On ‘Why Smart People Get Depressed’
Why do smart people get depressed? And what can we do about it?
That was the theme, and title, for a brilliant recent article by Henrik Mårtensson (@Kallokain). In the subsequent Twitter-conversation, Henrik asked us for our opinions and experiences – hence this post.
And it’s certainly an important concern for many of us, as Torbjörn Gyllebring (@drunkcod) drily notes:
- RT @drunkcod: I don’t know if I’m supposed to be happy or depressed that a talk on stress and depression overflows the room… #lascot14 Go @NativeWired
In my own experience, both first-hand and from observing others, I’d agree with Henrik, though perhaps with a somewhat different perspective.
First, I’d say that depression and self-doubt are inherent occupational-hazards in enterprise-architecture and related fields. I’ve written various posts here about this over the years – again, both from first-hand (see, for example, ‘Downer again – and some deeper doubts‘ or ‘I’m sorry, but I just can’t afford it‘) and from observing others (see ‘On self-doubt‘ or ‘On learning enterprise-architecture‘). As we’ll see from some of what follows, it seems likely that depression and self-doubt are actually implicit in the nature of the work: so much so, in fact, that we can almost use it as a performance-metric – that if we’re not hitting it from time to time, we’re probably not doing our job properly.
Before going into this in any depth, though, a rather important question that follows from Henrik’s headline: Who are we calling ‘smart’? Henrik had an explicit answer to this:
I’m not talking about real geniuses, but about people with an IQ of about 120 and up.
I’d actually disagree with that, though: I don’t think this ‘occupational hazard’ is about IQ as such. In my own case, I don’t think I’ve ever been tested for IQ, but I doubt it would be “120 and up”. Some people seem to think that I’m ‘intelligent’ or some such, which is flattering, but I definitely don’t feel intelligent or ‘smart’ – quite the opposite, usually, I’m acutely aware of just how limited and constrained my knowledge and experience really is…
But importantly, I’ve seen exactly the same kind of depression amongst a lot of people I would regard as ‘smart’, but almost certainly wouldn’t score high on an IQ test: a couple of serious dyslexics, for example, a couple of near-illiterate yet highly-successful street-traders, a whole swathe of artists of various kinds. There’s very real intelligence amongst those people, no doubt about that – but IQ would not be the only measure of it.
I’ve also seen far too many people who think they’re ‘smart’, and may even score very highly on IQ-tests, but somehow manage to do the most outrageously stupid things – and, very notably, never seem to suffer any depression (though are a key cause of it for all too many others…). The classic example of this was the crew at Enron, who famously described themselves as ‘the smartest guys in the room‘, and, uh, definitely weren’t. Likewise economist and Nobel prizewinner Myron Scholes, whose LTCM (Long Term Capital Management) hedge-fund collapsed in 1998 “with off-balance sheet derivative positions with a notion value of $1.25 trillion” – almost triggering a global economic meltdown.
So we’re left with a somewhat odd category-definition: the ‘smart people who get depressed’ that we’re actually talking about here are those who demonstrate a particular kind of ‘smarts’ that can take a very wide variety of forms, but seem to be susceptible to a particular kind of depression that itself is somehow linked – maybe causally, maybe not – to that kind of ‘smarts’. Yes, it’s kinda circular, but it’s perhaps the best we have for the moment: just accept it, and move on?
Anyway, to me, there seem to be four key themes here:
- depression as an illness and/or physiological disorder
- external factors – colleagues, context and more
- internal factors – skills-development, self-challenge and more
- aloneness – social and other consequences of innovation
First, depression as an illness. As Henrik says, “depression is not an illness, it’s a collection of symptoms” – yet we do need to talk about it, including those aspects where it could be construed as ‘an illness’. It’s probably not a core factor for the kind of depression that we’re exploring here, but it does need to be considered as a potential element in the mix.
Probably the classic example of depression-as-an-illness that would be significant in this context is bipolar disorder. People with this type of disorder – identified as around 1-3% of the population, varying by country – would perhaps tend to gravitate to these types of work, since they tend to be extremely productive and creative during the ‘manic’ phase of the cycle. (Definitely not so productive, though, during the depressive phase…) Some of the greatest comedians have been notably prone to this, including Tony Hancock, Spike Milligan and Robin Williams. It’s a spectrum, though, and it’s quite probable that a fair few of us in enterprise-architecture and the like would sit towards the lower-end of that spectrum. Almost certainly so in my case, anyway.
