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Behavioral Disorder or Entrepreneurial Asset?

Everyone has quirks, but some entrepreneurs have leveraged the biz-friendly aspects of their disorders.

Sometimes Brook Noel finds it helpful to focus on details and pursue perfection like a true obsessive-compulsive. "If I'm going to have a real analytical week, sometimes I'll go off my medicine, because those skills come in handy," says the founder of Champion Press Ltd. in Fredonia, Wisconsin, who was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder as a teenager.

Noel says that other times, OCD can be a hang-up. "I've had to learn to give people an assignment, let them know the results I expect and give them the control to get from Point A to Point B," says Noel, 31, who employs nine at the book publisher she founded in 1997, which is on target to bring in $2 million in sales this year.

Noel says OCD motivated her to start her company because of her desire for control. Another entrepreneur, Kinko's founder Paul Orfalea, started his company because his conditions--hyper-activity and dyslexia--made him practically unemployable. And an increasing number of people think mental-health conditions like OCD, hyperactivity and others can be compatible with successful entrepreneurship.

Some of America's best-known entrepreneurs have suffered from these conditions. Famed aviation entrepreneur Howard Hughes is widely believed to have been an undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive for many years before his death in 1976. And Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates is said to display several traits associated with an autism disorder called Asperger's syndrome (though he has not been diagnosed with the condition).

People diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome often have average or better intelligence and verbal development and may possess exceptional abilities in fields such as mathematics or computers. They may focus intensely on narrow topics and have prodigious memories--useful skills for entrepreneurs. The poorly developed social skills and tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors such as rocking back and forth--both characteristics Gates is said to exhibit--can be overcome by hiring managers to handle people and social situations.

A study by geneticists at the University of California, Irvine, suggests that attention deficit hyper-activity disorder is closely associated with entrepreneurs. UCI professor Robert Moyzis found that the allele (a version of a gene) controlling ADHD cropped up about the time prehistoric people were starting to innovate new technologies, develop culture and spread across the globe. "Something happened to humans about the time this allele arose," he says. "All of a sudden, we had what might today be called entrepreneurs."

Today, Moyzis notes, one physical marker for ADHD is faster reaction time. "It's hard to argue that faster reaction time isn't a good thing to have," he says. The gene's survival all these years suggests people who have it are somehow doing a better job of surviving and having offspring.

Today, Moyzis thinks ADHD may be a marker for good entrepreneurs. "I'm convinced, without any hard scientific evidence, this kind of behavior is probably good if you want to be an innovator, ignore the current structure and strike off in a novel direction," he says.

ADHD entrepreneurs' weaknesses have to do with details and routine, says Thom Hartmann, a Portland, Oregon, serial entrepreneur and author of books on ADHD. "They're good at coming up with ideas, identifying market niches, creatively engineering something from nothing, selling it to other people and pulling together a team that's motivated to follow them," he says. ADHD entrepreneurs who do well surrender day-to-day management once the company is self-sustaining, or sell it and move on. Those who keep doing it all, he warns, usually self-destruct.

Without medication, Noel says, she tends to check and recheck so many times that productivity suffers. But by talking with her doctors and others, she has been successful at controlling the downside of OCD, while taking advantage of the upside. Now she regards OCD as just another facet of her business personality: "Any [type of personality] is going to have both strengths and weaknesses."

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