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Does Success Require Us To Leave Our Sanity Behind?

What’s the difference between the 1% and the rest of us? Mental health advocate and Houston Rockets rookie Royce White speaks up.

If you haven’t heard of him, Royce White was the NBA’s 16th overall draft of 2012. If you haven’t seen him play, that’s only because he hasn’t yet. Despite a record-breaking college sports career, he’s been plagued by ongoing anxiety issues, especially stress of flying. White refuses to take the court until the Rockets institute a "mental health protocol" that will allow him to have his own psychiatrist deem him fit to play. Grantland’s Chuck Klosterman published an amazing profile of the budding activist-athlete, and here’s an excerpt from an interview that touches on a much larger point:

White: Here’s an even tougher thing that we’re just starting to uncover: How many people don’t have a mental illness? But that’s what we don’t want to talk about.

Klosterman: Why wouldn’t we want to talk about that?
White: Because that would mean the majority is mentally ill, and that we should base all our policies around the idea of supporting the mentally ill. Because they’re the majority of people. But if we keep thinking of them as a minority, we can say, "You stay over there and deal with your problems over there."

Klosterman: OK, just so I get this right: You’re arguing that most Americans have a mental illness.
White: Exactly. That’s definitely correct.

Klosterman: But—if that’s true—wouldn’t that mean "mental illness" is just a normative condition? That it’s just how people are?
White: That doesn’t make it normal. This is based on science. If there was a flu epidemic, and 60 percent of the country had the flu, it wouldn’t make it normal. . .the problem is growing, and it’s growing because there’s a subtle war—in America, and in the world—between business and health. It’s no secret that 2 percent of the human population controls all the wealth and the resources, and the other 98 percent struggle their whole life to try and attain it. Right? And what ends up happening is that the 2 percent leave the 98 percent to struggle and struggle and struggle, and they eventually build up these stresses and conditions.

Klosterman: So … this is about late capitalism?
White: Definitely. Definitely.

Now, White may seem absurd for calling most Americans mentally ill, but he’s definitely not crazy for comparing the environment of the NBA to that of capitalist society. Much like sports, our greatest workplace triumphs are often defined by pain. Long hours wear on our minds and bodies. So we buy strange equipment (ergonomic chairs), then turn to performance-enhancing drugs (coffee in the morning) and pain-killers (maybe a beer to unwind at night). Naturally, the most obsessive, even self-destructive workaholics will thrive in such an environment to serve as an example to the rest of us. (And if forms of mental illness can drive success, I’m not so sure that White’s privileged 2% isn’t under just as much stress as everyone else.)

The obvious answer for corporations may be, just expect less out of your employees. There’s just one catch to lessening workplace stress in support of our mental health. Stress can bring out our best. As the New York Times points out today, young students—even those driven physically ill by the idea—will academically benefit from the stress of competition.

Understanding their propensity to become stressed and how to deal with it can help children compete. Stress turns out to be far more complicated than we’ve assumed, and far more under our control than we imagine. Unlike long-term stress, short-term stress can actually help people perform, and viewing it that way changes its effect. Even for those genetically predisposed to anxiety, the antidote isn’t necessarily less competition—it’s more competition. It just needs to be the right kind.

Royce White is dead-on about the problem: Our employers, much like our teachers, are more often worried about performance than experience. (It doesn’t matter if that’s for an elite player in the NBA or a corporate peon with an MBA.) No one is hired to have a relaxing time at their job; they’re hired to do their job well. And we can all perform better when a bit of cortisol kicks us into gear to get a project done—if only all that cortisol didn’t come with a cost.

Read more here.

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  • greg aper

    I've been a designer for 14+ years and I've dealt with anxiety issues for 30+ years.  Seeing this article posted here is somewhat surprising but welcome.  The intersection of design and mental illness is not something that is often arrived at or talked about.

    It took a long time for me to fully understand what I was dealing with.  And to fully grasp that not everyone around me was having to deal with the same issues.  My ability to interact with people in a healthy, comfortable manner was virtually non-existent.  But being bipolar creates periods of astonishing creativity and productivity.

    The article asks the question whether sanity needs to be left behind in order to achieve success.  Depending upon your definition of success, the loss of chemical balance is more likely a prerequisite than a consequence.  Kay Redfield Jamison's books are a fantastic exploration of the common connection between extraordinary creativity/productivity and mental illness.   

    I've achieved moderate success in my career.  Somewhere along the way I decided that being a sympathetic and reasonably healthy person was more important to me than career success.  So I did everything I could to curb my chemical imbalance; the same imbalance that was the key to generating my most creative work.  I could have achieved much more as a designer if I had embraced my illness.  

    I'm not ashamed of having a mental illness.  Nor am I proud of it.  I'll talk about it if I want to.  Mental illness is still one of the most insidious diseases afflicting our society, partially because we let it.  It's uncomfortable to discuss and easy to dismiss.  So I give the author and the Fast Co. Design team kudos for publishing this article.       

  • Steve Pender

    Testosterone and cortisol seem to have inverse relationship. It's true we seem to be in a rat race, but wealthy people who earned their compensation through voluntary, non-zero-sum transactions (both sides benefit, or they wouldn't trade) don't deserve any blame. People who have children without being able to support them and give them a quality life deserve the blame, since each new life is essentially a debt for 18 years. Reproduction, just as in nature, is a luxury afforded to those who can feed and provide resources to their offspring by themselves, not by blaming others not involved in the child's production. People who are born into poverty only have their parents to blame, and literally nobody else. Those of us born into densely populated areas, with little money are the result of this happening for generations. The solution is to save up before having children, and we should admire those who essentially have earned enough that their offspring are "already paid for" when they're born. THIS is the solution to poverty, along with allowing the market the freedom to produce more things so prices can go down for those currently in poverty. Class warfare treats wealth as zero-sum, the X% vs. the 100-X%, when in reality we are all much wealthier than the richest person alive 50 years ago, if you judge what we all have access to (smartphone, internet, infinite accessibility of books, videos, social options). "Trickle down" describes the default mode of human existence when we are free to trade, one of constant improvement, iteration by iteration with customers directing the evolution of products by voting with our dollars. The real wealth isn't measured in money however, but in this increase of standard of living. Minimalism would allow for us to all work fewer hours since we wouldn't need so much money to buy things that don't tangibly increase our standard of living (free, self-guided time = standard of living).