Why smart people get depressed, and what you can do about it

About a week ago I posted an article on the IHM Business School blog about an important, but very taboo subject.  At more than 15,000 unique page views the first few days, it is probably the most read article I have ever written. With more than 130 comments on the IHM Blog, it is certainly the most discussed.

I was amazed, not only that the article arose such interest, but of the very thoughtful responses, and how many people that have had similar experiences.

Leif Claesson, one of the commenters, even took the trouble to translate the article into English.

Because of the interest in the original article, I am publishing Leif's translation here.

Here is a link to the original article on the IHM Business School blog.


This was a very difficult article to write. If you prefer reading easy pieces regarding easy subjects, you should skip this one.

Robin Williams recent suicide, received a lot of coverage. The speculations with regards to why one of the world’s most gifted comedians would take his own life have spanned the entire gamut from “cowardice”, an unfortunate statement from a news anchor, to depression, resulting among other things from the fact that Robin Williams had been diagnosed with Parkinsons.

“Depression is an illness” say many well-meaning people, and “we have to start talking about it”.

It’s actually only half correct. Depression is not an illness! Depression is a collection of symptoms. It is however correct that we have to start talking about it.
Depression can have many different causes, for example physical brain damage, and a genetic disposition for depression. That type of depression can be treated medically and therapeutically. There is a third cause. A cause that is so taboo that not even the ones who say they want to talk about depression, want to talk about this particular one.

It’s a type of depression that afflicts highly talented and intelligent people. Highly intelligent people are often depressed, but certain research has shown that they commit suicide with lower IQ. One possible explanation is that intelligent people more often find concrete and workable solutions to desperate problems. They are more introspective and can monitor and understand their own emotional reactions in a way that most people cannot. Another explanation is that smart people often have smart friends. They know how to express their feelings, and they have friends who understand what they mean. This creates safety valves which not every person has.

But, if smart people really have a higher than average resistance to depression, what is it that makes them depressed more often? What can one do about it as a manager?

Let’s start by trying to wear a smart person’s shoes. I’m not talking about real geniuses, but about people with an IQ of about 120 and up.
The average IQ level is 100. A person with an EQ of 120 is above the 95th percentile, but we all tend to use ourselves as a reference. A smart person often views himself as fully normal. For the highly intelligent, it is average people that look weird: Doesn’t like to think, has trouble with simple mathematics, cannot create logical models, does not understand elementary statistics, cannot think critically, never attains a high level of competency in any particular field, isn’t curious, has no endurance for learning new things…

To illustrate the difference: Many people photograph their food and post the pictures on Facebook. It usually looks rather disgusting. I’ve never quite understood why people do that, but I figured I’d give it a try. If I did it myself, perhaps I could gain a better understanding.

Just taking a picture was of course too boring, so in order to make things interesting I decided to challenge myself: Create a short cooking show. Record and edit everything on an iPad, just to see if it was possible. To heighten the challenge, simultaneously record both a Swedish and an English version. How did it go? Rather well for an amateur video, thank you. If you want to see a show about how to cook Paccheri with minced meat sauce, drop me a line in the comments and I will post the link.

The point is that above-average performing individuals make more of an effort, almost whatever the subject. Others often appreciate the result, but want no part of the process.

If the work that the above-average performing individual results in others having to alter their workflow, the reaction is often negative: “We’ve never had to do that before.” Often there is a return to the old way of doing things, no matter how bad the old way was.

On top of that, one is inundated with “good” advice: Don’t think so much, dumb down your resume, try to be more like other people, stop dreaming, do as you’re told (no matter how stupid that is)…

Have you seen the movie Dumb and Dumber? Imagine living in a world where 19 out of 20 people you meet are like the main characters of that film.

A world like that is no fun to live in! For many people high intelligence is a curse, a torment that means you can never fit in, cannot laugh about the same things as others, cannot agree with others, cannot sit and chit-chat with others at parties… One becomes uncomfortable and therefore one goes to the trouble to find out why, when most would just accept the status quo.

