted because of firmly held belief that information on the Internet should be freely accessible.

However you look at it, each of these stories is a tragedy and a shame. What makes geniuses like these guys become so depressed, isolated, so alienated from the rest of humanity and what passes for “normal” behavior? The title of this post is drawn from a quote attributed to the multi-talented Oscar Levant, who despite—or perhaps due to—his vast talents suffered from mental illness. I don’t mean to be insensitive to McAfee or the family of Swartz by using the term “insanity,” but I do think that we need to look at it as a possible outcome from some of the habits and encouraged behaviors of tech geniuses. So, let’s look at a few of these habits that might just lead to mental illness, mild or even severe.

1. Solitude Becomming Hermitage

It’s not hard to see how damaging isolation can be, and yet many of us would admit that its difficult to do in-depth tech work in a loud, crowded place. Even in an office with other techs, I’m sure most of us are “plugged” into our machines via earbuds. I’m not opposed to this—most of my blog post are fueled by Miles Davis—but we should recognize our need for the real world, our need for others to keep us grounded. Balance your need/desire for time alone with your need for time with people. You may never be a social butterfly, but you shouldn’t be a hermit either.

2. Task-First, People-Second

Even if one is not physically isolated, being so task-focussed that you ignore the world around can be equally dangerous. Focus on the task-at-hand is an important trait, but it can’t be how you operate all of the time. Obsession doesn’t generally lead to healthy living or healthy relationships, for that matter. (I’m constantly haunted by Steve Jobs’ response to being asked why he wanted his biography written, “So my kids will know me.” **Shudders**) When I spend an hour writing instead of an hour playing with my daughter, I have to ask myself, “Will the person who reads this enjoy it/benefit from it as much as Emma would have enjoyed/benefitted from her dad playing with her?” People are more important than projects. In my experience, it’s our relationships with people that inspire our best work and give our work context and importance. If you don’t care for your family, how will you be able to care for your audience/clients?

3. Destructive Habits

Physical and emotional isolation are fuel for the fire of self-destruction. Left to ourselves, even the best of us will surrender to our baser instincts, and this is where our souls—and our work—suffers. How many geniuses have been cut down in their prime due to addiction? Whether its pornography/sex, drugs/alcohol, needless risk-taking, etc.—Loneliness stalks the isolated mind, and brings these evil friends with him. Accountability and honesty can go a long way to keeping one safe from self-destruction, and yet the first step is to keep ones self from a place of vulnerability, i.e. extreme isolation and obsession.

4. No Limits

Highly intelligent, productive, isolated people are often allowed the privilege of working without the same constraints that we mere mortals chaff under. They don’t generally work with any direct supervision and may not have anyone to answer to at all. While this may give them freedom to think and work with unrestrained creativity, it also makes them more likely to self-destruct, since the very nature of limitations is to prevent us from moving beyond what is safe. If we want to be less vulnerable, less likely to self-destruct, then we need to establish restrictions and limitations that will be enforced against us for protection.

5. Lack of Transcendence

Whether you believe in God or not, few creative, intelligent people would deny the human need for transcendence, for glimpses of something beyond the physical, tangible world we live in. If all you do is drown in the mundane, the day-to-day, you’ll quickly find your work becoming stale and lifeless. When we keep ourselves closed off—from others and from the divine—we cut ourselves off from what fuels creativity: interaction with the outside world. We need to reach outside of ourselves to be truly empowered to create with authenticity and with originality.

There’s nothing wrong with working hard, lonely hours when needed. There’s a problem when we cut ties with others, remove all restrictions, and lose our creative fuel. The mind is a tricky thing, equally capable of producing beautiful, world-changing creations or destroying ourselves, while perhaps taking others with us.

What else might help us stay on the right side of this fine line?

Is this really something that we should be concerned about?

[Image via VinothChandar]

Phil Schneider

I'm a teacher and discipleship pastor. I'm also a husband to the greatest woman in the world and a father to a ridiculously cute daughter. I also occasionally scratch out a few blog posts. You can buy my first book, My Evil Rhyme Schemes, here.

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