How the abnormal brains of Elon Musk, Steve Jobs and Richard Branson drive business success

Greatness comes from being different. In other words, greatness comes from being abnormal. As Jobs was, as Musk and Branson are.

The best leaders are wired differently. They learn to accept the very things that make them abnormal.

We are a culture obsessed with observing the greatness of others.

In part, this is because we selfishly hope that by meeting these highly successful people, some of their greatness will rub off on us.

But there is an important part that we do not take into account: Greatness comes from being different. In other words, greatness comes from being abnormal.

By its very definition, greatness is reserved for the special few who are outside the statistical confines of normality. For all of us who strive to be the next Elon Musk or Steve Jobs, what we don’t think about is the sacrifices we would have to make in order to reach the limits of such a notable abnormality.

One of those sacrifices comes in the form of a clinical diagnosis. Blessed or cursed with conditions and disabilities such as ADHD, dyslexia and autism spectrum disorder, there are many cases of great figures who have “abnormal” minds and brains.

The list of leaders, artists, athletes and other famous people with these types of diagnoses is long. Among the top of the list are Elon Musk, diagnosed with Asperger’s; Richard Branson and Steven Jobs, as dyslexics; and many others.

Their brains are wired differently. Their greatness comes from the very thing society tells them that makes them underprivileged, disordered, and dysfunctional.

There is much evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, to suggest that so-called abnormal individuals have a clear advantage in being able to think differently.

Peter Thiel has gone on record as saying that Asperger’s is a good thing for innovation in business. In their 2014 book Zero to One, Thiel and co-author Blake Masters write: “If you are less sensitive to social cues, then you are less likely to do the same thing as everyone around you.” Groupthink is bad for business. And, according to Thiel, the best inventors and innovators leave their mark on the world by going against the grain.

Furthermore, we know from research that, compared to non-dyslexics, dyslexic adults show consistent evidence of greater creativity on tasks requiring novelty or insight and more innovative thinking styles.

One of the main conclusions of most modern psychology and neuroscience is that what it means to be “normal” or “abnormal” is arbitrary and there is a continuum. Pigeonholing people into neat psychological categories does not reflect the reality of the human mind.

Even we ordinary people can be “normal” and “abnormal” at the same time. In fact, we can reach the limits of greatness one way or another.

Remember the following as you try to find your own version of abnormal greatness.

The number of skills, talents, values, attitudes and behaviors necessary for greatness are numerous. There will be something inside you that is different than most. Be open to different possibilities. And delve into mental territories and versions of yourself that you have not yet explored.

The famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung spoke of the archetypal “shadow self,” the version of a person who is dark and frightening and tends to be repressed in the unconscious. But often the most notable versions of ourselves are found in the shadows.

«One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light», Jung once wrote, “but making the darkness conscious.”

Being different can be hard. On the path to finding your own version of greatness, you’ll have to rub some people the wrong way. You might even have to piss off some people. However, doing so goes against our own evolutionary nature.

Most people are obsessed with maintaining a good reputation. This explains why humans are able to exist among unrelated relatives in large social groups: Cooperation is the result of a person’s fear of ruining their reputation. Just know that anxiety over the possibility of being kicked out of the group is probably overblown.

Fortunately, you can strive for uniqueness and still maintain a good reputation.

Professor Francesca Gino, from Harvard Business School, talks about exercising “creative nonconformity.” The “red shoe effect,” as she has called it, helps explain why being different can make others see you favorably.

You just have to be careful to express yourself honestly. People will notice that you are fake or trying to fake it.

So be abnormal.