A normal brain is designed to save energy. As the frontal lobes activate, the pain center of the brain also activates. This is why many people think solving math problems is uncomfortable. This is also why many people consider talking to intelligent people to be an uncomfortable experience. It’s difficult to follow the logic, evaluate facts and see correlation.

It’s not much fun for smart people either. It’s not fun to present a logical thought process, only to see the face of the person you’re talking to distort into a painful expression. Even worse when the person you’re talking to is a friend, relative or colleague.

So, you learn. You learn to hide what you’re thinking, to always wear a poker face. Never let down your guard at work, around relatives, when you’re out among people. Only among a small subset of people, those who suffer the same affliction as yourself, can you relax.

A good friend connected me with one of his friends, who happens to be a highly skilled mathematician. My good friend doesn’t live in my home town of Gothenburg, but the mathematician does, so we went out for coffee together. It took more than eight hours. We were both so starved to have a conversation with someone, without having to adapt, without slowing down, without having to be afraid of not being understood.

And, please note, I’m not all that smart! The problem is that much worse for people with really high intelligence.

I have a friend who is a brilliant programmer. Early in his career, he was an international troubleshooter at a well-known American technology corporation, and travelled anywhere there was a difficult-to-solve problem to be found. He has a photographic memory, speaks seven languages, is nice and pleasant, and enjoys working with others. He is even a good dancer.

Unfortunately, it was difficult for him to find a job for many years. Nobody wanted to hire him. Other programmers didn’t want to work with him. As he told me the story, I was bewildered. I’ve worked with him, and pair-programmed with him. He’s one of the two best pair-programming-partners I’ve ever had the honor of working with. So, why was he ill liked? Simply because when he is part of the team, it becomes impossible for anyone else to retain any illusions of their own competence.

Not that I could either. After working a day with him, my brain was like a wrung washcloth. And the next day, and the next, and the next… and I loved it! Fantastic challenges, every day. It was one of the most educational and most developmental periods of my life. For someone with low self-esteem, on the other hand, it could have been devastating.

He never did manage to find a job in Sweden. He finally moved abroad to find employment.

I once applied for a job at a large Swedish corporation. As part of the procedure I had to take an intelligence along with many other applicants. Afterwards, two of the testers took me aside. One of them asked me:

“Do you have any idea how intelligent you are?”

“No,” I said. I had a serious cold, my head was pounding, my nose was running, and I felt anything but smart.

After some time, I found out my application was not accepted. I assumed they had been looking for smarter people than me, but about a year later I talked to a recruiter who was very familiar with both the tests and the company:

“The tests purpose is to filter out people with excessive intelligence and initiative,” he said.

They simply didn’t want to have too smart people among the employees. Too great a risk that they have ideas of their own. Note that this was a technology company.

Many years have passed since that intelligence test, but I recently ran into another “knowledge company” which rejects people with a high level of knowledge. When they hire managers they filter out applicants with knowledge of Deming’s knowledge model: An appreciation of a system, understanding of variation, psychology, and Epistemology, or a theory of knowledge.

Reject! This is akin to searching for writers but only hiring illiterates.

I do realize that it’s not a direct goal to have incompetent managers, it’s just that the people responsible for hiring do not have a knowledge model to reference the applicants against. (Oh yes, I’ve checked, there is no other knowledge model either. It really is “no knowledge model”.) When they run across phrases they are unfamiliar with, such as “An appreciation of a system”, the reaction is negative.

No wonder intelligent people are often disillusioned and depressed. You throw yourself into working life to pitch in, help people, accomplish something good, and rather brusquely find out that the only thing that counts is the ability to fit into the system.

