A First-Rate Madness by Nassir Ghaemi

by Gwen


Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness

Ghaemi has a very controversial idea/premise here….

“This book argues that in at least one vitally important circumstance insanity produces good results and sanity is a problem. In times of crisis, we are better off being led by mentally ill leaders than by mentally normal ones.”

Now, I am sure that many people would read that or the blub on the book and think that Ghaemi is mad himself. I have chronic depression (often called dysthymic disorder) and I read this and thought, “Wait, there are people that can do great things while suffering from this? And sometimes, might even be better equipped than people without it?”

Note: I am not at this time announcing my candidacy for President and don’t pretend to think that I am going to change the world because of my condition. The idea that it can be overcome to the point of being a leader is inspiring though.

Ghaemi mentions four elements or characteristics of mania and depression that come in handy in a crisis; Empathy, Realism, Creativity, and Resilience. Then, he breaks down the book, by highlighting leaders that most likely had a mental illness and used one of those elements to their advantage.

For instance, he looks at General Sherman when talking about Creativity. While I am that they are some that would argue about whether or not Sherman actually was bipolar, there is no doubt that he had major mood swings throughout his life. What no one will quibble about is that Sherman created an entire new form of warfare with his march to the sea. He could see that the war was getting nowhere fast and that there had to be a way to end the bloodshed. His solution was to take the war to the people in order to break down the morale of the entire South.

“Creativity may have to do less with solving problems than with finding the right problems to solve.”

Getting back to the book as a whole. There are a few stumbles……

  • Ghaemi tends to overuse phrases, like “We shall soon see…” and while constantly redefining terms so that you don’t have to flip back to remind yourself of what he meant is nice, he does it ad nauseam.
  • Also, I am still completely flummoxed as to why Ted Turner is in the book at all. While he does probably suffer from a mental illness, I don’t think he belongs on a list of leaders that include, Sherman, Lincoln, Churchill, Ghandi, MLK, or even Hitler.
  • The last problem I had was with his bias coming out during the sections on George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Call me crazy, but if you want the idea of writing a psychological history to take off, you shouldn’t be letting your political bias ooze out quite so much.

I found the book absolutely freaking compelling. So much so that while I borrowed the ebook from the library, I just ordered the hardcover so that I would have an easy copy to refer to in the future. I couldn’t stop reading passages to my family members as I was reading it.

Are there going to be leaps that Ghaemi asks you to take that you don’t want to or don’t agree with?  Yes, even I wasn’t drinking the Kool-Aid for everything and you shouldn’t either. Walking away though, you might find yourself with a deeper understanding of what it means to be mentally ill and that the stigma that society places on us are just that, a stigma, not based in any actually fact. There are plenty more eye-openers to take-away as well.

4 Comments to “A First-Rate Madness by Nassir Ghaemi”

  1. Love learning about quirky, thought-provoking books like this!

  2. Congrats on a FIRST-RATE Review, Gwen! I appreciate how you break down the point of the book, uncover some biases, and share how it made you feel. Now I can stand by the water cooler with confidence when this book comes up.

    Three thoughts: (1) The cover is awesome for the way it foreshadows the subject matter with compelling visual bread crumbs; (2) do you really want to own a book that touts war as a creative act; and (3) clinical, and very real, differences between mental illness, dysthymia, depression, and bi-polar disorder aside, it doesn’t seem like the Ghaemi proves his point – just because some leaders have “it” doesn’t prove that having “it” is better than not having “it”.

    At any rate (pardon the pun), keep doing great things!

  3. Sean, you always make me smile.

    1) it is a strange and eye-catching cover.

    2)When you word it like that it doesn’t sound too great. However, I certainly would want any leader/general to be able to think outside of the norm in order to save lives in the long run. Think about how warfare has changed and the loss of life has been lessened because people thought creatively and didn’t just settle for sitting in a trench, shooting at the enemy. That may sound callous, it is hard to put into words in a simple comment. I do know that thanks to science and innovation, my step-son fought a very different war in Desert Storm than my grandfather did in WWII. Creativity can have disastrous results as well. 

    3) I think that the premise is almost impossible to prove and this goes along with #3 too. What we really know about mental illness and it’s treatment can be fit on the head of a pin as far as I am concerned. Years ago, just admitting that I was depressed could have gotten me locked up in a state hospital for life and even what we actually do know is being changed and manipulated every time a new DSM comes out.  Even my diagnosis has changed more times than I care to remember, never mind the different names for the same darn thing. 

    What I took away from the book is that mental illness isn’t a death sentence and doesn’t mean that one’s life, dreams, and hopes are over. That it is possible not to be defined by one’s illness and that personally, I am more than just my disease and that, like others he highlighted, I can make it work for me, not hobble me. 

  4. That is was Vicky! 

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