Yet the point, perhaps, is that depression not a straightforward ‘illness’: and even as an ‘illness’, there are a lot of other factors that can trigger it off. Perhaps chief amongst the external factors is the frustration of having to explain the same point again and again, when people still don’t get it… – especially when we know that it’s not going to work properly, if at all, until they do get it. As just about every enterprise-architecture will know all too well, from first-hand experience, there are huge, huge stresses that arise from trying to get things to work within a dysfunctional organisation – and, to be blunt, most of our organisations are seriously dysfunctional in many, many different senses. That’s hard; and that in itself is a key source of depression. Not least because depression is often anger-turned-inward – and there are a lot of reasons to be angry about the incompetence and self-dishonesties and sheer stupidities that pervade right the way through to the core of so many of our culture’s organisations and institutions. Oh well.
Which leads us to the internal factors in depression. Perhaps the key example here is the sense that, whatever we do, it’s not good enough. Yes, we could always do it better – but that means that right now we’re always doing it worse than we ‘could’ or ‘should’. However much I write, there’s always more to do, always more to explain, and it always takes longer than it ‘could’ or ‘should’ – all too easy to get depressed about that…
Yet it’s also all too easy to miss those quote-marks around ‘could’ or ‘should’ – miss the reality that in practice, in these circumstances, in this iteration, we probably can’t and shouldn’t attempt to do it any better: it is ‘good enough’ as it is. The greatest skill of a real artist is to know when to stop – and if we don’t know or can’t see that subtle moment of ‘when to stop’, depression from a sense of failure is an all-too-common outcome.
Again, though, that kind of depression is almost a sign that we’re doing the job properly, treating it with the respect it deserves and needs. In these kinds of fields, if we don’t notice that we could always do it better, the most likely emotional response is a sense of superiority, of certainty, of smug complacency – all of which, in contexts that are undergoing or at risk of disruption and rapid change, should probably be regarded as alarm-bells, not signs for satisfaction!
All of these perhaps apply particularly in the skills-learning process – often described as a roller-coaster of emotion, but which these days I tend to illustrate via the pathway-pattern of the skills-labyrinth:
There’s actually one path in the labyrinth: if we can somehow just keep going, keep going, we will eventually arrive at some form of mastery. Yet the twists and turns of the path, and the emotional and other stresses that arise from this – especially in a social context – can make it all a lot harder than it looks, especially from the outside. For example, notice how we start at ‘Beginner’s Luck’, and move straight in to ‘take control’; but to get much better we have to go through the painful, boring, debilitating slog of practice, practice, practice, way out on the outer of ‘Survival’, where everything we see and do seemingly shows us that we’re worse at this than anyone else – including, it seems, the raw beginners. That last point gets hammered home at ‘the Dark Night of the Soul’ – classically, the day before the exam, or the presentation before the executive-board – where we’re likely to get hit with a sense of incompetence or utter failure that can indeed feel like ‘depression to the max’.
If we can get through ‘the Dark Night’ – classically, by focussing on the skill for its own sake, rather than on ourselves and our ‘failures’ – we then hit up against one of the oddest parts of the labyrinth. For the first time – much like that first moment of ‘getting it’ when learning to ride a bicycle – we reach a point where we’ll now never lose that core competency: there’s a lot more still to learn, to ‘get better’, but the key qualitative shift has been done. Yet in our practical work on this, it’s also suddenly a place where there’s seemingly no words, no language, that we use to describe what’s going on for us at this point in the skills-learning process: words just don’t seem to work. And as you’ll see from comparing the paths either side of that circuit, we’re also in a place where we seem to have almost nothing in common with those either side of us: they’re either much earlier in the process than we are (‘Control’, outside, but right near the start) or much later (‘Communication’, inside, but right near the end). Which too often brings on a real, intense, inescapable sense of aloneness.