The first few years the effects are hardly noticeable, but it’s easy to let one-self wear down over time. When you’re young you fight the battles. When you’re a bit older you learn to choose which battles are worth fighting. Eventually there comes a time where you start thinking that, even though you have exactly the same need to participate and belong as everyone else, it’s just too strenuous. You pull away. Withdraw from associations, lose touch with friends, and at work you hide in your office. You stop presenting ideas or make suggestions because you know they will only result in fruitless arguments.

The need to think and do things is still there, but the possibility of finding an outlet for the energy withers away. Yet you become more and more isolated.

A few years ago, I had an idea: I realized how to reduce the energy consumption of the average home by 10-20%. Wise from the experience of previous attempts, I did the following: “I wrote the idea down, printed it on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope, and mailed the letter to myself. When I received the letter, I put it in my book shelf, and that’s where it stays. I’m not going to do anything with it. A year or so ago I heard of a team in the states who is working on an almost identical idea. I wish them success. (Update from Henrik: After I wrote the article, an Innovation company has expressed some interest, so I am going to present the idea for them after all. I can't stay grumpy all the time.)

Nowadays choose easier ways to express my creativity. I choose things I can handle myself, or with a small group of interested friends. I avoid things that require people outside the inner circle to think, because it usually ends badly.

Does it sound cruel and egotistical? Is my view of humanity all too dark? Let me tell you about the last time I engaged myself in something important.

I was working on risk analysis and discovered that a product at a company had a design flaw: The operator could end up in a position where he must make a crucial decision first, and only afterwards get the information which would have been the basis of the decision. Unfortunately lives could depend on the decision of the operator. That is, the wrong decision could have deadly consequences. I started evaluating competing products and found that they performed in the correct order. Then, I noticed the same procedural error was in the next generation of product the company was in the process of developing.

I sounded the alarm. Which resulted in: Nothing at all! Nobody wanted to correct the problem, because that might have led to extra administrative work. Implied: They might have to recall already sold units. It could also lead to the authorities critically looking into the company. They didn’t even want to correct the problem in the next generation of products, because that would be admitting that something was wrong.

This wasn’t the only problem at the company which could cause death. You can probably guess what happened when I tried to start these discussions.

So, you live and learn!

Depression because of these kinds of events is no illness. It’s simply a normal response to the situation. Once the depression is there, it in itself of course becomes yet another reason to stay depressed. It feeds itself. Additionally, if the self-esteem is tied to the ability to perform, as it often is, there’s the perpetual worry to lose the ability to think clearly, and that the energy to get things done may never return.

So, what can you as a manager do in order for highly intelligent employees not to break down?

It’s actually very simple: Let them floor it and go full speed, even if the rest of the company is still traveling by horse and carriage.

Within the field of strategy there is a very important principle, the Interaction and Isolation principle:
Strengthen the bonds between your own forces and allies, isolate your enemies.
The principle applies to war, chess, love, revenge, and business. You need to strengthen the bonds between the high-performing individuals in your organization. You must also isolate them from those who can, intentionally or unintentionally, hurt them. Thus, you have to make it easy for the high-performers to find each other, and organize themselves. You must also protect them, because people around them often feel threatened.

I’ve worked in environments like this. We employees were told which tasks had to be performed, but we ourselves got to organize ourselves and figure out the best way to get the job done. This resulted in us studying work methodology, organization, queueing-theory, psychology, and a host of other things. We then applied this knowledge in practice and learned how to work as efficiently as possible.

It would not have been possible for a manager to get close to organize us as effectively. We became a tightly welded gang. We made use of each other’s strengths, and we helped eliminate weaknesses.

It was fun to go to work in the morning, and sad to leave in the evening. When we were in the middle of a project, our bosses used to walk rounds in the evening and order people to go home. On Friday you couldn’t wait until Monday.

One more example:

My first real job was as a programmer at a marketing department. This was quite a while ago, so programmers were regarded as slightly mythical creatures. Not quite as rare as unicorns, but still magical. I was seventeen and knew better: I didn’t feel magical at all.

