My cofounder, Alexandra, and I had a hunch that with the right structure and environment it’s possible to harness the ‘creative genius’ of a brain condition, in this case bipolar, to both supercharge our performance and improve brain health. We were right.
For all the linear, structured brains out there. I’m going to tell you about:
- What neurodiversity is.
- How you can harness it.
- Why it’s important, brain condition or not.
Alexandra and I are about as neurodiverse as any 2 cofounders can be. She has linear, structured thoughts with steady emotional states. I have expansive, disconnected thoughts with dynamically changing emotional states. We decided to test our hunch and build a company where I could appear and perform in my true state, aptly named Open Labs
In one year we developed a member led community of 55 neurodivergent people. The majority lived for years with a bipolar disorder, and hadn’t met someone else living successfully before. Half are now actively communicating on a weekly basis. We have 3 teams testing new ways to encourage Openness, 2 in talks to become a long term project with a partner organization. We’ve hosted 10 monthly socials, 12 leadership meetings, 2 brain crawls, 5 experiment planning workshops, two storytelling workshops, an Open Summit, and the first ever Opening Act.
(If you don’t know what some of those are, you can find out here)
What is Neurodiversity?
Neurodiversity: The differences in someone’s cognitive emotional states (a fancy way of saying thoughts and feelings), are to be recognized and respected as any other human variation
I can best speak to neurodiversity in the context of what we traditionally call ‘mental health’ specifically bipolar. I’m far from an expert in dyslexia, dyscalculia, autistic spectrum, or tourette syndrome.
Every business, group, and congregation larger then a handful of people is statistically already neurodiverse. 50% will have a brain disorder, 20% do right now. 18.1% anxiety, 6.7% depression, and 2.6%, including me, bipolar.
It’s been my experience that very, very few are Open about their condition, and typically only during a crisis. The problem is, the value of neurodiversity is wasted without Openness. How can we create a better team based upon traits people will often die before they talk about?
Ironically these are traits we all share to varying degrees of intensity and frequency. These are universal human traits.
Have you ever been at work when something really exciting was happening in your personal life? Maybe you got a new puppy, started a new relationship, or just had a baby. What about being at work when something really tough was happening? Your puppy runs away, you get dumped, or the baby keeps you up all night.
In some way, we all know what it’s like. We know how exhausting it is to appear productive, let alone be productive. Fortunately, most of us also know our coworkers or bosses will understand if we explain what’s going on.
What happens when you start switching between those feelings on a regular basis? Or find yourself in them without anything notable to cause it? Unfortunately, if you can’t point to something and say, here, this is what’s causing it, your coworkers and bosses have a harder time understanding. It falls on you to be productive and appear as even-keeled and dependable as possible while dealing with changing states. That takes a lot of energy.
How to Harness the Ups and Downs
Along our journey, Alexandra and I found new ways I could appear and perform in the state I’m in, and redirect the energy saved not hiding my condition into progress and productivity.
Want some examples?
The Up Side
Last week, I had a task to come up with a simple diagram of Open Labs for our partners. I thought, “This is SO important” and set off to work, which in this case meant pacing around a 100 year old desk covered by a towel and a whiteboard with very little white showing. 24 hours later I had design files of intricate diagrams with pages of notes. And, absolutely nothing our partners could easily understand.
In the past, I might have tossed out the diagrams and come up with an excuse for why the original wasn’t done. I’m aware of the fact that a lot of the ideas I come up with can be tangents or just flat out don’t make sense. My problem is I don’t know which ones they are. Nobody wants to hand their cofounder a list of ideas when a lot of them are unrealistic.
But that’s exactly what I do. Instead of dismissing them as a jumbled mess, Alexandra and I walk through them together:
Explain this to me.
What were you going for with this?
Tell me more about that one.
I think these ideas are probably the strongest.
Maybe group these into 3 categories?
Together we sort through the clutter and find a linear train of thinking. Once the ideas are pruned and organized, I focus on filling in the gaps and finishing up. We often use false deadlines to accommodate the delay in the process.
By working together we can diverge into big grandiose thinking, and then bring it back to converge on the strongest ideas. As a result of acknowledging and adjusting for my elevated states, we find new and innovating ideas. More importantly though, we find innovative ideas we can also plan and execute upon.
The Down Side
There’s a misconception that a depressed state is an inherent disability. That doesn’t need to be the case if you have a good method of communicating it. Our team uses a simple red, yellow, green, check in every morning to let each other know how we’re doing.
Green: Good to go, full steam ahead.
Yellow: I’m struggling a bit, but I’m present and active.
Red: I can’t function in the role I’m in.
Alexandra typically ranges from green, to dull green, to grellow. I span from green to red to super green with an impending red. When I’m red, I may not be able to brainstorm strategy or work on messaging and design, but I can still function in a lot of roles. When that happens, Alexandra often helps me adapt and shift into those roles.
I’ll tell this person we need to reschedule.
I still really need you at this meeting.
The meeting this afternoon is with our advisors, so just let them know you’re red.
It might be good for you to go take some photos or play with your nephews.
Regardless of my current state the adjustments help me stay engaged so I don’t become isolated and withdrawn. It’s not just about staying plugged in. In the right environment, you’d be surprised how productive a depressed state can be.
For example, when I’m down at a meeting, I can ask permission to take the devil’s advocate role. A depressed mind can be uniquely qualified to point out things that could go wrong. As long as people understand where I’m coming from, my temporary negativity doesn’t harm the rest of the team.
Wether up or down, these relatively minor changes and the ability for me to act and perform according to the state I’m in make all the difference for my personal health and supercharge our performance as a team. My ups are more focused and productive. I come out of my downs feeling productive and connected, sans guilt or excuses.
It hasn’t always been easy, and it is very much a balancing act; innovation vs execution, empathy vs enablement, assistance vs assuming responsibility. The fundamental qualities that make it all work are strong communication and a deep sense of trust in each other.
How is This Relevant to Me?
Increases in energy, productiveness, and innovation aside; simply being Open removes a dynamic that can lead to huge problems.
Did you see Lance at the meeting today?
Yeah I think he’s going to fire me.
No, I think he’s pissed because I missed work on Monday.
No, he just doesn’t give a shit about the team anymore.
‘I’m in the red today. It’s not you, I’m just down’
‘Anything we can do to help?’
See the difference?
How do we do this if people won’t talk about it? If you want to be a part of a bigger change, joining Open Labs and the Open Movement is a good place to start. If you’re looking for a quick answer, ask a question.
‘Hey Lance, you didn’t seem yourself at the meeting today. You feeling ok?’
When fostered and structured, neurodiversity can be a game changer for innovation and our ability to get things done. If you’re looking to harness that, you’ve already got a lot going for you. Once people Open Up, you should see your organization is already neurodiverse. If not, you already have a head start on recruiting for neurodiversity,
We just need to shift the context…