On the positive side, a sense of aloneness is a straightforward, even necessary element both of skills-development and of any form of exploration or innovation. For example, in skills-development, the methods that we use arise from an intersection between the mechanics of the skill – the ‘objective’ elements, that which is the same for everyone – and the approaches to the skill – the ‘subjective’ elements, that which is unique to each person, and why it is a genuine skill rather than a mechanistic process. There’s more on this in my post ‘Methods, mechanics, approaches‘, but we could summarise this visually as follows:
It’s also illustrated well in the SCAN framework, in which anything which is truly novel or new – as explored or discovered in SCAN’s ‘Not-known’ domain – is also, by definition, so different as to place us inherently alone until we choose to share it with someone else:
Yet even if we do choose to share our insights with others, it’s not always – perhaps never? – certain or even possible that we can. And given the social contexts in which we live, and the nature of humans as a social species, that in itself can be a huge source for depression. Lack of language to describe key ideas can be really hard…
Ironically, there doesn’t seem to be any good term in English to describe this type of depression: to describe it, we have to turn to other languages. Welsh has the term hiraedd (pronounced ‘hirayeth’), and Portuguese the concept of saudade – in both cases often weakly translated as ‘homesickness’ or ‘nostalgia’, but perhaps more accurately indicating “a longing and a grieving for that which is not, has never been and most probably shall never be”. In the original terms, it’s most often linked to loss of a loved-one, or loss of connection with a loved place, a place of ‘belonging‘ – each of which are epitomised respectively in the Lisbon and Coimbra styles of Portuguese fado music or, for that matter, in much of Afro-American blues.
What we’re dealing with here has much the same intensity, but is perhaps more about loss of connection with ideas, a connection back to where we started – a kind of ‘homesickness’ for some way to connect what we’ve discovered, and who we are in that skills-development sense, back to the mainstream, the ‘ordinary world’. (The tension in the classic ‘Hero’s Journey‘ storytelling-model so beloved by Hollywood is driven in part by that same form of ‘homesickness’, the desire to return or connect back to ‘the known’, ‘the ordinary world’.) And we can’t – precisely because what we are, where we are, what we’ve discovered, is different.
Until we can find the right language, the right framing, to bring our insights back to others, we’re stuck: and if we can’t bring it back, those insights will literally die with us. When we combine that kind of tension with all the other themes here – depression as an illness, depression triggered by others, depression driven by inner factors such as skills-development and the sense of ‘failure’ – it’s hardly surprising that depression is as prevalent as it is amongst those many different types of ‘smart people’. What’s arguably more surprising is that it’s only as prevalent as it is…
It’s perhaps difficult to describe just how intense a feeling of aloneness even a small amount of ‘difference’, ‘eccentricity’, isolation can elicit: and it gets worse the further we drift from the mainstream, the norm – even, or perhaps especially, if our work requires us to do so, as is the case with artists, enterprise-architects and so many others. One of the best descriptions I’ve seen is this comment by one of the characters in Pratchett and Baxter’s novel The Long Mars:
I was once enough like them to understand. How it is to be different, how it is to be surrounded by blank faces and empty heads, to know there is nobody you can talk to, no parent, no teacher, no way you can empty your head of the insights rattling inside it. And to be frightened, almost all of the time.
Frightened? Yes – and with good reason so in my own case, unfortunately. Any kind of difference, any kind of change, any kind of connection-across-contexts that people don’t expect (as in much of above, perhaps?), will invoke a mythquake: and when the mythquakes are large enough in magnitude – maybe almost any level of mythquake magnitude – seems that most people’s immediate response is one of ‘shoot the messenger’…
Given what I’ve uncovered along the way in my work on themes such as possession, on current concepts of economics, on sexism, on the wrongs of ‘rights’, on the dangers of IT-centrism in EA, on the overall role of enterprise-architecture, even the meaning and role of magic, it not only often feels I’m pretty much alone in much of my understanding about the world, but I often get attacked. Very personally, much of it. Intensely, almost all of it. A lot. For ‘sins’ such as heresy – literally, ‘to think differently’ – or, in some cases, seemingly for the ‘sin’ of existing at all. Which doesn’t exactly help self-esteem – or anything else, for that matter. Hence, in turn, rather too much of a tendency towards depression. No surprises there, really.
There’s no easy way out of this – not just for me, but for any of us, I’d suspect. Not only is there the problem of no-language to describe things, but in many cases they either won’t or can’t ‘get it’: their experience of the world is different from ours after all, so they don’t the same experiences through which such things and ideas can ‘make sense’. And there’s also this blunt reality, too, that in some cases they dare not ‘get it’:
Never expect someone to ‘get it’ if their income, job or status, depends on not ‘getting it’…
Not easy… none of this is easy…
Overall, though, do read Henrik’s post – it’s important, for all of us in this kind of work. And I hope this adds a useful commentary and addendum, perhaps.