I’d learned to program by reading programming books at the library, and writing programs on paper. The school I attended had a computer room, but students had no access. Luckily there was this one teacher who didn’t mind smuggling those of us who were really interested inside. Qualified for product development I definitely was not, but all I could do was to try.

The first time I met the boss of the marketing department, he said: “I don’t know the first thing about programming, so I’m not going to tell you what to do. If you tell me what you need, I’ll take care of it.” He then took me out to one of the company’s customers, so that I could learn not only what needed to be built, but why.

It was wonderful! Many years passed before it finally dawned on me that most managers do not work this way.

When I subsequently worked on the project, I got to do it at my own pace. I stayed closely in touch with the hardware developers, but had no unnecessary brakes. The result? It went well! Everybody was satisfied beyond expectations, the work was done on time, and there were no bugs.

I’ve seen many companies where skilled managers have managed to create habitats where creative people can work without someone souring as soon as they get a new idea. Unfortunately these habitats are often dependent on individual managers. They’re not a part of the structure of the organization as a whole.

It’s also risky. A good manager gets loyal workers and a highly effective organization, but it’s also easy to make enemies. The manager who built that first effective organization I just told mentioned, where you didn’t want to go home at night, was reassigned in a subsequent reorganization. He quit about a year later.

I wish I could give you a recipe. Five easy steps that ensures the well-being of the people who work for you. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. You can do a lot of good things just by caring, helping with practical things, help the person find meaningful tasks and connect them with other high-performing individuals. The truth is of course that you need to have a strong position in your own organization in order to implement this without risking your own job and your own career.

You have to be the type of person who puts ethical principles before the instinct to fit in and be like everyone else. This of course means it’s likely that you yourself is a high-performing individual and have yourself experienced the problems that other high-performing individuals experience.

Good luck!


Don’t forget to write in the comments if you want to see how to cook Paccheri with minced meat sauce.

Note: A lot of people have asked about Paccheri with mincemeat sauce. Here is a link to the video: https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=2572665214719&set=vb.1796957830&type=3&theater


GD said…
I am 32 my IQ is 138, I often get depressed for many of the reasons you talked about. The absolute worst though is any time I tried to seek help from others about it, everyone would act like I was being smug or putting everyone else down if I so much as mentioned my intellect being any part of the problem. I learned to never mention my own intelligence ever, it is always greeted with hostility from people.
Kallokain said…
The best advice I can give is to try to build a network of friends similar to yourself. For some, joining an organisation like Mensa can help. For others, it is better to build friendships in other ways.

Finding the right kind of people is often difficult, but it can be done. Rather than focusing on finding smart people, you may prefer locating people with common interests. That is the approach I took. I am interested in photography, so I started a photography network a year and a half ago. Today, we are about 250 people in the network, and among those I have found a couple of people who have become close friends. A few of us are working on starting a company together. If we are successful, that will certainly make it easier to build strong relationships at work.
Anonymous said…
Wow. This was very interesting and relatable to me! I am impressed with how our views of society matched perfectly. Though I just started college, I can understand your view of life.
Anonymous said…
when i was little I was good at school, I was good at painting, languages, discussing about the book classics and so on... This wasn't some sort of obligation for me, I simply liked to do this. BUT other kids wasn't very keen on than and, apparently ,they didn't like to see me being around so motivated; since they couldn't call me 'stupid' or something like that, they found other ways to destroy me. Even a girl who I consider to be my best friend once called me 'ugly and wierd'....soo yep, they did managed to destroy my self esteem, later on I started to feel insecure, unwanted, never preetty enough...And even now, when I'm 22, I still think I don't have courage enough to become so called 'normal'
So, one big advice for all gitfed people: choose your friends wisely and if you feel unhappy in company -just fuck it :)

Popular posts from this blog

Waterfall - The Dark Age of Software Development Has Returned!

Waterfall vs. Agile: Battle of the Dunces or A Race to the Bottom?

Interlude: The Cost of Agile