The Line Between Insanity and Genius. Where Do You Draw Yours?


As Software Developers, our passion can sometimes be all encompassing. You can find a new language or framework and something inside you lights a spark and the obsession begins – it’s part of what makes a great scientist, developer, engineer or doctor. It can also be a part of what drives people insane. Recently I've wondered where the line is, when its time to back off, or even if you should.

Lately I've had a few moments of introspection which some may view as disturbing, and others may celebrate: the realisation that a large part of my career’s success, and my personality could easily be misconstrued as mental illness if looked at under the wrong light.

imageObsession – It can be never ending

I can find parts of technology or programming that can consume me. It'll be all I think about night and day for weeks.

Remember that time you asked me a question and I might not have responded straight away? I was probably thinking about that new framework, design pattern, process or technology I was hooked on. Thinking about my social life it has probably limited my interaction with the world multiple times over the course of my life.

When it comes to work, it can be a dangerous thing for totally other reasons. When do you stop pushing for perfection to save wasting money, resources or staff members. How do you explain this to non-technical members at your workplace.

Not too long ago in Scott Hanselman and Rob Conery’s “This Developers Life” episode on “Obsession”, they talked to Rob Sullivan and Rory Blyth about what drives them as developers, and how they became obsessed with technology – and how they sometimes find it hard to unplug; hard to even get themselves to step away from a problem.

For me I find this very inner torture happening all the time.

The most poignant quote I took away from that podcast (I listened to it again recently), was Rob Sullivan’s quote:


As I’ve looked back and thought about everything I've done over the last couple of years, I had a conversation with myself… So I asked myself a question in my head, ‘What do I want to do for fun’, and then i got into this very Socratic Dialectic interaction with myself about ‘Ok, fine so what is fun? Define fun.’ and I could not figure out what fun was.

And I think that’s what happens in the Tech industry. When you are actually into what you are doing, you are having fun, but you are also working; and you never, ever stop. You lose perspective.


This is exactly how I feel sometimes.

I feel that sometimes I want to stop my brain from churning over and over on a coding problem I’m trying to solve, a topic of conversation I’ve had with someone, or an opinion I just read on a blog. Sometimes I want to switch that part of my brain off so I can relax.

And it doesn’t end with Tech for me – I have this “obsession” often with everything that I do. I have to figure out or learn about everything I interact with – and Google has made it really easy for people like me to get their next fix.

“How does the body metabolise different foods?”

“What frequency do bats use to see in the dark?”

Do red hair people really need more painkillers than others?

It never ends. I often cannot stop this type of thinking and have had to create walls and rules to stop it and live a normal life – I don’t take a smart phone out to social occasions anymore.

This type of obsessive questioning and reasoning inside my head gets me to thinking – “Is there something wrong with me?, Am I starting to go all ‘Beautiful Mind’ on myself?”

From the small conversations I’ve had with other people in the Tech world, I am not alone here. A large section of us have stopped and questioned ourselves or our drivers.

Where is the line?

The hard part I find is that I come from a family that has dealt with mental illness. That thing that no one ever talks about, I dealt with through my mother, who was Schizophrenic and therefore I would think to myself that I think about it more than most. My mother was passionate and intelligent beyond measure – and music was her passion. It was everywhere – it drove mood, it was mathematical, and it was always to be in search of.

How am I and most really passionate people in the Tech industry any different in some ways?

When you stay up late into the night trying to finish a game, or complete the next feature in your project; or totally rewrite that part of a project – Do you actually have control to stop? Do you deep down actually want to stop? And at what point is this lack of control a bad thing?

What about when you finally have time off work, and all you want to do is start a new Open Source project, or play with a new language (you’re meant to be on holidays remember?)

Others in our industry

Since Steve Jobs died recently, there where many stories and rumours of how he dealt with work life at Apple and his obsession for perfection. If Steve had another obsession that wasn’t creating number one selling consumer devices, would people have the same feelings for his life’s deliverables?

There has often been questions of Mark Zuckerberg’s potential case of Asperger’s syndrome. This very same article talks about tech and it’s connection to these types of obsessive and rigid character traits - however science likes to define them. There has likewise been suggestion that many other people in tech, Bill Gates included, might show symptoms of Asperger’s.

Regardless of definition, I know I'm not alone here in thinking that sometimes my obsessive or focused behaviour might not be normal.

Where do you define what is healthy when having a passion for something – Is this something society defines to you, or do you set the goal posts? And if you, how do you stop yourself from moving the goal posts through self-justification?

If you are passionate to the point of changing parts of your life to suit your passion – where is the line between passion and craziness, insanity and genius? And given my experience; If you ever think you cross the line – how do you have the strength to take heed?

Picture of the Sistine Chapel by féileacán licensed under Creative Commons.