The Uses of Madness


van-gogh-460_1441693cWhen I was in grade school, my ironclad bedtime routine included setting out the next day’s clothing. I didn’t fold the clothes, but laid them carefully on the floor exactly as I would put them on: pants next to socks, socks next to shoes, and so on.  An unsuspecting passer-by would assume either 1) a small child had suddenly evaporated; 2) I was maybe a bit obsessive/compulsive.

The link between talent and neural disorders is fascinating. The list of world-class performers who have been diagnosed as bipolar, obsessive-compulsive, or autistic is staggeringly long: Hemingway, John Nash, Nijinsky, Van Gogh, Faulkner, Orwell, Nabokov, and Glenn Gould, to name a tiny handful.

We usually think of this link in poetical terms. According to this way of thinking, certain people are gifted with an innate superpower (genius) that carries a terrible price (madness).

This view is tempting. The only problem: it’s not true. Almost nobody – including the crew listed above – has been found to be exempt from the rule of 10,000 hours. Even savants, according to Dr. Michael Howe in his insightful book, Genius Explained, achieve their skill through intense practice. They aren’t different; they are simply better at doing what we’re all trying to do: to focus, to practice deeply, and to build superfast neural circuitry.


  • OCD creates precise repetitions and elaborately organized behavior.
  • Autism creates focus, sensitivity to detail, and repetitions.
  • Manic-depression creates periods of high energy.

All of these processes are key elements of the skill-building process – which is all about repeating, making connections, and which requires large amounts of energy. (Perhaps that’s why these disorders exist; after all, if they had no benefit, why would evolution have selected for these traits?)

Which leads us to an interesting idea: what if geniuses aren’t geniuses because of innate ability, but rather because of the way their disorders equip them for highly motivated practice? I don’t want to be flip here – I’m not saying it’s an advantage to be depressed or autistic. And surely there are some rare synesthesic savants like Daniel Tammet who are wired differently from birth.

But I’d like to suggest that for most of us, the connection between genius and neural disorders holds two lessons.

  1. The majority of geniuses are building their brains using the same tools as the rest of us.
  2. We should align our talents with our disorders. Seeing as many of us possess mild, garden-variety versions of neural disorders, we should funnel those behaviors toward the practice that will grow the skills we desire.

When I think about my own life, I can see how I’ve done this almost unconsciously. While I no longer lay out my clothes the night before, I do have a ridiculously baroque system for organizing my notes. It’s obsessive, to be sure, but it works pretty well when it comes to capturing and arranging  ideas for a book or an article. (My sock drawer? Don’t get me started.)

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5 Responses to “The Uses of Madness”

  1. Siddhartha says:

    I think with enough analysis you’d find all of us have a mental abnormality.

  2. Holly says:

    Enjoyed reading this. I’ve always laid out my clothes for the next day, and have my closet arranged by color, fabric and expense. It helps my mind to see it laid out like that. My biz files are color coded as well. I think I must find a way of incorporating this into my writing practice. Colored pens? The real answer is 10,000 hours. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Nona says:

    For a short time, right out of university, I worked in a facility for adults with mental illness. After getting to know these men and women, I often thought that they must have some element of our next evolutionary step, because they all seemed to possess some level of genius, in one way or another.

    Fascinating how those traits cultivate and nurture great talent in so many.

  4. Robert says:

    I just finished reading your book.
    It was good read and I enjoyed it.

    I am a so called master coach and it was facinating to read about “me” in your book, and I also work with dyslexic kids, I developed from the NLP spelling strategy a way to show why the methods of whole form reading and the phonetics are wrong and right.

    I got results with dyselxic kids with diagnose where I am able sometimes to help them in an hour, and some requrie more work as you actually have to teach them to access their brain in a totally new way and build a new neural circuit.

    In spite of my results, the science and school are highly uninterested in what I do.
    I can show science why they are wrong and what they need to do today to help build better programs in school.

    I am applying the same ideas you sought out in the talent code into my golf practice using a highly intense workout and also the technology I worked forward the last 7 years after a initial modeling and research I done.
    I rebulding my golf technique in weeks that everyone tells me it take years.
    3 weeks into this I am clearing up old habits and building new ones.

    I used the technology I had to raise my skills playing battlefield 2 a PC game from average to world class in 3 weeks.
    The difference was and is astounding.
    (that was before I even knew about your book)
    If you wanna play agaisnt me, let me know 😉

    I come from the NLP field where I applied what you write about, detailed practice working with clients over and over until i understood the patterns and what made it work as it did.
    I today have moved away from NLP to something I developed, RBIM.

    Thx again for a good read.

    /Robert Johansson

  5. Alex says:

    Have you read Moonwalking with Einstein from Joshua Foer?

    Real Savants exist, but Daniel Tammet isn’t one of them. There are many people in the world that can beat him at the memory and math skills he have.

    I’ve studied this for a bit and “vivid images” is pretty much at the core of the memory techniques, you put them into a “loci” and then you retrieve the meaning from the image that is easy to remember.

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