[This article first appeared on Forbes as a DrP interview with Melody Wilding]
We often think of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as a condition that prevents people from performing at their best. But what if ADHD – when managed properly – could actually give you a competitive advantage?
Increasingly, studies show that symptoms of ADHD are valuable in entrepreneurship. Want proof? Take a look at billionaire Sir Richard Branson who speaks openly about how ADHD positively benefitted his success. In fact, researchers say entrepreneurs with ADHD show strengths in creativity, grit and perseverance to name a few.
To better understand the emerging science of ADHD and entrepreneurship, I spoke with Dr. Perpetua Neo, a psychologist who helps high-performers go big without burning out. In this interview, she shares her personal story navigating a career with ADHD and discusses ways to handle the challenges that come along with the condition.
What inspired you to want to help entrepreneurs with ADHD?
Society demonizes differences. Consider for instance, how an introvert is told by their managers to speak up more and urged to shoehorn themselves into the behavioral profile of an extrovert. Then extrapolate that to other differences in our wiring like ADHD. As a psychologist and coach, I champion the concept of neuro-diversity, which means celebrating how we are different and being able to leverage these differences as our superpowers.
My story is also personal. I’ve never been diagnosed [with ADHD] because of the era I was raised in, but have always known I have ADHD: short attention spans juxtaposed with obsessive hyperfocus, the need to keep moving and a brain moving faster than it probably should. Much as it gave me many shortcuts to my learning and performance, it also made me feel like there was something wrong with me. Teachers and my elders would point that out, and then I’d feel like a mean and difficult person for not being able to focus in group settings or when something didn’t spark my attention.
Thankfully, I escaped relatively unscathed, sorted out the internal blocks from the stigma, and designed a lifestyle around my ADHD and where I leverage it. When I watch others struggle because their lifestyles and mindsets are fraught with ideas that their ADHD traits handicap them, are crippled via the effects of pharmaceutical medications, or when I see them blame themselves relentlessly, it is painful to watch. It reminds me of where I could have ended up. Championing neuro-diversity is my social responsibility.
What are we learning about the relationship between entrepreneurship and ADHD?
People with ADHD are the explorers of the universe, whether it is the physical world or their inner world. They are curious and restless. So they are wired to learn voraciously, taking in every detail excitedly and curiously and their high levels of creativity means they can synthesize conceptual links that previously didn’t exist before.
Psychiatrist Dale Archer loosely divides people into the “explorer” vs “settler” types. When times are good, people like to settle. But in a crisis, we need the explorers to discover new lands, resources and opportunities. That’s why the ADHD gene continues to be selected for by evolution. Entrepreneurs are the explorers. To quote [author and scholar] Nassim Nicolas Taleb in his latest book Skin In The Game, “Entrepreneurs are the heroes in our society. They fail for the rest of us.”
There may be few studies done on this, but the current research shows that people with ADHD-like traits are likelier to be self-employed.
How can entrepreneurship be a good career fit for people with ADHD?
People with ADHD struggle to fit into “normalcy” their whole lives. In fact, many fall through the cracks, unless they found a bespoke way to tailor their learning and lifestyle, or if someone supported them to do so.
Needless to say, with a short attention span and a general lack of attentional focus, people with ADHD will find it difficult to fit into the “normal” work day of 9-to-5 jobs and seemingly endless group meetings. These can exacerbate the feeling that they aren’t good enough – all the stigma that comes from having ADHD symptoms that are turned inwards.
Entrepreneurship allows you to your career and your lifestyle to suit who you are. People with ADHD can laser focus and hone their skills and projects for extended periods of time, once their brain is switched on because they are interested.
It takes factors like curiosity, the need for risk and uncertainty, as well as aligned interests, to switch the ADHD brain on. When you can design your own career – coupled with the risk and challenges inherent within entrepreneurship; this is an excellent career fit for people with ADHD.
Also, people with ADHD are so used to failing all the time. From failing to fit in and disappointing themselves, to forgetting to do the chores that others take for granted, to experimenting with life, that they can be highly resilient. We know that to be an entrepreneur is to take risks and be willing to get up after you fail, even if you fail multiple times.
In what ways can ADHD actually help entrepreneurs succeed? How can they make the most of these traits?
Traits associated with ADHD are amazingly ripe with promise. They include:
- Curiosity – a willingness to explore what life has to offerr
- Hyperfocus – when the ADHD brain is sufficiently stimulated, they can laser-focus for long periods of time
- Creative thinking – divergent, non-linear thinking which synthesises two or more otherwise-disparate concepts together
- Impulsivity – acting intuitively and quickly despite uncertainty
- Resilience – bouncing back after failing
- Multitasking – performing multiple tasks competently at the same time
- Performing under pressure – people with ADHD enjoy the pressure of deadlines and crises, they come alive where most might knuckle under
- Risk-taking – taking a chance, even if the odds look stacked against you
Of course, these traits may also be detrimental. For instance, impulsivity and risk-taking when applied in the wrong context can create a descent into substance abuse. But when these are applied to a career where the person with ADHD’s brain comes alive and the individual can throw themselves in with great passion and gusto, then they are a potent cocktail of prowess.
What tips can you share for helping entrepreneurs mitigate the challenges of ADHD?
Leverage your ADHD superpowers. Consider all the amazing ADHD traits you have. Ask yourself, how can you hone them better to suit your entrepreneurship needs. And, how can you own them– often we are told that things like “hyperfocus” can be obsessive, so there is stigma attached to them. Instead, how can you fully leverage them, loud and proud?
Understand who you are. Know what makes your brain the way it is, and the behaviors that come along with it. Some things to be aware of include the fact that neurobiologically, you have fewer dopamine receptors in the reward centre of your brain. So, you are wired in a way that it’s harder to stimulate your interest. It’s not your fault that you get bored easily!
Another one is to know that you will procrastinate. The ADHD brain is one that needs excitement and crises to thrive. That’s why you perform best before deadlines. It doesn’t make you a bad person. Trust that your brain is fermenting ideas, just as excellent wine takes time to ferment in premium casks.
Learn the skills you need. Like any personality type, you’ll lack some skills. That’s okay, learn to live with the fact that you’re not perfect. Pick up ways to regulate your nervous system and busy mind, or learn how to navigate certain social scenes if they bore you but are necessary. Essentially, learn to master who you are.
Get over the stories you’ve been told. People with ADHD are told stories like “You’re different/stupid/weird/a failure”, or their young minds would have jumped to that conclusion from things that happened to them when they were younger. These stories can be cumbersome obstacles to our progress.
What should someone do if they suspect they may have ADHD?
Seek out mentors, psychologists and coaches. Someone who gets who you are, and is invested towards helping you to leverage your inherent gifts, rather than someone trying to medicate or therapy you, to effectively shoehorn you into something else that suppresses your wiring and all the wonderful things that come with it. The work you do together should focus on leveraging your ADHD superpowers, getting over the stories in your head, honing the skills you need, and understanding who you are.
Don’t take on too much at once. Much as you get excited by a deluge of ideas and projects, they can be overwhelming. Learn how to manage overwhelm [by prioritizing] your ideas and projects. Also, learn not to overwhelm others, because you can be intense in your interactions.
Finally, be good to yourself. This includes learning to live with the fact that you will procrastinate, and so you might as well fully and heartedly enjoy [the moment]. Also, get used to the fact that it isn’t how much time you spend on something, but rather the quality that’s produced.
Want to mutate ADHD into your superpower? Book your free Chemistry Call here.