Is there such a thing as Founder Syndrome? Looking at the possibility of an eccentricity syndrome for entrepreneurs
[Is There Such a Thing As Founder Syndrome?: Testing a New Idea for Entrepreneurship]
As a lover of language, I often will obsess and delight in a phrase or a word that I think offers unique insight into humanity or experience.
Language can sometimes open up doors into understanding, not simply because a definition is precise, or taken literally. Used in an inventive way, you can see the world differently and perhaps understand something for its unique traits.
I find this to be the case with understanding and learning about founders. Founders tend to break the mold, as we say, but we tend to see them — I say “we” meaning the general VC and startups ecosystem — through a really traditional business lens, contrary to how unique they are.
In fact, I am not so sure you can see a founder’s traits through a business lens, because what founders do is much different than simply running a business. I think you have to creatively see them in a new way.
This idea struck me deeply while I was in Japan, where I was relaxing with a memoir about the late neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, while my colleagues skied and snowboarded on a cloud-covered mountain in the snow. Sacks died in 2015, but spent a career curing neurological diseases by taking a unique approach.
I came across the word “syndrome.”
It has a nice ring to it, but first, the context.
First of all, Sacks is famous for a medical experiment that “unlocked” patients who were frozen in a kind of living coma situation. You may have seen this in a movie called “Awakenings.”
These patients would be frozen in a state of hibernation, awake, but not able to move. Sacks came up with the idea of dosing them with a chemical called L-DOPA, and the results were extraordinary. Almost overnight, these “vegetables,” as he empathetically described him in his memoir, awakened. In one case, Sacks took a red ball he kept in his pocket and threw it at a seemingly unmovable patient, who immediately snapped to and caught the ball, threw it back, and then resumed his catatonic state.
Sacks was also something of an eccentric, who was notorious for doing things that probably a normal sane person would never do.
For example, as a medical intern in California, he once drank a vial of blood, washing it down with a glass of milk, simply because he felt compelled to understand what it tasted like. A lover of motorcycles, he quite recklessly “stepped off,” as he put it, his bike traveling at 80mph, just to see what would happen. What happened? A few bruises and a torn leather jacket and pants. But nothing horrible.
In certain circles, he is still considered to be notorious and misunderstood. But his view of diagnoses centered on finding the “syndrome,” and treating the syndrome as a kind of identity.
And here is our word of the day!
I am not suggesting that founders are sick people. I am saying that they are different, because they present a type of syndrome that other humans do not possess.
Syndrome, in the Greek etymology, means “a running together.”
Often we look at disease as this kind of failure of the system. Something has invaded. Something has harmed the corpus of the human. But Sacks looked at syndrome issues quite literally as a grouping of things that made the patient unique.
Instead of instantly diagnosing and medicating neurological patients, he would sit and talk to them for hours, trying to understand the unique syndrome of their identity.
In one instance, he talked for four hours to a raving manic dementia patient, later concluding that there was something “inherently human about that identity in there.”
Can the same be done with founders? Do they present a syndrome of entrepreneurship?
What are the characteristics of this founder syndrome?
I won’t spend this whole post describing my idea, but I think a central and core attribute of a Founder Syndrome is that the discomfort that founders experience with reality is also the impetus and the catalyst that moves them to “solve” reality with their own attributes.
This syndrome manifests itself in an overarching belief that they can change the world. They are somewhat delusional and even maniacal in their approach to reality solutions. The world doesn’t work for them, and rather than mire themselves in depression and disappointment in it, their syndrome rather creatively enables them to, in an expansive way, impact the lives of other people, and create things that shift reality.
Steve Jobs once said that you can only understand your journey by looking backwards, and connecting the dots after you have completed them. This is quite symptomatic of a founder syndrome.
There are no dots to connect, until you make them. A consciousness that sees the world for what it can be can seem to some like crazy talk. Just look at Elon Musk. For how long has he heard that his ideas are stupid, crazy, not worth the paper they are printed on?
Or Nikola Tesla, who died in poverty, not being believed?
Or Marie Curie, who obsessively hunted down invisible radioactivity, which killed her, but without whom we would not be able to treat cancer, or plausibly have nuclear energy?
All of these people have something of the Founder Syndrome, an ability to see what is not seen by others, and to manifest it into reality, creating incredulity until the new reality is undeniable.
Are you suffering from a syndrome, friend? If you would like to be part of our accelerator and invent what has not existed before, and if you would like to be around other unique people like you, track our application process at https://appworks.tw/accelerator
Our next cohort will start in the summer.
We would be glad to take your application when they launch later in the year. We will be accepting founders working in AI and Blockchain.
Communications Master, AppWorks
Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash